In films such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and the Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel-directed Man Bites Dog, filmmaking itself becomes implicated as a dangerous tool that promotes and enables murder for voyeuristic psychopaths who use it to procure their victims, while exposing the prurience of the gaze of not just the amoral antagonists of these films, but of us -- the viewers at home -- who are presumed to find this stuff entertaining. This point was drummed home with a particular nihilistic intensity in John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which includes a moment when disturbing videotape footage of a home invasion and its aftermath, including the cold-blooded murder of a family, is played in its entirety, filmed by the serial killer duo at the centre of the movie using the victims' own video camera. This lengthy scene is immediately followed by the entire thing being re-run once again, but this time we’re watching it as the killers play back the video footage in slow motion on TV for their own entertainment. Such elevated concerns about the ubiquity of the acts of filming and viewing, and the fear of increasingly eroded ethical boundaries that might result seemed recondite back then when home video was still a novelty, but now that the technology in an age of camera phones and video streaming is so taken for granted that it’s become an everyday, even essential, part of modern life, the idea has become opaque and almost invisible to us, and is barely ever alluded to in the flood of found footage-style movies which have appeared over the last decade, most of which seem to exist as a cheap means for budding exploitation film-makers to access a now easily accessible medium.
Following in the wake of the cult success of the ultra-morbid Faces of Death series, fabricating authentic-looking ‘snuff’ footage of atrocities has become a staple of both the found footage and tied-up-and-tortured subgenres, and the two are made to fit rather snugly together for this indie Horror drama co-directed by Brian Allan Stewart and Nick McAnulty (who also wrote the screenplay) -- which presents itself as self-shot footage taken from the digital camcorder of a married twenty-something couple (Jennifer Fraser and Farhang Ghajar – whose screen characters share the actors’ real names) as they set about making a video diary record of a shared home project that they hope and expect to strengthen the bonds of their relationship.
The film starts from the moment Jennifer first unpacks the new digital recording device, purchased specifically for the project, and thereafter gets so excited by its novelty that she won’t give up filming absolutely everything in sight while her husband has to resignedly put up with her annoying kid-with-a-new-toy over-enthusiasm; he later perks up at the thought of making a sex tape, but this plan falls by the wayside when Jennifer falls asleep in the middle of his back massage foreplay.
The first signs that this is no ordinary couple, and that their intended video diary is to be rather less mundane than the documenting of some home renovation project or whatnot, comes as the couple film themselves in a hardware store and Jennifer’s casual chit-chat is all about which axe or hammer etc. will make the most suitable murder weapon! Part of the joke here is that the average hardware store actually is a serial killer’s paradise, containing every weapon and restraint under the sun a psychopath could possibly need for executing the perfect kidnap-and-kill plan, all gathered conveniently under one roof; the main source of the film’s sour brand of humour, though, at least initially, lies in portraying the couple’s perverse hobby exactly as though it really were like any pastime an average couple might choose to engage in as a bonding exercise. The two share intimate moments as they pour over anatomy textbooks in the evenings while looking for tips on dismemberment and removing teeth; they go scouting for likely victims together in their car, and have blasé discussions about who might make the most suitable ‘victim’ in a tone that suggests comparing favourite movies. Both can agree that a child would be a bit tasteless, and Farhang has hang-ups about murdering a woman in case people think his motivation was sexual; and he won’t consider ethnic minorities or gay people because the public might mistake the act for a hate crime. Jennifer thinks a teenager would make a good target though because no-one likes them: “there’s got to be at least one person who would thank us for killing any given teenager,” she muses.
