Found Footage Double Feature: ‘1972 Yellow House’ (2013) and ‘Bad Ben’ (2016) Reviews

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I like found footage and I don’t know why. It’s not like it’s a genre that’s conducive to quality. I’ve seen too many stinkers with vague shouting and shaky camerawork as people run down a dark hallway from a half-seen shadow (or worse, dodgy CGI). Endless hours of people walking in the woods/house/desert saying completely inane things. A ton of nothingburger endings that arrive so abruptly you’re not even sure anything happened. So much nightvision.

And yet.

The best found footage films always seem to trade on a sense of verisimilitude – the idea that what you’re seeing actually happened – that you’re watching a tragedy unfold in real time. That anything could happen. (There are exceptions – Lake Mungo comes to mind.) I don’t know if it’s pandering to an intrinsic voyeurism – the urge to rubberneck the crash scene as your car creeps safely by – or if there’s some other atavistic trigger that gets me leaning forward, trying to catch a glimpse of something moving in the background, or shadows where there shouldn’t be any, or being startled by a blood-flecked mouth champing it’s teeth RIGHT IN MY FACE. And when it works – in a [REC] or a Grave Encounters – it’s every bit as satisfying for me as a regular movie would be. And when it doesn’t work I grumble and complain about the shoddy camerawork (or too good camerawork), the horrible pacing, the thin characters, the endless tedium of blurry night shots, the cheap jump scares. And then I usually go watch another one.

So, yeah. I was in the mood to watch some found footage last night and ended up watching two.

The Mediums
1972 Yellow House is up on TubiTV, but I think you can find it elsewhere as well. Don’t worry about video quality – it’s not going to matter. I watched Bad Ben on Amazon Prime.

1972 Yellow House
When I was a kid we used to borrow my grandfather’s Super 8 movie camera and make films. Music videos, sci-fi pictures, action movies. Anything we could think of we’d try to capture. My Gram would get the film developed for us, and we’d do all sorts of horrible things to the film to try and accomplish our ‘special effects.’ They were always underlit, shaky and ridiculous, but man we had fun. So when a friend mentioned that there was a found-footage movie on Tubitv.com that was specifically made to look like footage from a Super 8 camera, well I thought of those lost reels and immediately wanted to see it.

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1972 Yellow House is supposed to be Super 8 film found alongside a child’s skeleton in a house undergoing renovation. It’s been released by local police hoping that someone in the public will recognize the people in the film and perhaps come forward.

Yeah, good luck with that.

So, first the gimmick. I’m not sure if Yellow House was actually shot on Super 8 or not. I’m thinking it was probably shot digitally and aged/downgraded in post. My memory is that Super 8 reels were pretty short – maybe 5 minutes worth of film at a time – and I think there are shots in this that are longer. There are also scenes that seem to have a bit of image stabilization. It’s not really important though – the film does a good job of looking like what it’s supposed to be – old and faded film.

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The story is thin, but that’s also not a terrible idea when you only have 52 minutes of time. A young couple looking for a fresh start rents a house. The husband wants to document everything (of course). The wife has dreams about a little girl. There’s a creepy dirt-filled swimming pool on the grounds. There’s a seance, some buried bones, a backstory about the town being built by spiritualists, and the sense that the woman is slowly being taken over by whatever is haunting the house.

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None of this is straightforward or at all easy to pull out of the film, partly because it’s not in chronological order and partly because the audio is low and often overridden by both music and the omnipresent sound of the film reel running. There’s also no sense of pacing at all. Some scenes – like the male character wandering the backyard muttering to himself – seem endless. Others – like a scene where a spooky apparition with long dark hair menaces the woman in the bath – are short and cut in such a way as to be rendered visual noise rather than narrative. I’m not easily nauseated by camera movement, but it was a close thing with this film which manages to combine the worst of found-footage shaky cam with flickering exposure changes and random edits.

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I tried to like this movie, I really did but… look, it’s just not good. It manages an overall mood of eeriness and doom, but other than that it uses the whole gimmick of being a Super 8 film to plaster over a paucity of character, story and scares. That the final ‘jump’ appears to be lifted wholesale from another found footage movie doesn’t help.

