Studio: Kew Media Group
Director: Georgia Lee
Writer: Yalun Tu
Producer: David Alpert, Mia Riverton, Figo Fuad
Stars: Sarah Oh, Jake Lockett, Rachel Hammett, Sarah Lian
A secret from her past plagues a young woman’s trip to Hong Kong when a vengeful ghost begins haunting her family and friends.
At the theater or at home, cellphones have turned the movie-watching experience into a distracting battleground of rings, dings, and buzzes vying for our attention with texts, tweets, and talking. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising multimedia producers took an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude toward integrating entertainment with our easily accessible digital obsession. So filmmaker Georgia Lee and Robert Kirkman’s Skybound Entertainment combined to create “Capture,” a “found footage” horror movie where your phone adds an interactive layer to the experience.
Unfortunately, the project is late to the party on both fronts of first-person frights and second-screen technology. “Capture” comes at a time when “found footage” couldn’t be colder, while Dutch thriller “App” (review here) already trail-blazed the companion app concept with more effective success. This condemns “Capture” to an awkward purgatory where it flounders as a horror film and as an innovative idea.
Story-wise, “Capture” is conceptually akin to a “found footage” take on the “The Ring,” with Chinese ghost mythology supplanting the Japanese fiction of that franchise.
Sarah Chang receives a video camera from her beau Alex just in time to be called back to Hong Kong, where her grandmother has fallen ill. Grandmother is superstitious since it happens to be Gui Yue, or “ghost month,” when spirits are able to exit the underworld and interact with the living. Luckily, Sarah has her new camera on hand to capture all the paranormal paranoia on video while nursing grandmother back to health.
Sarah also uses the trip to rendezvous with four former friends left behind when she moved to the States. Their cliquey quintet picks up where they left off in high school, alternating outings between drunken partying and soaking up sights of Chinese culture. Hanging over everything however, is a shameful secret in everyone’s shared past.
No longer part of their group is Stephen Lam. That’s because Stephen killed himself after his unhealthy obsession with Sarah was publicly exposed. Some of Sarah’s friends feel more guilt than others regarding events leading to Stephen’s death. Stephen’s supernatural spirit still has them all in his sights, as his haunting bleeds into phones, computers, and any available electronics that might aid him in exacting revenge.
Questions come with virtually every employment of the film’s first-person frame. Not just confusion of the “why are they still recording?” variety, although there is that too. But conspicuous choreography keeps “Capture” from ever being convincing as authentic “found footage.”
One scene sees Sarah’s friend momentarily placing the camera in her lap while the two ladies talk at a table. Dead center on the screen, Stephen’s ghost hand moves toward Sarah’s leg before the friend picks up the camera again. Is it just incredibly serendipitous that this moment was caught exactly on cue, or is the ghost intentionally showing off for the camera? Neither scenario is believable.
Feelings of forced staging extend to overly rehearsed acting. Stone stiff character interactions play like a line-reciting workshop where none of the dialogue sounds natural.
Behavior is also baffling. The twentysomethings’ insistence on partying in a bar, partying on a boat, and partying in another bar is obnoxious enough. Added ridiculousness comes from watching a perpetual plague of supernatural shenanigans befall the group, yet they still call timeout to put on short dresses and go clubbing as if they are on an ordinary Spring Break.
Most of the ancillary characters are unnecessary. Jealousy seeds are planted involving Sarah’s boyfriend as well as her old pal Michael, though neither ever sprouts a subplot. The deeper downside to having too many people and not enough development is Stephen never evolves into the intriguing threat he needs to be.
Think of how central Sadako’s origin was to the plot of “Ringu.” Her complex tragedy drove conflict and layered the story, creating a memorable horror icon in the process. In contrast, we don’t learn nearly enough about Stephen aside from his infatuation with Sarah and the embarrassment that put a noose around his neck. Stephen ends up a generic, chalk-faced specter with black hair whose backstory is interchangeable in its impact on current events.
Saving “Capture” from fully submerging under dull filler scenes is its fascinating tour of Chinese culture’s darker side. The film’s most compelling components involve its exploration of ancient customs, beliefs, and bits including seldom seen concepts of ghost grooms, ghost marriages, and black magic poisons created from venomous creatures. The travelogue may not be particularly terrifying, but it is consistently interesting for an uninitiated outsider swayed by exotic sights and sounds.
I’ve made it this far without touching on the film’s phone app component because frankly, the second screen events are so incidental as to be immaterial to anything happening onscreen.
Previously mentioned Dutch thriller “App” involved sentient software haunting users through cellphones. That film delivered a parallel experience with the characters through the phone, integrating new camera angles, information, or text messages that added creative material to the movie.
To be fair, my screening of “Capture” at the Overlook Film Festival was the first, and there is work to be done before it screens again. However, producers revealed that although the social media layer was planned from the start, nothing was created until the finished film was in the can.
This explains why the brief clips that appear on your phone aren’t new, but repurposed footage already existing in the film. There isn’t any benefit to looking at your hand to see a cropped, pixilated rehash of something previously witnessed on the bigger screen. It’s an afterthought experience doing more to distract than it does to enhance.
Take out the second screen novelty, which isn’t strong to begin with, and “Capture” is largely forgettable as “found footage.” I want to appreciate the attempt at innovation, but the end product won’t allow it. However, I’m still willing to split the review score down the center to acknowledge effort, and to afford benefit of the doubt that improvements are forthcoming.
The “Capture” crew has its imagination on the right track. They are merely riding in the wrong direction. Their next destination should be a return to the drawing board. There they can draft a fresher map of how a film and a phone can truly work in tandem before pulling out of the station again.
Review Score: 50