Found footage has kind of had its day, but the format remains an easy option for anxious indie filmmakers eager to make something without the means necessary (or the financial support) to do so. Take Ireland’s own Richard Waters*, whose sophomore outing (following 2013 rom-com The O’Briens) In A Stranger’s House was shot in the family home.
In a Stranger’s House kicks off with the usual spiel about where the footage supposedly originated from, but with the added caveat that viewers of a sensitive disposition should steer clear. It’s a nice addition for a film set in the wilds of County Wicklow, of all places. Waters himself stars as the on-camera vlogger (it looks like a terrible vlog, it has to be said) tasked with house-sitting an isolated country abode by the camera-shy owner.
The score, by SL-88 (also Waters), is this fuzzy, off-kilter concoction that threads easily into the narrative. It’s utilised when things start getting creepy, as a plot-point, but threads so seamlessly into the narrative that it almost makes one question what’s really happening and what isn’t. The overall sound design is incredibly tight, too, with every tiny noise felt deep in the gut.
In A Stranger’s House‘s premise is even weirder considering this is Waters’ family home — creepy dolls, old-timey family photos and all. He takes an environment with which he is obviously very familiar and makes it seem alien. His naive vlogger wanders past a creepily open attic door, considers going up there, and then loudly decides not to, even though Waters himself has likely been up there a million times.
The central performance (there are a few other actors credited on the film, but to say anything about them would be venturing into spoiler territory) is strong and vanity-free. We watch as Richard, the character, sits and reads through YouTube comments, most of which are spam (his reaction to someone claiming to make a ton of money sitting at home will be familiar to anybody who’s waded into the comments section before).
He bemoans, several times, that there aren’t enough people watching his videos and that those who are keep challenging their authenticity. During these exchanges, Waters plays with our expectations for creepy stuff happening in the background — the hallmark of found footage. He consistently draws our viewpoint behind him, leaving us wondering what will happen back there. He knows where we’ll be looking, and why.
Waters has previous, not just as a proud, lifelong horror fan, but via his work with Bloody Disgusting’s popular World of Death series, along with his shorts, Video Nasty and Life’s A Wish And Then You Die. He ensures his Richard cops something is up straight away, and that he reacts accordingly. Likewise, Richard offers up a reason to stay in the house — morbid human curiosity; he just wants to figure out what the deal is.
The setting is super creepy, with any added set dressing not immediately obvious (apologies to Mrs. Waters). Waters shoots it like a maze of labyrinthine corridors, meaning he gets freaked out by his own shadow after spotting it around a darkened corner (been there). The writer-director-producer-editor-star creates a great sense of unease and mystery throughout, with the tension well-established and held tight.
The Blair Witch Project is a very clear influence here, which is only right considering it’s still the best example of a found footage movie, but In A Stranger’s House isn’t derivative or clichéd. A question, posed to camera (naturally), about whether the supernatural is scarier than a flesh-and-blood human being is a clever addition in an already smart script, which is utterly devoid of flab.
In A Stranger’s House is an effective, hugely impressive chiller whose low budget limitations are wisely used to its advantage. At just 70 minutes, it almost feels too fleeting but better to zip in, make an impression, and zip back out again rather than hang around waiting for the cracks to appear. There is a mythology present, even if it’s only hinted at.
Regardless, Waters has done a lot with very little here, further reiterating the oft-repeated point that what is seen is scarcely as frightening as what is imagined (though the sole money shot is a hell of a payoff), budget constrictions or otherwise. In A Stranger’s House may be slight, but it’s a rallying call to indie filmmakers everywhere to just get ‘er done.
* Full disclosure: Richard is a friend of the site and of mine personally but, I can assure you, I wouldn’t be reviewing his movie if it were terrible. I’d be avoiding him, while pretending my laptop was broken. And also my hands.
WICKED RATING: (8/10)
Director(s): Richard Waters
Writer(s): Richard Waters
Starring: Richard Waters, Theresa Bradley, Emily Kelly, Shawna Waters
Release date: 31 October 2018
Studio/ Production Co: Weird Pretty Pictures
Length: 71 minutes
Sub-Genre: Found footage