Stitching two subgenres together delivers mixed results in this inventive but jumbled thriller.
Synopsis: Three college students filming a horror movie find themselves trapped in their own worst nightmare. Their only hope for survival is two detectives who find the camera they left behind.
While the boom of found footage horror is almost certainly over now (despite the subgenre still reliably turning out modern gems that seek to exploit our familiarity with the form) Stoker Hills still goes some way to prove that there is unbroken ground to be found. Despite this not perhaps being the most successful example, the marriage of found-footage and grisly detective-noir certainly feels like a new idea.
After an initial blast of shaky-cam, we take up with our characters in their film class. Under the tutelage of film professor (played by the inimitable Tony Todd, capable of providing more screen presence in a matter of minutes than many can muster across a film), the group are to make their own film. Deciding on Streetwalkers, pitched as Pretty Women meets The Walking Dead, Ryan (David Gridley) and Jake (Vince Hill-Bedford) enlist the help of classmate Erica (Steffani Brass) in bringing their project to life. As the team start filming, Erica attracts attention from a man in a car and is soon snatched from the streets. What unfolds is their search for Erica while the police search for them, thanks to the camera left behind.
Setting up the dual formats does get the film out of a little trouble at times, especially regarding a few unnatural performances at the outset of the found-footage section. That need for the film to feel like characters are speaking to one another naturally suffers, but perhaps not as much given the film’s switch to a detective noir story. However, this section does present some failings. Despite a glossy, green-tinged grading that clearly separates it from the handheld camera sections, there are costuming and dialogue decisions that seem to place it within a hardboiled, troubled detective story that adds very little to the overall narrative. This increasingly has the two elements clash, rather than blend together, with the modernity of one section at odds with detectives that feel almost from another era.
The transitions between the two sections are good, with a knowledge of when to cut between them for maximum effect. While the story ultimately rings a little hollow, the whole tone and structure put me in mind of early 2000s horrors that you could pick up, with almost no knowledge of what you were about to watch and be taken on a diverting journey, even if it does not linger in the memory for too long. The attempt to do something different with the two competing designs is to be commended and certainly relieves it of some of the storytelling constraints that would be in place if sticking to one. It does, however, feel like the story runs out of steam, resulting in a conclusion that feels both rushed and almost too clean.
The three main performances work well within the found-footage set ups, allowing a more natural exchange of dialogue. That these are young people in an impossibly scary situation with mounting guilt weighing on them does really translate. It is a shame then, that some of the detective dialogue leans on stereotypes from the genre. At times, it feels like the film is suffering from an identity crisis that it can’t quite overcome – wanting to mix a more moden format with accompanying characters while also foregrounding a more classic narrative and performance style.
Ultimately, Stoker Hills has a different concept that should set it apart from others. There is not quite enough other unique material within it that supports this, but if you are looking for something trying something new and not outstaying its welcome, you may well find something worthwhile within Stoker Hills.
2.5 out of 5 stars
Stoker Hills is available on digital on March 28th from 101 Films.