I for one have not given up on the found-footage horror subgenre, and sxtape, whilst being far from a perfect film, is a plain-as-day example of how a supposedly stale genre can still turn up surprises. For all its flaws, it is a dirty, nasty little horror film that draws some very unsettling images from its POV conceit, and its climax admirably blasts through the subgenre’s limitations to conjure up some truly surreal images.
The film’s uncanny ability to get under your skin, even if there are few outright scares, is sxtape’s best feature. The abandoned women’s hospital in which the action takes place is a remarkable setting and the sound design, full of creaks and bangs and ghostly singing even during the film’s downtime, keeps tension burning until it successfully reaches fever pitch. Aside from V/H/S, there have been few attempts in found-footage to use the limitations of the medium to deliver shocks, but here digital distortion and gaps in time go a huge was to disorientate the viewer and create a hyperreal, near hallucinatory feel to the film’s climax.
Unfortunately, despite everything it does right, much of sxtape feels inauthentic. I for one will be the first person to forgive weak characterisation and acting in the face of visceral thrills and strong ideas, but whilst the thrills certainly do kick in eventually, the first half of the film is somewhat of a slog, and the ideas never come through clear enough to give the film the gravity it needs. The premise – a horny young couple scout out an abandoned women’s hospital as a potential site show their “provocative” art, have sex in it, and consequently unleash an evil force conjured from the rape and torture of pregnant inpatients – seems to be trying to say something about how men treat women and women’s bodies, but much of the film’s subtext is obscured by its paper-thin characters. In particular, Caitlyn Folley as Jill never quite pulls off the difficult role she has to perform, her descent into madness and possession never ringing out clear enough for us to descend with her.
I’m sure a lot of this lack of clarity is deliberate. It often feels like what we see only scratches the surface, that something deeper and more meaningful will emerge once you dig deeper into the film’s images and symbols. But at worst, the film seems to have a real disdain for its characters, in particular Jill, who presumably gets put through hell almost entirely for her healthy sex drive. Her boyfriend Adam is even less of a character, as the film makes a point of him being nothing more than a walking camera, conspicuously never appearing on-screen till the film’s final moments. (One of the most intriguing ideas the film puts forward, at least in the context of found footage films, is the way it casts the camera itself as an enemy, but this idea never fully comes to fruition.) There’s nothing wrong with these characters being ciphers – more than any other genre, horror is adept at using people as clothespins for ideas – but it’s never clear what these people are ciphers for.
This is a shame coming from the director of Candyman, a film that managed to terrify whilst being razor-sharp in its social commentary. sxtape has none of the conscience of that previous film, and its images never quite equal its forbear’s breathtaking chills. What it does have is in spades guts – one cannot dismiss a film that commits so wholly in its descent into hell, and the strangeness of its closing act cannot be dismissed out of hand. For all its flaws, it’s a singular work from a director that’s still not afraid to shock, while it often feels like there’s something missing from it, a film that leaves you feeling this dirty has to be considered something of a success.