In 1999, Eduardo Sánchez and his collaborator Daniel Myrick changed modern horror cinema by popularizing the found-footage genre, with their enormously successful—and effective—low-budget feature The Blair Witch Project. In 2012, Sánchez still can’t seem to recapture the inspiration that saw him and Myrick (who isn’t involved in his latest) turn a lack of resources into a terrifying litmus test for the human imagination. His new film Lovely Molly is a muddled mess that can’t decide whether it wants to be a gritty character study of mental illness and childhood trauma, or a plainly supernatural haunted-house story like the Blair Witch-manque Paranormal Activity franchise.
The film starts promisingly, using a low-key naturalism to set up the characters and the story. Molly (Gretchen Lodge) and her new husband Tim (Johnny Lewis) move into her late parents’ home—an isolated, lonesome house at the edge of the woods, in which Molly is stuck alone for days at a time when her husband’s off long-distance trucking. We get glimpses of their lives and Molly’s relationship with her sister Hannah (Alexandra Holden). We get hints that Molly is a recovered drug addict when Hannah hesitates to share a joint. The quiet storytelling almost feels like blue-collar drama. The convincing performances and patient rhythm lead one to believe that the film might be following in the footsteps of Ti West’s excellent The House of the Devil (2009) by observing the mundanity of the everyday through the lens of mounting dread, ensuring our identification with its protagonist so the eventual rupture of the horror narrative hits hard. But the moment Molly starts hearing voices and wandering around with a video camera, things go downhill. The pacing deteriorates into jarring repetition. The incongruity of the pointless ‘found-footage’ sections amidst the rest becomes grating and over-easy, and the subtlety of the opening act collapses into ridiculousness.
The film’s biggest problem is that it pretends to introduce ambiguity about whether the haunting is just Molly having an extended psychotic episode brought on by resurfacing memories of childhood trauma. Now this might have made for a moving yet disturbing portrait of someone suffering from trauma and psychosis (see Damien Lewis’ stunning performance as a schizophrenic man in Keane (2004) to see this done right). But the film’s baldfaced approach to portraying what might be supernatural sends a strangely mixed message, basically equating mental illness and drug addiction to demonic possession in a queasily exploitative manner. Neither the found footage of Molly’s recordings nor the conventionally cinematic narrative disprove the reality of what she’s experiencing, rendering the distinction between the two aesthetic styles entirely arbitrary; a weak attempt to evoke the stylistic success of The Blair Witch Project in a film that requires a different approach.
With Molly’s clear suffering as a victim of terrible trauma in the past exacerbated by the goadings of a possible demon/ghost, it just begins to feel like the film is taking the easy shock value of domestic violence, addiction and mental illness and using it all to spice up a conventional–and sometimes creepy–haunted-house tale. There’s none of the stylistic remove of, say, Roman Polanski’s psychological horror films (the film has been compared to Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) by more than one critic). Sánchez strives for a certain realism that makes the horror less extended metaphor and more offensive manipulation. That the film’s second half is predicated on everyone around Molly behaving with little semblance of logic or empathy makes her descent feel all the more contrived. You can practically see the writers (Sánchez and Jamie Nash) poking and prodding poor Molly into a tailspin to get a reaction from the audience. As a result, the supernatural aspects of the story feel half-baked (a haunting shot near the end hints at what might have been had they not beat around the bush), and the ‘psychological’ horror feels unpleasantly sensationalized, especially when blood starts spilling in the final act.
Lovely Molly is somewhat salvaged by a brave, affecting performance by newcomer Gretchen Lodge, who dives into the role with complete devotion. Her visceral evocation of Molly’s pain and frailty belongs in a better film, and I can only hope that she’s recognized for it. The rest of the cast, especially Alexandra Holden as Hannah, also perform admirably under the circumstances. Unfortunately, all their efforts can’t mask the fact that the film they’re in is an ill-conceived hodgepodge of conflicting ideas and styles, shallow in its exploration of both psychological and supernatural horror.
USA 2011. Director: Eduardo Sánchez
Cast: Gretchen Lodge, Johnny Lewis, Alexandra Holden
Colour. 100 mins.