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Friday, November 15, 2019

BAFF 2019: ANTRUM delivers on the mystique, but not the substance

It's no secret that marketing and expectations can have an effect on how we perceive a movie, and historically this has been used with great success for horror films. Think of how terrifying The Blair Witch Project was when it first released, when there were rumors that the film was in some way real. Or, on a simpler level, how each year there is a new movie marketed as "the scariest movie ever made" (The Ring, It Follows, Hereditary). Hell, Hereditary even put out ads showing the increased heart rates of its viewers in attempt to scientifically prove how scary it was. Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made, the opening feature of the 2019 Buried Alive Film Festival aims to capture that same sort of meta-fear; it's not that the movie itself is particularly scary, but the mythos created around it makes it a little more special.

Antrum is part mockumentary and part recreation; the legend goes that this film made in 1979 has somehow killed everyone that has seen it, from its original theatrical screening in Budapest that burned down the theater, to festival programmers mysteriously dying hours after watching the submitted film. The premise here is that an original copy of the film has been found and will be shown in its entirety, bookended by interviews that point out the unexplained oddities and evil power of the film. The film itself, which makes up probably 85% of the full movie, is about a girl who convinces her younger brother that they can dig a hole to Hell to save his dog's soul.

The mockumentary bits that bookend the film are pretty great; they really set up the mythos around Antrum and give it a lot more weight than it might have otherwise. While I could've done with a more personal approach–I expected there to be one central person who had been searching for the film, not unlike Digging Up the Marrow–but the use of multiple interviews and a very regal sounding British voice over set things up nicely. You'll really get a kick out of the warning that appears just before the film begins, offering you one last chance to leave the theater and forcing you to acknowledge that the producers hold no legal responsibility if you don't survive the screening. The parts that play over the end credits are especially effective, pointing out little hidden messages that you may have missed as the credits dedicate the film to the fictitious people who have died watching it.

The problem is that the film-within-the-film is far less effective. The story is pretty dull and has long stretches where seemingly nothing happens. What bothered me the most is that it felt much less authentically like a lost film from 1979 than I expected. Unlike films like The House of the Devil and WNUF Halloween Special which very expertly capture the feel of the '80s, Antrum mostly feels like it was just given some film grain and some glitches in the sound here and there, but the editing and the sound are distractingly modern. The music is effectively atmospheric and fits the satanic themes, but overall the only thing that feels truly authentic to the time period it's emulating is that it is kind of boring.

That said, even if the story of the film doesn't really work, its trappings are very interesting. There are sigils scratched into the film in various places, some more obvious than others. As set up by the introduction to the film, there are unexplained black and white bits edited in in a few places that look to be more modern which feature a man and a woman being tied up in some sort of dungeon, somewhat evoking the final moments of The Blair Witch Project. These things really help sell the idea of the film itself as some sort of cursed object and give it a bit more weight. I did also enjoy the use of shadowy demons very much in the style of Häxan, which mostly show up as very light overlays, barely visible.

The concept of Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made is a very solid one, an intriguing idea that is sure to draw in viewers. Much like those commercials implying that your heart might explode while watching Hereditary, the premise here is essentially daring its potential audience to watch it. However, the premise itself is the best thing about the film; I really wish there had been much more of the documentary aspect, maybe even only showing clips from the full film-within-the-film rather than the whole thing. It seems like the filmmakers had this great idea to create a mythos around a cursed film, but didn't actually have an idea for what that cursed film should be. Overall, it's an interesting idea with a flawed execution, but I would be interested to see what these guys do next.

Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made is directed by David Amito and Michael Laicini, and stars Rowan Smyth and Nicole Tompkins. It is making its way through the festival circuit, and is also available on VOD now. For more information, visit the official website.
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