Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Scott Di Lalla
Writer: Scott Di Lalla
Producer: Zack Coffman
Stars: Kelly McLaren, Courtney Foxworthy, Demetrius Sager, Caleb Courtney, Caleb Debattista, Darren Evans
Five friends unwittingly make contact with an evil entity named Zozo after using a Ouija board on Halloween night.
NOTE: "I Am ZoZo" has been retitled "Are You There?" for PAL territories.
“I Am ZoZo” purports to be based on a “true story” revolving around something dubbed “The Zozo Phenomenon” in at least one paranormal circle. The claim is that “Zozo” is a malevolent entity contacted by thousands of people over the years through the use of Ouija and spirit boards. Communication with the evil spirit is generally presumed to be a precursor to danger, if not a gruesome fatality.
Do a Google search for “Zozo” and the name “Darren Evans” comes up repeatedly. Darren is a collector of Zozo-related stories and is the go-to source for information on Zozo encounters. Reportedly a survivor of nightmarish events involving his own disastrous experiences with the Ouija summoned entity, Darren also appears in “I Am Zozo” playing himself as an expert on the subject.
For whatever it may be worth, my own admittedly brief Internet investigation into Zozo failed to find anything mentioning the word Zozo that did not also include a reference to Darren Evans. None of the pages came from a date prior to 2009 either, so draw your own conclusions on how widespread or well known this phenomenon may truly be. Noted demonologist John Zaffis does mention the entity in a recorded radio interview, however. If not for this corroboration, a suspicious mind could wonder if Darren’s Zozo blog was nothing but clandestine movie marketing.
“True story” claims aside, “I Am ZoZo” is the tale of five friends who use the Ouija board for entertainment on Halloween night in a remote island cabin lit only by dim flames because the power is out. Factor in that one character is a magician and another is a Wiccan and they are just one Indian burial ground shy of having every element needed for an unmitigated supernatural disaster. As the title would indicate, the group makes contact with Zozo and bad things start to happen. Actually, only one bad thing happens. And that is what hammers the final nail into the movie’s coffin. “I Am ZoZo” is a too tame horror story that develops an occasionally eerie atmosphere, but it never delivers a solid jab, much less a knockout punch.
Writer/director Scott Di Lalla has a background as a nonfiction filmmaker, so it is no surprise that the movie’s strengths come from its authentic documentary feel. Shot entirely on Super 8mm film, the handheld camera adds to the home movie quality in a manner that makes the viewer a passive observer of naturally unfolding events. Actors play out scenes in long takes with the sense that the camera just happened to “drop in” and go unnoticed as real people set about their evening. The script requires the island cabin to be without power, allowing flickering jack-o-lanterns and oil lamps to round out the mood.
For a setup as generic as five young friends partying the weekend away in a secluded location, the group here is far less obnoxious than what is typically on hand in low-budget horror. Aside from a tiff between the only coupled up pair in the bunch, everyone is surprisingly civil, friendly, and gives the impression of being a believable circle. The newcomer to the group is welcomed with open arms, the host graciously prepares a homemade dinner for everyone, and the montages of drunken revelry set to rock music are reduced to a bare minimum.
There are interesting takes on how the Ouija scenes are handled, too. The depiction of the group around the board is untraditional from how such encounters are usually staged. The first two “players” wear blindfolds while another person transcribes the board’s responses. Some questions are outright ignored by the spirits. Some answers are completely ambiguous. False starts and misspellings add to a credible spirit session that avoids making the séance too neat, quick, or fake.
When it comes to tension and fearful moments, the amount of suspense an audience finds in “I Am ZoZo” directly correlates to how much stock they put in spirits and Ouija boards to begin with. No matter how creepy the portrayal is, the unavoidable fact is that a scene with a Ouija board is rarely more than a scene of five people sitting around a table. Use of the board should be the gateway device for delivering substantial scares, and “I Am ZoZo” drops this ball.
The movie steps backwards by taking a break after the first Zozo encounter for a day of fishing, frolicking, and friendly chatting with the five friends. This is the type of expository scene that should be part of the buildup, not the denouement. “I Am ZoZo” has its foot on the brake when it should be on the accelerator.
This mistake is repeated too often. Instead of capitalizing on established atmosphere, the film meanders with unimportant montages set to operatic arias and cello solos. Another scene of dinner preparation accompanied by an acoustic singer-songwriter soundtrack is similarly misplaced and unnecessary.
“I Am ZoZo” starts on a solid track, but the material does not possess the depth to be a noteworthy horror film. A promising premise is undone by a limp latter half that coasts downhill to an underwhelming finale. There are compelling aspects about “ZoZo” when considering it as a small indie production. Yet the bottom line is that it needed a more liberal use of scissors in the editing room, and too many freshman filmmaking choices limit the movie’s potential for effectiveness before it even leaves the starting gate.
Review Score: 45