Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Brain Power: "Afflicted" a cool, thrillingly creepy horror found-footage exercise

Afflicted (2014)
85 min., rated R.

Filmmakers Derek Lee and Clif Prowse are the main hands on deck in their feature debut, "Afflicted," an unexpectedly inventive found-footage item that becomes something you can't believe hasn't been done already as a faux first-person documentary. Part 1981's "An American Werewolf in London, part 1986's "The Fly" and part 2012's "Chronicle," which merged teen angst and superhuman powers with a digital camera, the film isn't about anything original nor does it branch too far out of the horror genre, taking another monster for the taking. Here's a hint it is not about zombies, ghosts, or witches. One who has seen enough of these knows when to suspend disbelief and when to call bull, but within the annals of this increasingly stale sub-genre, this is one of the better ones. 

Derek and Clif play themselves, bound for an epic trip around the world for an entire year ("six continents, over 30 countries"). Derek is sick of being stuck behind a desk in I.T. and has been diagnosed with Arteriovenous malformation (AVM), where the blood vessels in his brain could rupture any moment and he could die. Without knowing how long he really has, he just wants to live his life without any regrets. His longtime pal, Clif, happens to be a filmmaker and documentarian, so we know he won't ever stop rolling the cameras. For their trip, they plan to shoot an interactive video travel blog called "Ends of the Earth." Kicking off their adventure in Barcelona, Spain, the friends then make their way to Paris. At a bar, Derek gets to talking to a leggy, pretty young woman named Audrey (Baya Rehaz) and takes her to their hotel room. When Clif and their two musician friends, who are touring through Europe, decide to bust into the room on Derek, they find him unconscious and bloodied on his arm and head, and Audrey is gone, even though she's left her dress and purse. Derek resists going to the hospital because the staff might not let him leave, so the trip is still on. As they trek on, Clif begins to realize Derek is a changed man, for better and for worse. It is not his medical condition preventing him from keeping food down or forcing him to sleep all day.

"Afflicted" gets the setup just right. As people and characters, or a blurry mixture of both, Derek and Clif are likable and seem like the kind of guys you wouldn't mind hanging out with. Their close bond is natural and they're both worth caring about. Derek's AVM could have just been an emotional gimmick, but it makes sense in the context of the premise, and how his condition gets tied to what happens to him later adds an interesting layer. As for Clif, he knows his camera equipment well, having multiple cameras harnessed to his body at all times, so it helps to have someone who actually knows how to rig a steady-enough shot. With that said, our two leads aren't the most well-trained thespians in the world, but they convey trauma competently enough to sell the more emotional beats.

Tense, cool, and berserk, "Afflicted" showcases the confident hand from first-time feature writer-directors Lee and Prowse, who put a fresh enough spin on exhausted tropes. In these contemporary times where we tend to take special effects for granted, the film is so impressively shot by Norm Li (2012's "In Their Skin") that it is a rare case when you keep wondering how the filmmakers accomplished most of it. If there's any snag in the film's relative authenticity, it's when Derek and Clif steal an ambulance. Making up for such instances that stretch plausibility is an expeditious pace that never lets up and a handful of urgent set-pieces. When Derek goes on the run from Interpol through an Italian town, the on-foot chase is thrilling, visceral and jaw-droppingly staged. While it is never quite the game-changer that "Chronicle" managed to be, "Afflicted" is creatively creepy and more technically resourceful than the sub-genre deserves. It's also better not knowing anything going in. 


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