What gradually becomes clear to the viewer is that this is very much Jennifer’s project, and that Farhang is kind of meekly going along with it more out of a desire to please his partner and to feel fully invested in their marriage by indulging her interests than out of any real excitement of his own about murdering people for kicks. Unfortunately, Jennifer’s preferred pastimes are mainly those of a sadistic, thrill-seeking sociopath! This is fine when the couple are still in the planning stages, because Farhang can endlessly procrastinate by finding ways to delay the actual implementation of the act: his list of unsuitable victims becomes so long (no handicapped, no elderly people) that it ends up leaving very few options still on the table; and he takes every opportunity to highlight ever more potential for unforeseen problems that might derail the project completely (he wonders if their bath will actually be large enough to hold a corpse while it bleeds out, or even to cut it up in afterwards). But a visit to Jennifer’s mother (played by the actress’s real mom) highlights just how ingrained in her nature the voyeuristic filming of suffering really is when a stack of old VHS video cassettes (as well as her very first video camera) are uncovered in her old room and Jennifer reminisces about a childhood video project: filming herself throwing the family cat down the stairs to see if it landed on its feet!
The second half of the film documents the unravelling of the couple’s fraying relationship as Jennifer’s impulsive bloodlust leads her into ever more reckless acts of sadism, such as drowning a neighbour’s cat in the kitchen sink and forcing Farhang to film her doing it! (“It’s gonna be a lot easier with a person, don’t worry!” she blithely informs her disgusted husband.) Rather than stick to their original, carefully thought-out idea, which was based on the wisdom of choosing someone who likely won’t be missed, she becomes fixated on taking revenge on an obnoxious rich guy in a suit who insulted her in the street: stalking him, staking out his house (she find out he has a mistress, which she then tries to use as a further justification for killing him) and all the time trying to persuade her husband to make him the focus of their kill plan. Finally, Jennifer goes ahead with the first stages of the plot with another choice of victim, yet without consulting Farhang first -- who comes home to find a strange guy sitting at the dining table sipping drugged wine. With the plan already in operation he has no choice but to reluctantly go along with it.
The entire film is constructed like a home movie, with the actors shooting it themselves using a digital camcorder, although so many semi-amateur non-found footage horror flicks these days are shot in the digital video format that there is little mileage to be milked from the medium as far as creating any sense of authenticity is concerned because nearly all low-budget films now look like this! The biggest drawback, inevitably, is that both husband and wife are thoroughly unlikable -- he’s whiny, needy and weak; she’s flippant, callous and utterly selfish – and we have to spend the entire movie with them, without any relief. Even their potential victims are either pathetically trusting or grossly unpleasant. There are moments of dark comedy, though, located in Jennifer’s completely self-centred attempts to paint her sadism in a positive light, such as when, having forced a visibly numb Farhang to dismember the dead weight body of their eventual victim in the bath using an electric saw (the unbelievably convincing gore effects are some of the nastiest I’ve seen in a long while) until there’s nothing left of it but hunks of bloody flesh, she still takes it upon herself to complain when he asks that for the sake of his own sanity she stop constantly referring to their victim by his name, expressing her fake outrage at her husband's request with the throwaway comment, “well, he was a person … I think we should show a little respect!”
The film does have an in-built excuse for the standard complaint that most dogs the majority of found footage films: that it’s unbelievable how their protagonists will always continue filming under almost any circumstances. Here that trait is specifically tied to the pathology of one of the couple and becomes a plot point in the final act of the film when Jennifer continues filming in the aftermath of the crime, and drives a wedge between herself and Farhang by unwittingly capturing and throwing a spotlight on the differences in their instinctive responses to the preceding act of murder, thereby documenting the disintegration of their relationship as surly as she did the destruction of a human being. She even secretly films herself at one point promising Farhang that she will stop filming him all the time! Unfortunately, occasional sparks of knowing humour like this are not enough ultimately to raise this entry above the mass of similarly nihilistic, low-budget entries in the found footage and/or kidnap-and-gag-then-torture straight to DVD bin.
The UK DVD release is on the Eureka label and comes with two deleted scenes, teaser trailers and the untreated footage for several scenes in which the couple use an old VHS recorder from Jennifer's old house, all of which were in reality shot using the standard DV format, than artificially degraded to make them look like low resolution VHS tape.