The Bottom Line
At 52 minutes, 1972 Yellow House overstays its welcome. There was apparently an 80 minute version of this film called Exit 91 Summerland that came out in 2011. I cannot imagine sitting through nearly another 30 minutes of bad audio, bad cinematography, bad editing, bad… well, you get the idea. Unless you’re a die-hard found footage enthusiast I think you can safely pass this one by.

 

Bad Ben
I’ve had this in my watchlist for a while, at least a couple of years. Long enough that I’d forgotten why I added it in the first place. I have a vague memory of it being mentioned by a few fellow found footage fans. I didn’t even look at the description. I just wanted something else in the found footage genre, and it was the first thing on the list.

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Bad Ben is about a man named Tom Riley (Nigel Bach – who’s also the director), a slighly schlubby older guy who’s just picked up a great house for cheap at a Sheriff’s Sale. Tom’s sunk his life savings into the property, hoping to flip it and make some money. At first it seems like he’s gotten quite a deal – the house looks almost brand new, is fully furnished and comes with a significant amount of land. Of course he’ll have to change the locks first. Seems like someone keeps breaking in…

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So I love the setup. Having an older man be the protagonist is a nice change of pace and Tom is a fun creation – a crotchety, foul-mouthed pragmatist who’s willing to desecrate a grave to make sure no prospective buyers are spooked and just as willing to declare he’s a Christian and as such ain’t afraid of no ghosts.  The fact that the house is a recent build and not some ancient wood-pile with a history of derangement and murder is also a nice touch. It’s all so… normal. You know. Like the house in Poltergeist.

Tom uses his phone to video himself a lot and that footage makes it seem like he’s a YouTuber or other streaming personality, talking to an audience that we never really know about. I’m not sure if that’s the case or if he just likes to record his life. Either way, we’re not restricted to footage from Tom’s phone. There are security cameras in very room except the bathrooms and the attic, which is odd, but is a good thing for both Tom and us. We’ll get to see things that happen outside of his view. There’s also a camera in the basement, but it seems to be out of service and the door at the bottom of the stairs is jammed. I’m sure it’s nothing.

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Bad Ben full of the usual found footage stuff – half-seen shadows, things moving just out of range of the camera, loud noises at night and weird stuff found around (and in) the property – but it’s done fairly well. The fact that it’s also narrated matter-off-factly by Tom somehow makes it work even better than it might otherwise. Watching this crotchety middle-aged guy deal with the supernatural as if it was just one more thing that might reduce his sale price is much of the fun.

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And of course that’s what’s going on. The house – new as it is – is haunted. There’s someone or something  there, and it wants Tom to leave. He’s got his life savings tied up in the house, though, so once he’s convinced that something supernatural is going on – in a fun sequence where he’s on the phone with the tech guy watching the cameras as something goes on behind him – he simply goes about dealing with it the same way he does with anything else that could affect his investment. By trying to get rid of it. But it won’t be easy…

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There are some minor issues – pacing mostly. It feels like it drags in spots. The special effects aren’t great, but they’re few and there’s no egregious CGI effects so I’m happy to give these a pass. The actual scares are few and far between, but there’s at least one good jump scare and some tense moments where Tom is asleep while something moves through the house. There’s also a physical attack that’s surprising and is sold pretty well. It’s honestly more fun than it is scary, though it’s not quite a full on comedy.

The Bottom Line
Maybe it was the proximity to 1972 Yellow House, but I really enjoyed Bad Ben! It’s obviously very low budget ($300 says the internet),  but that’s part of the charm for me. It makes it seem more like what it’s pretending to be. I’m even okay with not seeing whatever Bad Ben actually is (though the ending is, in found footage tradition, far too quick).

I was astonished to see that there are something like 5 sequels to this movie on Amazon. Somehow this low-budget one man show has spawned its own cottage industry. I have no idea what level of quality these follow ups are at, but I’ll definitely be giving them a watch sometime soon.