1st Summoning (2019)
Director: Raymond Wood
Screenwriter: Chris Piner
Starring: Hayley Lovitt, Jason MacDonald, Teddy Cole, Brook Todd, Ace Harney
Warning: This review spoils a bad movie so you don’t have to watch it.
Horror is a relatively easy genre to break into. Since the success of films like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield, making a horror film is as simple as having a script, a camera and willing friends. Some filmmakers don’t even need a budget. These films are attempts to impress realism upon the genre, and the best of these films innovate through story and subgenre.
1st Summoning is not one of those films.
Where other films find interesting mythology or contain interesting characters, 1st Summoning decides that neither is necessary in order to execute a creepy cult horror drama. The film follows student filmmakers Mark, Ace, Leslie and Ryan as they go to investigate an occult ritual said to take place in small town Arkansas. Mark has won awards for his first documentary and is looking to make it big with his second; he maxes out credit cards buying fancy new equipment for it. Leslie is is his girlfriend, she has also had a relationship with Ryan, and Ace is just a lovable camera guy that shines as the only positive in the film.
Here’s a quick rundown: They ask townsfolk about the ritual, they talk to a local pastor who is nothing but crazy and obviously in on the whole thing, they visit a cemetery, Ryan and Lisa have secret conversations about their relationship, Mark goes crazy for some reason, they enter the factory, get captured by cultists, and Mark somehow joins the cult and kills his three friends. It’s important to know all of this because the movie disintegrates when you begin to reverse engineer the plot. The film is presented as a documentary, including the ending. Obviously the goal diegetically was to capture a black sacrament because people love their paranormal documentaries. This creates issues around Mark’s motivation, the nature of the film, and how this cult works.
Tension between the characters comes from the weird love triangle between Mark, Leslie and Ryan. My first problem with that there is no reason to care even one bit about any of these characters. I don’t blame the actors because they didn’t have a whole lot to work with, but those three came across especially bland to me. Leslie and Ryan whisper about footage they found on a camera of them hooking up, and they talk about whether Mark knows and if he’s okay as he grows crazier. But does any of it matter? How do these scenes factor into Mark’s decision to kill them? Was Mark always going to kill them for the documentary, or did his plan change as insanity consumed him? Was he even actually crazy or possessed? Is all of this supposed to be an unanswered mystery because that is supposed to make it scarier? Well… it doesn’t, and it left me confused.
When the film begins, the title card tells viewers that this is a screener copy of 1st Summoning, implying this film is being seen by people associated with the film industry. Someone edited together the footage we are watching into a full documentary film that exists in the film’s reality exactly the way as it does in ours. Was Mark the person who did that, even though the film very obviously shows that it’s Mark doing the murdering at the end? Do the critics and festivals in the film’s reality think that the cult edited together and submitted the footage? Did Mark use a pseudonym and pass it off as found footage? Was all of this done for Mark to get his wish that his film will be successful, and because of this is he immune to imprisonment and/or criticism?
This is also affected by the film’s lack of interesting mythology. It seems like the filmmakers didn’t care to fully explore the inner workings of this world because that’s boring, difficult to accomplish without exposition dumping, and probably doesn’t matter to them. The film first begins to tell us about the cult when the gang goes to interview a local pastor. His performance is on-the-nose, and I can imagine his only notes were “be creepy”. It’s less unsettling and more annoying as a viewer. The pastor talks of a legend about a guy that murdered his kids to grant a wish in the early 20th century, but that has nothing to do with the factory which operated about 50-70 years later… yet the two are somehow interconnected. This pastor is supposed to be a link of some sort, having records of the killing and other weird happenings. The film never shows those, though. We don’t get to learn more about the town and its history, or even the cult.
Instead, we get a trip to a graveyard for some mild scares that culminate in the pastor chasing their RV off the church property that they had apparently been parked on all day. Ace finds a Satanic medallion, Mark goes nuts, and then the film enters the cult factory without doing any more investigation into this cult and how they work. Suddenly, Mark has a bunny skull on his head and appears to be a member, and the film gives no indication as to how that happened. Was he always part of the cult? Did he join recently? Is it because he said magic words or was possessed by Satan? Were the townspeople they interviewed earlier in on it? What’s the cult’s motivation? It’s perplexing, and not in the sort of way that makes you want to watch the film again.
The number one way to improve this film is to write better characters that cohesively and definitively tie into the plot. If the movie is about a love triangle, give us a love triangle. Make it visceral and explicit that these two characters care about one another, and that the other couple do too. There was no chemistry between either couple, and they seemed more like friends in middle school with crushes. Give the guys qualities that aren’t about their looks or hobbies. At one point, Leslie criticizes Mark for how he dresses, and Ryan is used for interviews instead even though he’s kind of bad at it. It unfortunately doesn’t make for an interesting contrast. What are we supposed to find intriguing about these people outside of their situation? A situation that we’ve all seen done better.
Found Footage is a subgenre that requires creativity and a semblance of originality more than anything, and this film fails on both accounts. Those are two of the most important qualities in 2019 film as well. It is truly remarkable how something so banal made it through pre-production. My tip is to see Creep or Searching instead, both of which have better characters, thrills and plots.