Tuesday, March 5, 2013

FOUND: Small Budget, Big Scares

Found (2012)
Director: Scott Schirmer
Seen via: Nevermore Film Festival
Rating: 8.5 / 10

One of the best things about watching indie films is finding that hidden gem - the one that manages to emerge with its creative vision intact despite the constraints facing its filmmakers. Found is a perfect example of such a film. It was filmed in the Bloomington, Indiana area for approximately $8,000 (most of which was spent on effects) with a local cast and crew who were willing to work unpaid and dedicate months of work to see the film to completion. Despite its humble origins, it never feels like an amateur production. Director Scott Schirmer has been honing his craft for over ten years, and with Found, his dedication has paid off. This is flat-out one of the most thought-provoking and disturbing horror films I've seen in a long time.

Found throws you immediately into its story, opening with a middle-schooler named Marty looking through his teenage brother Steve's closet and pulling out a decapitated human head in a bowling ball bag. This isn't the first head Marty has found, as his voice-over narration tells us, but he's been reluctant to expose his brother's secret for fear it may tear apart his already troubled family. Besides, he loves his brother and he can't reconcile the Steve he knows with the kind of murderous monsters that populate his favorite horror films. Adding to Marty's anxiety is the fact that he's being bullied at school. Marty would be happy to keep to his few close friends and his hobbies: drawing violent comic books and watching horror movies. But middle-school logic dictates that someone must be picked on, and that person happens to be Marty. With violence becoming increasingly prevalent in his life and his ability to shelter himself from being subjected to daily cruelties seemingly dwindling by the day, is he destined to follow in his brother's footsteps?

Found's biggest strength is its willingness to confront a plethora of difficult issues without ever settling for truisms or easy answers. In the course of addressing the central question (Why is my big brother killing people?), the film deals with a veritable laundry-list of hot-button issues that include bullying, notions of masculinity, homophobia, and even racism. At the center of it all is the question of the nature and origin of violence, never more relevant than in our post-Sandy Hook world. Engaging with such issues is difficult, and doing it well is even harder. It would have been easy to fall into Lifetime Original Movie territory and construct characters that fall neatly into opposing perspectives on each issue. That's never the case here. There's a healthy dose of ambiguity that arises as a result of framing the story through the eyes of a middle schooler who hasn't quite figured everything out for himself. The only parts that feel as if they're sold short are those involving racism. While these issues are resolved in a way at the end, the film could have functioned just as well without them.

By making Marty a young horror fan, Found is also able to address a number of issues within the genre. These arise mainly in the context of a fictional film-within-the-film called Headless - a plotless exercise in splatter where a skull-faced killer murders buxom women and violates their decapitated heads. The sexualized violence would be disturbing enough on its own, but enveloping it in a scene where Marty and his young friend watch and comment on it elevates it above a simple bone thrown to the gorehounds in the audience. While many horror fans are quick to shrug off the violence in most films as "fake" or "lame" (as Headless is by Marty's friend), everyone has something that resonates, particularly if they've entered into the world of horror at a young age. Headless hits a nerve for Marty, who's wondering if this might be the trigger that inspired his brother's acts. The scene turns into a game of one-upmanship between Marty and his friend, begging the question: are gore-fests like this really just a way to assuage residual middle school insecurities about masculinity? Is becoming desensitized to violence an integral part of growing up? Why do we watch this stuff, anyway? The sexualization of violence as viewed through (quasi-)innocent eyes also raises questions about the consequences of making such material available to impressionable viewers. It's unusual for a horror film to be this critical of the genre, but Found treats the questions fairly. While it does dissect the some of the sleazier corners of the horror world, it spends an equal amount of time exploring how violence arises elsewhere within families and society. The meta-commentary is never preachy or condescending, and ultimately its cognizance of how the horror genre works only makes it more effective as a horror film.

A leading role that so frequently intersects with such difficult subject matter would be difficult for any actor, let alone one as young as Found's main character. Gavin Brown does a superb job as Marty, and his performance brings a level of honesty that never belies his lack of formal training. Ethan Philbeck is also very good as Steve. He manages to be frightening and imposing while simultaneously letting the kindness that Marty wishes to see in him occasionally shine through. The supporting cast doesn't always give performances that are quite at the level of the leads, but all are adequate, and none are jarring. For a self-financed independent film, a few minor blips in the acting can be easily overlooked.

Found is a film that has been rolling around in the back of my mind since I saw it a week and a half ago. It opens strongly and slowly stokes the fires of dread throughout its entire runtime. Since Steve's horrible secret is revealed in literally minute one, we have the entire length of the film to mull it over, dwell on it, and wonder if there's any way this story can possibly end well. Every scene of innocuous family life is underlined by an anticipation of something awful that only increases as things spiral out of control. Since we see the story through Marty's eyes, the sense of the stifling powerlessness unique to childhood is captured perfectly and harnessed against the viewer in a truly chilling fashion. The film crescendoes in a finale that had me squirming in my seat, wondering how long it could possibly be before the credits rolled. Even if I saw the general direction the film was going, I was unprepared for exactly how horrifying its ultimate realization would be. Few films provoke such a visceral reaction in me, but Found is one of them. It's challenging, exhausting, and provocative, all in the best way possible. The fact that Schirmer and his cast and crew have done so much with so little is remarkable.

I saw Found at the Nevermore Film Festival, where it won both the jury and audience awards for best feature. Found is currently being screened in and around the festival circuit. The window for purchasing limited edition DVDs has recently closed, but watch the film's official site for more information on how and where to see Found: http://www.foundmovie.net


  1. Thank you so much for the amazing review. I think this is the most thoughtful review "Found" has received so far -- a thrill to read!

    1. Hi, Scott - thanks so much. I probably don't need to say it again, but I *really* enjoyed your film and can't wait to check it out again when it hits DVD. Take care, and best of luck with the film. Glad to see that it's freaking people out across the world these days.