Directed by Paul McGhie
With the massive worldwide success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, the horror industry began to take major note of the found footage sub-genre, both as a viable medium through which major profits could be made and as a vehicle for telling horror stories in a genuinely novel way. As we sit here 17 years later, the latter of those functions holds less true for many horror fans who have over and again voiced opinions that the sub-genre has grown lazy and hackneyed, due in large part to the overabundance of less-than-quality films it has produced in almost two decades.
That’s not to say that genuinely effective or just outright fun found footage films are no longer being made; for every few Paranormal Entity-level entries, there is a refreshing alternative in the form of The Bay or Banshee Chapter.
So, where does this put Webcast, the feature-length found footage debut from London-based director Paul McGhie? Luckily, on the right side of that spectrum.
Set in UK suburbia, Webcast follows students Chloe (Redford) and her best friend, Ed (Tremain), as they are making a documentary about Chloe’s family–or, more specifically, the unsolved mystery of her Aunt Amelia’s disappearance many years before in the same neighborhood. When they are witness to a frantic and frightened girl appearing to escape from Chloe’s next-door neighbor’s house, only to be quickly dragged back inside again, things take a chilling turn. Even though Chloe and Ed are told that the girl is actually a recovering drug addict, the two filmmakers are convinced that there is something more to the story. As Chloe and Ed begin to surveil their neighbors, digging deeper for the truth behind Amelia’s disappearance and the girl next door, they ultimately find themselves uncovering a darker secret than they could have ever imagined–all of which culminates on a live webcast that will change everything for the both of them.
I came across Webcast by chance in a sea of Twitter posts from horror filmmakers working tirelessly to get their films seen. As an avid found footage horror fan who has sat through the worst of the worst and the best of the best alike, I am always excited to check out a new entry in the sub-genre, particularly when the story itself strikes me as believable–a quality that tends to really elevate films like this. I was particularly drawn to Webcast‘s premise due to its chilling parallels to a very recent conspiracy theory of sorts about a YouTuber named Marina Joyce; after coming across very strangely in a few videos, concerned viewers began to suspect that Joyce was actually being held against her will and attempting to signal for help. One avid viewer even went so far as to purportedly hunt down Joyce’s address and host a live webcast via Periscope in which they were attempting to find out the truth about her current state.
While the chilling theories about Joyce were ultimately debunked (you can read all about how that convoluted, but fascinating story played out here), the truth remains that there are indeed people out there who are willing to use amateur sleuthing skills to solve mysteries and potentially put themselves in danger, while simultaneously broadcasting their endeavors in realtime for the world to see. Like 2010’s Catfish, McGhie’s film (written before the Joyce story played out, mind you) channels this general idea to feature length, albeit in a much more traditional sense for the horror genre. The independently funded Webcast proves to be an engaging and often spooky effort, though at times suffering from pacing issues and the inherent drawbacks of its filming style.
Though Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project are going to be obvious comparisons for many, McGhie’s film more specifically reminded me of something along the lines of Lake Mungo in its rather subdued approach that focuses on first building relationships before slowly increasing the tension. From the get-go, McGhie succeeds in conveying the dynamics of Chloe and Ed’s friendship, which feels very authentic thanks to convincing chemistry between charismatic stars Redford and Tremain, who seem right at home with each other here. Even in the film’s more unevenly paced sections, the developments in Chloe and Ed’s will-they-or-won’t-they relationship remained as intriguing for me as the mystery itself. I found myself rooting for these characters far more than I tend to in these types of films because I ultimately believed them to be likable people who also genuinely liked each other.
That’s not to say that the underlying mystery is not engaging all on its own; McGhie channels a markedly paced sense of mystery as we are introduced to Amelia’s story via Chloe’s interviews with her old friends, neighbors, and family members, learning more about her and the theories surrounding the truth of her disappearance. The slow build accompanying the examination of the unsolved case is significantly ramped up once Chloe and Ed encounter the frantic girl next door and the tale shifts to bring them deeper into their own mystery.
Though McGhie succeeds in setting up effective groundwork for Chloe and Ed’s amateur sleuthing and suspicion of the neighbors, the story does stall some once they begin surveillance. While competently executed, McGhie’s approach to the familiar Rear Window-style device does not necessarily bring much new to the table; it is complete with familiar moments of characters snooping around in places they don’t belong, fruitless reports to the authorities, and expected close calls. Though these elements of the film may not put off casual viewers, the found footage medium itself may prove more problematic in that regard. In a few of the more fast-paced sequences, viewers are subjected to a number of dizzying camera movements and auto-focusing shots that at times seem to sacrifice clarity, though admittedly that is what most come to expect when viewing a film of this nature.
Despite these trouble areas in the middle of the story, there is a peculiar energy to Webcast‘s frenetic finale that serves in bringing the film home in a way that is truly disquieting. The manner in which the last couple of scenes unfold narratively lends a rather zany air to the movie that I was not at all expecting; as the final moments leave viewers with some very striking questions, the film is ultimately just the right kind of off-putting as well. The story does not feel incomplete by the time the credits roll, however, but rather open to a number of fascinating interpretations, which I can always appreciate.
Though Webcast treads well-worn territory at times, it ultimately engages by morphing into an effectively spooky nod to classic films like The Wicker Man through the found footage lens. Despite some technical and pacing issues, the film is ultimately upheld by its lead characters’ genuine on-screen chemistry and a chilling and spirited take on a familiar angle. It does not reinvent the wheel, but Webcast is a very solid effort that proves there is still a wealth of untapped, independent filmmaking talent that deserves support in the genre, as well as lending credence to the idea that there are also still engaging horror stories to be told through the found footage medium.