The Basement, 2017.
Directed by László Illés.
Starring Caroline Boulton, Takács Zalán, Richard Rifkin, Marina Gera, Sherin Bors, Varga Csenge Boglárka, Gergo Szekér and Laci Gondor.
When their rowdy party is called-off after receiving a warning from the police, a group of international students decide to hold a seance instead. This inadvertently sets in motion a series of ominous events, leading the friends into a labyrinthine basement hidden beneath their apartment complex. Although it is officially abandoned and out of use, it soon transpires that the basement is actually home to a bloodthirsty and seeming supernatural, assailant, who is intent on murdering the students.
It takes a special breed of incompetence to make an audience actively question if they are watching a found-footage film, or just a conventional movie. After all, the distinction between the two is immediately apparent to anyone with even the vaguest comprehension of the cinematic form.
For a start, if you’re going for the found-footage approach, then everything should be presented (unambiguously) as if it is the POV of a camera that exists within the world of the film. The central conceit is then that this camera is being operated by one of the characters themselves, rather than by a professional film crew.
Typically, this can be communicated by utilising unstable camera work or perhaps by including some shoddy zooms here and there, giving everything a more amateurish flavour. To hammer the point home even further, you could make use of abrupt edits, thereby signifying that the recording was stopped and, after some time had passed, then resumed. This would dispel the impression that the film is deliberately edited-together and would cause it to instead resemble a loose collection of clips, which have been discovered after a significant and/ or horrific event.
It would also be advisable for the cast to give naturalistic performances, contributing to the illusion that this is authentic footage, rather than a staged production. Hell if you really want to spell it out, you could even shoe-horn in a little bit of dialogue, drawing attention to the fact that someone is inappropriately filming all the time (e.g. ”Put down the goddamn camera Steve!).
Conversely, if you are making a traditional feature film, one that leaves the 4th wall firmly intact, then you just need to avoid doing these things. Simple enough, right?
Well you’d fucking think so.
Apologies if all that preamble seemed a tad patronising, but apparently no one explained any of this to László Illés, the director behind risible horror The Basement. Then again, I don’t think anyone ever introduced him to the concepts of coherent storytelling or basic entertainment value either. But we’ll get to that eventually.
First, let us return to the whole found-footage debacle. The direction of the film initially appears to be obvious enough, with a brief intro that suggests it is going to be a faux-documentary, ala REC. Seemingly concrete evidence of this comes in the form of a TV presenter, who directly addresses the camera and openly acknowledges the presence of an unseen film crew.
This stylistic approach is more or less maintained for the next 5 minutes, as the production team venture into the titular basement for their shoot, only to be set-upon by an unknown entity and gradually picked off one-by-one. Great, well done gang. You’ve successfully achieved the bare minimum.
We’re then confronted with a credit sequence that is legally distinct from the opening of Se7en, with musical accompaniment that is legally distinct from the soundtrack to Saw. Now found-footage films rarely employ title sequences like this, so it would be reasonable to infer that the aforementioned intro was just a self-contained vignette and that the rest of the movie will be presented in a more conventional style.
Only, the credits end and it’s still found-footage. At least, it looks like it is. The camera is wobbling all over the place and there seems to be a voice emanating from behind the lens, which presumably belongs to the person who is filming. So you naturally revert back to thinking that this is going to be a mockumentary type thing and conclude that those titles were nothing more than a momentary disruption.
Nope! We then cut to a completely different perspective, looking at the guy from the previous shot and A) he isn’t holding a camera and B) this new POV doesn’t seem to be associated with anyone in particular… Okay… So… What is going on here?
The confusion only escalates from there, as the next 10 minutes of The Basement are particularly dumbfounding, with the audience jumping back and forth between ”Maybe it is found-footage” and ”Maybe it’s just really badly made?” One party scene is especially bewildering, with shockingly over-exposed images and frequent shifts in-and-out of focus, making most of the proceedings completely indecipherable. Not only that, but there’s a bizarre use of colour that renders everything garishly purple for the entirety of the celebrations. This, combined with disorienting editing and an inconsistent, often unbearable, audio mix, lends the whole scene a palpably nightmarish quality. There’s even a random a guy in a horse mask for good measure!
The thing is, this isn’t intentionally depicted in a hellish fashion, so surely we have to attribute these abysmal visuals to the vague found-footage device. After all, no traditional movie would choose to look like this. But then again, that assumption wouldn’t line up with the rest of the film, where there are shot-reverse-shot patterns, instances of musical score and constant cutaways to events that none of our protagonists are even present for.
Long story short, it’s not until about 30 minutes into The Basement that you could say with any certainty that there is a found-footage element in place. Said confirmation arrives when a character leaves a camcorder pointed at a table and the audience is then presented with its POV. It is at this moment (a third of the way into the film!) that you realise this is going to be one of those found-footage movies, where the directors refuse to stick to the format because that would take too much effort. So we gracelessly flip flop between visual styles throughout, kind of like District 9, only shit.
The worst part is, it still looks like absolute arse even when it’s being filmed by the so-called professionals. Meanwhile, the found-footage isn’t even deployed strategically or with any sense of artistic discretion. It’s never brought into set-pieces or exploited to maximise terror, and it’s certainly never used to put us in the shoes of one of the characters. Instead, it’s just chucked in for the sake of it, with two second insert shots of the camera panning to the floor or to a door being opened.
As aforementioned, this non-committal relationship with found-footage isn’t the only problem with The Basement. Not by a long shot. For a start it’s remarkably inept in the technical department, with whole segments of the film being completely out of focus and instances of sound-design that frankly beggar belief. Honestly, it’s a common occurrence for this film to be both unwatchable and inaudible at the same time.
The resulting horror sequences are stunningly incoherent, comprised of obscure flashing images, obnoxious motion blur and a relentless barrage of loud noises and screeching sounds. Presumably something is happening during all of this commotion, but the exact chain of events remains fuzzy because you can’t tell what the hell is going on! Suffice it to say, it’s not much fun to watch.
One of these ”set-pieces” was so confounding that it honestly had me asking all 5 of the ‘W’ questions at once. What exactly is happening? Why is it happening? Who is it happening to? Where is everyone in relation to each other? And when did that person show up? Oh and let’s not forget the ‘How?’ as well.
Outside of the truly abhorrent presentation, the film is also hindered by embarrassing performances and a jaw-droppingly bad screenplay. The latter consists of astonishingly imbecilic decisions, baffling dialogue exchanges (”I don’t think these stupid sentences are going to work”) and leaps of logic that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Lewis Carroll novel. On the other hand, the character arcs are at least amusing in how quickly they escalate, with one individual converting from supernatural septic to the Witchfinder General in the space of a single scene.
Still, as fascinatingly bad as The Basement can be (that party scene really is something else) it’s not worth enduring this severely unpleasent viewing experience.
Flickering Myth Rating –Film: ★ / Movie: ★