[26 July 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Back in 2009, Universal released an surreal, pseudo mock documentary on alien abduction called The Fourth Kind. Written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, it purported to mix recreations (featuring star Milla Jovovich, along with Will Patton, Elias Koteas, and Charlotte Milchard) with actual footage taken from various unexplained cases of missing persons in Nome, Alaska. All of these incidents supposedly involved UFOs and extraterrestrial invaders, and while many disliked both the movie and the obvious film fakery (read here), others found the film fascinating. Not necessarily for its stylistic approach but for how it pushed the boundaries of cinematic authenticity. Basically, it used false frights to develop equally specious scares.
Something similar happens in Olatunde Osunsanmi’s latest effort, the totally fictional Evidence. Working from a script by first timer John Swetnam, our story concerns a massacre in a remote part of the Nevada desert and the police investigation into same. Harried cop Detective Burquez (Radha Mitchell) needs to go through several hours of home video and surveillance camera footage, hoping to uncover the cause—and the killer—of several unidentified corpses. With the help of dour Detective Reese (Stephen Moyer) and tech geek Gabe (Barak Hardley) they learn of up and coming actress Leann (Torrey DeVitto), her filmmaker pal Rachel (Caitlin Stacey) and her sullen boyfriend Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk).
Seems the trio were heading out to Las Vegas for a little R&R when the shuffle bus they were riding in had an accident. Filming everything, Rachel showcases some of the other passengers, including a Russian dancer (Svetlana Metkina), a runaway (Albert Kuo), and a crazy woman (Dale Dickey) with a bag full of cash. As the driver (Harry Lennix) tries to find help, they all end up in an abandoned service station, and stalked by an acetylene torch wielding psychotic killer in a welder’s mask. With almost everything captured on camera, the officers work diligently to piece together the who, what, when, where, why, and how. The real answer, however, is something they could have never anticipated.
Evidence is actually three slightly incongruous film ideas in one almost effective package. It’s no The Fourth Kind but it’s also not as abysmal as some of the found footage fright flicks out there. The first part plays around with human relationships and the whole idea of creating a potential pool of victim fodder that we will identify with and care about. Neither of those two things happen. Up next is an oddball slasher film that loses much of its focus simply because the shaky-cam conceit used to capture the killings renders even the most unique death almost unidentifiable. The last, and most successful strategy is the whole “movie within the movie” ideal. While it really is nothing more than watching actors react to material off screen, many of these moments pack the kind of punch the rest of the movie lacks.
That’s because the other aspects of Evidence are too busy building cases for possible red herrings. As with any movie which slowly depletes its possible list of suspects, you’ve got to divert the audience’s attention away from obvious indications of guilt. As a result, we have a bus driver with a bad rap sheet, the insane lady carrying a duffle bag brimming with greenbacks. Then there is her off screen husband who is seen in dossier form as a former Iraq War Vet hospitalized with PTSD and a raging, murderous temper. Toss in the angry boyfriend (who had his public proposal rejected in the most mean-spirited way possible) and the usual maniacs have all been mentioned. Naturally, the seasoned fright fan will look elsewhere, and as almost all of these alternatives end up on the bad end of a concentrated gas flame.
For Evidence, it then becomes a matter of making sense of the silly, of defining motive while making us squirm in our seat. It has to be said that some of the first person POV stuff is very suspenseful, especially during the initial walk through of the abandoned facility. Osunsanmi understands the reason this gimmick has been relied on for so long. The limited perspective, the ‘unsure of what is around the next corner’ concept, when done well, can keep an audience in anxious, nail biting form. Even better, the building of tension and dread can pay off, especially when combined with other successful storytelling elements. Evidence is missing that last bit, however. It has a simple clothesline plot, a place for the rest of the routine to be fashioned and secured.
Yet the biggest flaw remains the last five minutes. Since very little in the way of temporal logic has been displayed, the film can be forgiven for jumping around like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughter-house Five. Yet when, exactly, did the guilty have a chance to make their message to the world? How did that get released when, a few seconds before, they were being confronted? If we are to believe the motive (and it won’t be spoiled here, but does take the whole viral video/social media theme to extremes), then this elaborate ruse was nothing more than a stunt, a decidedly deadly one with body parts strewn across the desert, but a publicity stunt none the less. Of course, the cops carry on about serial killers as if our villain is actually one, but since there is nothing plausible about that conclusion, we can only assume that mass murder was a sudden inspiration for our wannabe.
Still, Evidence has enough going for it that you can forgive its flaws and get lost in Osunsanmi’s genre efficiency. The movie looks good, features fine performances (though the actors aren’t required to do much), and tries to twist the expected contrivances into something new and novel. Of course, the final reveal is not so much shocking as specious, a reach by a screenwriter looking for something original in the already worn and ordinary. Had it simply tried to be a slasher film, Evidence would fail. Similarly, a regular found footage film about a serial killer—or killers—has been done to death. Even a police procedural masquerading as a horror film has Se7en to start from, and that’s a high benchmark indeed. So Evidence has its wonky work cut out for it. It never makes it past the motion picture mezzanine, but the journey to the middle is mindlessly entertaining, nonetheless.