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A superior low-budget frightfest in the found footage genre popularized by The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series, Sx_Tape tests Jean-Luc Godard’s celebrated maxim that all you need for a movie is a girl, a gun and a creepy abandoned hospital. The London-born, LA-based director Bernard Rose has recently concentrated on a series of contemporary Leo Tolstoy adaptations starring Danny Huston, but he has also made a handful of acclaimed horror films, notably Candyman in 1992. Following its world premiere at the London Film Festival Thursday, this effective little shocker should enjoy plenty of mileage at further specialist festivals, ticking enough grindcore boxes with sufficient panache to suggest solid theatrical potential.
Sx_Tape opens with a teasing self-spoiler as a detective interviews aspiring visual artist Jill (Caitlyn Folley), informing her she is the only survivor of a mysterious killing spree. The full back story then rewinds in footage shot from the viewpoint of Jill’s boyfriend Adam (Ian Duncan), which begins with harmless sex games in her Hollywood apartment, then takes a darker turn as the pair break into a boarded-up former hospital to gauge its usefulness as an art-show venue. Trawling through the building’s clanking, haunted, shadowy corridors, Adam straps Jill to an old gurney and disappears, claiming he plans to leave her there overnight with the camera running. Bad move.
Scripted by first-timer Eric Reese and co-produced by Paranormal Activity producer Steven Schneider, Sx_Tape is never more than mildly scary in its first half, only grudgingly committing to horror conventions in its latter stages with revelations about vengeful phantoms and buried medical misdeeds. The turning point is the arrival of Jill’s friends, who railroad an uptight Adam back inside the hospital with sexual taunts and macho threats. Their final descent into all-out carnage is facilitated by the unlikely discovery of a mysteriously still-functional CCTV system, and the contrived introduction of a dramatically convenient handgun.
Gripping and claustrophobic, with distant echoes of The Shining in places, the story’s horror elements work mostly by subtle suggestion and nerve-jangling sound design. That said, Rose still allows himself a final orgy of bloody slaughter and black comedy, including an oral sex joke that will make most male viewers wince. Sx_Tape does not have the gory excess and high body count to impress hardcore horror fans, but it also lacks the sly wit, deeper subtext and formal originality which might have earned it broader mainstream appeal. Ultimately Rose settles for pulp thrills over genre reinvention, but this schlocky shocker should at least help him fund a few more cut-price Tolstoy adaptations.
Production company: Room 101 Inc.
Producers: Sebastian Aloi, Steven Schneider, Chuck Simon, Bradd Filmann
Starring: Caitlyn Folley, Diana Garcia, Ian Duncan, Daniel Faraldo, Eric Neil Gutierrez
Director: Bernard Rose
Screenwriter: Eric Reese
Cinematographer: Bernard Rose
Editor: Bernard Rose
Sales company: Voltage Pictures
Unrated, 85 minutes
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Sterling K. Brown