When you get to be my age, death is no longer some far off and abstract concept; it becomes very real, very close and very personal. Most of the time, we only catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of our eye, but with increasing frequency, we find that it has come up directly behind us: dank, charnel house expirations raising the hair on the back of our neck.
Sometimes, it gives us no such courtesy and simply grabs us by throat, pins us to the ground and as the final darkness closes in around us we can only think, “I thought I’d have more time.”
“In Memorium”, the first feature film from director Amanda Gusack, introduces us to Dennis (Erik McDowell), a filmmaker and his actress girlfriend, Lilly (Johanna Watts). Dennis has found out just a few months before that he has a very aggressive type of bone cancer and has only a few months to live. With his remaining time, he decides he wants to chronicle his final days on film. Filming yourself die is never an easy thing – unless you’re drunk and shooting for a YouTube audience – but soon, the couple discovers that Dennis dying may be the least of their worries as a supernatural presence threatens them.
As another entry into the “found footage” sub-genre, “In Memorium” succeeds in the two ways I think any film of this type should: they develop good characters and they don’t take you out of the illusion of reality. The film opens presenting our characters and their reason for filming. We’re shown the fixed camera layout and even told how it works. I liked that it wasn’t just some guy with a camera improbably shooting everything that was going on around him. The obvious comparison here is between this and “Paranormal Activity”. Yes, both movies are about young couples filming their activities and both are about a supernatural presence doing creepy things. I’m sure there are many who would be inclined to call “In Memorium” a PA knockoff. There’s only one small problem with that: “In Memorium” pre-dates PA by about two years.
It’s also a better movie.
Comparisons aside, it starts with a strong premise: a dying filmmaker recording his last days. You get strong acting from the leads McDowell and Watts, who share a very pleasant and believable chemistry. They excel at taking us on the emotional journey not just of Dennis’ illness but also of the accompanying haunting. Levi Powell, who plays Dennis’ younger brother, Frank, is a bit of a mixed bag. Initially, he comes off as a bit of an irritating slacker surfer boy. Later, they give him some substance and I found myself wondering, “Where was this guy earlier?” Some of his interactions with Lilly seemed a bit forced and awkward – probably my only complaint about this film.
What really set this film head and shoulders above most of its younger siblings was the way it built its scares. Most current horror films use the jump scare as the preferred means for getting an audience reaction, followed closely by the gross-out gore scene. Smaller budget films like this usually have to resort to the jump scare almost exclusively. “In Memorium”, however, gives you characters to care about and develops a frightening situation organically instead of simply serving up cheap startles. It also doesn’t force you into a staring contest as you wait for a door to move fractionally. If you are scared, it’s a product of the storytelling and not a loud noise.
“In Memorium” was available for viewing online at IndieFlix.com (no longer) and, gods willing, someone gets this movie some proper distribution. It’s a fine movie that has haunted the shadows long enough.