Written and Directed by: Mark Edwin Robinson
Starring: Johanna Braddy, Lili Mirojnick, and Morgan Krantz
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
This weekend will be killer.
I’m not sure why anyone in their right minds would produce something like The Levenger Tapes in 2016 (or even 2011, when it was originally made and apparently released to some festivals). It’s not that it’s yet another goddamn found footage riff—it’s that it’s another one that doesn’t do anything particularly inventive, nor does it go through the familiar motions particularly well. It’s almost as if everyone involved wanted to make a movie that reflected the most common, damning criticisms that turned took this filmmaking style from “cottage industry” to “oh shit, here we go again” in the span of a few years. If your general perception that found footage films largely consist of obnoxious characters stumbling around, haphazardly wielding a camera for 90 minutes without much really happening, then The Levenger Tapes would be a prime exhibit in your case.
At least it has something of a hook and a frame story that explains just how we’re watching this footage, which has been recovered by a police force as part of an investigation surrounding some missing college students. A trio of bulky tapes are loaded into an old-school tape recorder, yielding some miraculously pristine widescreen, high-definition digital footage that documents a weekend retreat gone awry. Chase (Morgan Krantz) helms the camera, prattling on in the car alongside Amanda (Johanna Brady) and Kim (Lili Mirojnick), the two girls he thinks he’s going to bed, resulting in the best weekend of his life. Instead, they run afoul of the locals at a liquor store when Chase steals a bottle of booze, leading to a hit-and-run accident that seemingly comes back to haunt them later when the other car reappears in a field near their house.
If I had to hazard a guess, this synopsis summarizes a good third of the movie. The setup is somehow sparse but also leaden as hell: while I don’t mind letting the film breathe in order for the audience to soak in the atmosphere (if anything, director Mark Edwin Robinson scouted a killer backwoods locale), this possibility is all but drowned out by the incessant, repetitive chatter. Chase especially spends a lot of time just yapping on about nothing particularly relevant—mostly, he just really wants to highlight to his buddies how he’s the only guy in this potential three-way. When he’s not doing that, he’s assuring the two girls that their hit-and-run escapade is totally okay because, like, nobody is going to care. The time would be better spent mounting some kind of mounting dread or even some kind of mythology. Say what you want about The Blair Witch Project, but at least that film spins a compelling yarn with its backstory, something this film has little concept of.
Once the inciting incident happens—Chase spots the other car in the hit-and-run and decides to leave the house to apologize—the film’s modus operandi doesn’t change too terribly much. Instead of the characters chatting and bickering in the house, they’re chatting and bickering out in the woods—which, by the way, is also a massive Indian burial ground, according to Chase. Both this revelation and the discovery of a girl’s hair-bow and tattered bloody dress spooks the group. Suddenly, they can’t take a step without hearing strange noises, coaxing them to constantly ask each other “did you hear that?” or “did you see that?” Meanwhile, audiences aren’t privy to whatever the fuck it is they’re supposedly seeing—at one point, Kim swears she sees a hand emerge from the woods, but I have combed over that stretch of footage like it’s the damn Zapruder tape, only to find nothing.
I suppose it’s meant to be a bit of a mind-fuck, like so many of these half-assed found footage movies are. Something about the aesthetic seems to cause filmmakers to think they have a license to do the bare minimum. Sure, the unseen and unexplained can be scary as hell, but The Levenger Tapes abuses the notion. It’s the sort of movie where the characters insist something is out there, yet the filmmakers only provide faint hints of odd noises and brief glimpses to string the audience along to an underwhelming conclusion that doesn’t show much more. Technically, it’s aping the Blair Witch approach without having any understanding of how that film was able to get away with leaving so much to the imagination.
Namely, The Blair Witch Project at least sparked the audience’s imagination—it gave them plenty of lore to chew on to the point where the film is like a campfire tale committed to celluloid, one that has you practically looking over your shoulder throughout the entire thing. The Levenger Tapes simply fails to grab you with anything worthwhile despite Robinson’s best efforts to tangle the viewers up in an increasingly complicated (and seemingly random) story. Whenever the cops in the frame story reach the end of a tape, Robinson pulls back to gauge their reactions and to have them fill in some blanks. For example, when one of them spots a little girl on the tape, he speculates that it’s a long-unsolved missing persons case, a diversion that opens the door for the film to come into focus.
It never quite does, however, as this angle and other developments remain undercooked. Throwaway lines about the Indian burial ground and a local legend about another lost girl twenty years ago eventually intersect in nebulous fashion. The whole thing is kind of a needlessly convoluted kidnapping drama intertwined with some kind of “monster” movie—some of the dots eventually connect, but it’s hardly satisfying. What you’re left with is a handful of intriguing images and an eerie location, both of which deserve a better movie than this. It’s odd to me that this long-shelved found footage exercise finally sees release when the long-awaited The Poughkeepsie Tapes continues to languish. Releasing something like The Levenger Tapes in 2016 feels akin to releasing the most basic, generic slasher in 1994—by this point, we’ve pretty much seen it all, so you’d better be innovative or exceptionally well-done. This one is neither, and it's tediously long to boot.
The Levenger Tapes is now available on DVD from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.
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