'Project X': Horrible Movie, Good Found-Footage Film

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The Blair Witch gimmick gets applied to a fitting, if terrible, setting: the teen party.

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Warner Bros

The underlying principle behind found-footage films is believability: the idea that the audience is viewing real events, shot by the principal characters, then gathered and edited by a mysterious third party. It's a fairly straightforward premise—and yet so easily and so often botched.

Josh Trank's potentially excellent Chronicle is the most recent example. "Potentially," in that Trank took an otherwise engaging, character-based, super-powers movie and crippled it by clinging to the found-footage motif. Though it initially makes sense that the three principle characters would want to document their budding telekinetic abilities, by the end of the movie it's no longer clear why they would still be filming themselves. When a character is blatantly introduced for the sole purpose of providing a second camera angle, the illusion of reality is completely shattered.

Of course these kids think themselves to be the center of the universe and act accordingly.

It doesn't have to be that way. [●REC], a 2007 Spanish horror film, succeeded in part because it paid careful attention to what drives the hand behind the lens. Filmed on a single camera, the movie follows a local late-night TV crew as they ride along with a squad of firefighters and emergency responders. When a routine call from an apartment building leads the characters into a zombie-infested deathtrap, they find themselves sealed inside the building by the government for fear of contamination. From there, they go from filming their news segment to documenting their illegal quarantine. The final sequence, in which the lights have been cut and the characters must rely on camera's night vision to navigate a darkened apartment, is one of the most masterfully crafted horror scenes of the decade.

The new found-footage party epic, Project X (produced by Todd Phillips of The Hangover fame), if nothing else, gets this one thing right: A group of American teenagers partaking in an orgy of self-obsessed, chemically fueled destruction would turn the camera on themselves. Thomas, Costa, and JB are three prototypical high-school nerds who, on the cusp of graduating without having made their mark on the social scene, decide to throw an all-out rager that ends up escalating beyond anything they'd imagined. Hilarity ensues, along with endless montages of drugs, violence, and sexual misconduct.

By conventional standards, it's a terrible movie. The plot is a flimsy excuse for debauchery, the three protagonists are ripped straight out of Superbad—right down to Costa's (Oliver Cooper) lock-step impression of Jonah Hill—and the characters are foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, and objectionable in equal measure (save for the charmingly innocent and McLovin-esque Jonathan Daniel Brown). Worst of all, Nima Nourizadeh's idea of "directing" consists of jamming the camera far enough up girls' skirts to constitute sexual assault. Really, I feel like I committed statutory date rape just watching this movie.

But on a meta level, it all feels very real. Believable, even. Of course these kids think themselves to be the center of the universe and act accordingly. Of course they're going to have a friend film their house party, set it to dubstep music, and put it on YouTube. Costa acts like the foul offspring of Jonah Hill and Girl Gone Wild progenitor Joe Francis because he grew up watching Hill and Francis on TV. Save for a crazed drug dealer wielding a flame thrower, Project X almost resembles reality, which is more than most found-footage films can say. If only it told a good story instead of merely providing a list of reasons you should be glad you're getting older.

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Daniel D. Snyder is a writer based in New Mexico.

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