Found footage reinvigorates an old tale of kids growing up, learning to fly, and wanting to become their fathers.
Horror is a genre obsessed with the evil daddy-thing. Take Jason, the wounded little boy who comes shambling out of the grave transformed into a faceless lawgiver, dispensing punishment to the good and evil alike. You had sex? Die! You were a goody-two shoes virgin? Die! Or there's Freddy, with those phallic fingers, waiting to crucify you for the transgressions of your dreams. Horror—at least effective horror—is never just about random villainy or impersonal acts of violence. It's always about the intimacy of retribution: the twisted, gaping, maw of justice into which everyone knows that they deserve to plummet. In horror, we're all the little kids waiting for the painful thrill of punishment.
The barely concealed Freudian subtext is a big part of the reason that horror is such a good fit with the found-footage genre, from The Blair Witch Project to The Devil Inside. The wavery, uncertain eye peeking at what should not be seen and can never be quite understood is perfect for horror's Oedipal obsessions. Every film turns into one long primal scene, where some snot-nosed nothing views an unviewable act and then, is inevitably, obscurely, and bloodily dimembered.
You come away thinking, yes, flying would be pretty awesome. Which, surely, is the point of superheroes if anything is.
Super-hero films are also daddy-fixated. Just think of little orphan Bruce or little orphan Kal-El or little orphan Peter, all trying to be worthy of that towering and absent patriarch. But that patriarch is not the ogre father. Instead, in the superhero genre, the Dad is an image of all-powerful benevolence, the parent who sweeps in to defeat the evil and make the world uber-OK for all. As inverted images of each other, horror and superheroes are too closely allied to work together very effectively. Superheroes can fight monsters, or (like the Hulk), be monsters, but they can't really be afraid of monsters and still remain in the superhero genre. Which is why, going in, my expectations were quite low for Chronicle, the new found-footage superhero exercise. A primal scene that ends in everyone dead and the walls drenched with internal organs makes sense. A primal scene that ends with daddy patting you on the head and making everything all right? What kind of trashy genre fun is that?
Happily, and to my surprise, Chronicle's turns out to provide quite a bit of genre fun, and a touching little parable to boot. The film early on embraces the infantilizing connotations of peeping at the world through a hand-held viewfinder. Andrew (Dane DeHaan), our schlubby Peter Parker analogue, wanders around the school with his new camera, freaking out the cheerleaders and prompting those above him in the male pecking order (a.k.a. "everybody") to punch him in the lens. His geekish adolescent inconsequentiality is linked to the found-footage genre itself from the very first scene. We see him with his camera out, filming himself in the mirror on his bedroom door while his drunk, belligerent father pounds on the other side, demanding to be let in. Right from the start, the powerful father and the peeping kid overlap, the child simultaneously threatened by, fearing, and becoming his sire.
As you know if you've seen any press at all, Andrew does in fact seize that rod of mastery. He and his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and Matt's magnetic friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan) find an (ahem) giant hole in the ground leading to a subterranean tunnel, at the end of which there's some glowing whatsit and the secret of true potency. All three gain telekinetic powers, and the bulk of the film is devoted to their euphoric exploration of their expanding repertoire of abilities, an obvious but still effective metaphor for the euphoric transition to being a grown-up.
Turning into a grown-up isn't only euphoric, of course. It's also bitter and frightening and depressing, as Andrew discovers. He is the most powerful of the three friends, probably, the film implies, because he wants the most to escape from his own hyperbolic Stan-Lee-melodrama powerlessness—his abusive father, his dying mother, his social ostracism. The last is mitigated by his friendship with Steve and Matt. When Andrew's powers get him a girl, though, everything goes to hell. For a moment, it seemed like he was going to get out of adolescence alive. But the ogre father is wiley. If he doesn't eat you, he will inhabit you.