review by Patrick Ripoll
There's the dream and there's the reality.
The dream of found footage is a cinema that challenges traditional ideas of suspension of disbelief. What we are watching isn't "happening", it happened. The events are history, the film historical record. The dream of found footage is a structure that justifies depicting the mundanities of life and contrasting them with the most intense experiences humans can go through. In the beginning of The Blair Witch Project we see film student Heather put on her TV host voice as she tries to approximate good media training and tell you the history of the local folklore. At the end of The Blair Witch Project, the folklore has become real and there is no layer of falsehood between her terror and the camera. She is first established as a very real and vulnerable person and that allows the relatively restrained horror of the film's climax to feel apocalyptic.
This dream is heightened when it's period found footage, because historical record becomes Historical Record, and the cinema tech fetish inherent in the form takes the foreground. But there is the dream of found footage and there is the reality. The reality is found footage is cheap. It's quick and easy. It is not the realm of artists seeking to challenge traditional ideas of suspension of disbelief. It is the realm of film producers seeking to challenge traditional ideas of fundraising. It is the realm of filmmakers who seek the shortcuts of simple jump scares. The Devil's Doorway follows two priests in 1960 Ireland who go to a Magdalene Laundry to verify a reported miracle. It's a premise that could combine righteous anger towards the Catholic Church's destructive power with the surreal emotional pain and systemic brutality of something like Titicut Follies. Instead, a person runs around with a camera and bumps into spooky faces.
Early on there is the promise that at least the early 60's film tech will be lovingly recreated. The fake 16mm film grain is convincing, scenes where only the reel to reel tape recorder was present play out as audio only, transitions are made via film flash common on the ends of reels of film. But that's where the loving details end and even those don't stick around for long. Soon enough there's multi-camera coverage, a blaring horror movie soundtrack (who in the Catholic Church recorded it?) and the mono soundtrack gets surround sound demon growls because apparently, the unholy words of Satan are in 5.1. The characters are thin, the performances are weak, the story is severely underwritten. Spooky ghost children look at the camera and say "You're going to die" or something like that. You've seen this kind of movie before, you get it.
There is the dream of found footage and there is the reality.