Studio: Gravitas Ventures
Director: Raymond Wood
Writer: Chris Piner
Producer: Raymond Wood, Randall Blizzard
Stars: Hayley Lovitt, Teddy Cole, Brook Todd, Ace Harney, Jason MacDonald
Four aspiring documentarians encounter true terror while investigating an abandoned building rumored to be the site of satanic activity.
Why did “The Millbrook Summoning” change its title to “1st Summoning?” Speculation suggests someone still buys into the outdated notion that numerical names receive top treatment in VOD listings. Most streaming services don’t really do alphabetical orders anymore though, so it’s doubtful there’s any appreciable benefit to starting a title with a number, or even with the letter “A.”
Immaterial interchangeability doesn’t only apply to the name. It applies to the movie’s basic setup too. One could just cut-and-paste the summary from any number of haunted building “found footage” films and reuse it to describe “1st Summoning.” For posterity’s sake however, some specificity has gone into the brief synopsis below.
The bright idea four aspiring filmmakers have for a documentary involves investigating the abandoned Millbrook factory. Rumor has it that the site hosts secret satanic activities. In particular, a ritual performed at midnight on October 6th grants invokers with a wish, albeit at a supposedly steep cost. The fearless foursome thus sets out for the expected trek of interviewing local townspeople, fighting amongst themselves, exploring dark hallways, and finally confronting the thing they never expected to find even though that’s what their whole project is about.
From specific beats to shaky execution, “1st Summoning” basically remakes “The Blair Witch Project” (review here) with the additional redundancy of being set in a haunted building. Horror literally has a thousand such movies. The reality is, unless a “Blair” clone contains a compelling celebrity, major hook, or some other sort of intriguing incentive, no one has any reason to watch yet another microbudget “found footage” film where amateur actors swing handheld cameras around cobwebbed corridors. As far as entertainment value goes, it’s impossible to recommend “1st Summoning” from the perspective of an unimpressed viewer.
That said, as a critic who has seen more “found footage” movies than 99% of fright film fandom, “1st Summoning” earns a higher relative grade purely from an effort appreciation standpoint.
Ironically due to some stunted delivery during early scenes, it’s evident that “1st Summoning’s” actors are reciting prewritten lines. The fact that they’re following a script is actually a plus in the ‘Pro’ column. I’ll almost always award a full star to a homegrown “found footage” film, even a copycat one, for not taking the truly lazy route by having its cast make up the movie through improvisation instead.
Chris Piner’s screenplay also concerns itself with developing personal drama between the players. Sure, that drama involves textbook temper tantrums related to former flame jealousies and other relationship strains. But I prefer to see people taking shots at creating characters with backstories rather than only reacting to situational strife.
Actors at least give a genuine go at being believable, even if they miss those marks. Jason MacDonald lays a leering Lurch gimmick onto his creepy pastor character with the thickest brush imaginable. He’s dialed up to eleven when everyone else is set to four or five. Given the choice between a performance going too far and not far enough though, I’ll opt for the former.
Little things count in little movies. “1st Summoning” gains no visual value from mounting a camera on a wheel well to show when a vehicle is in motion. But again, someone took time to set up such a rig when they could have gotten away with doing something simpler, or nothing additional at all.
A cynic could argue I’m awarding participation trophies for “1st Summoning” covering bare minimum bases of what any movie should do regardless. Remember that a vast majority of first-person films are so awful, the median quality line evens out to an incredibly low bar. Considering that curve, “1st Summoning” hits an above average mark as an indie production when paired against indolent “found footage” peers.
At the same time, I have to stress that an above average effort does not necessarily translate into above average entertainment. In addition to the burden of a “been there, done that” plot, “1st Summoning” suffers from several glaring technical issues. Most notably, one of the cameras weirdly rustles with the operator’s every flinch and fidget, and those clicks repeatedly nag at dialogue. Other scenes encounter different audio issues, including inaudibly low levels during one intimate exchange.
“1st Summoning” isn’t very eerie either. Limited “scary” moments are heavily back-loaded to the final 15 minutes, making it more of a chore to get through the full hour and a half when 70 brisker minutes would have functioned fine as a total runtime.
When you see the score, keep in mind that “1st Summoning” gets the benefit of being acknowledged for director Raymond Wood and company doing a better job than most who have followed in these familiar footsteps. Unfortunately, the short list of worthwhile “found footage” films still has no place for this movie, no matter where it falls in an alphabetical order.
Review Score: 55