The overexposed found-footage gimmick is applied to the rather more durable vampire genre in “Afflicted,” a low-budget horror-thriller that’s resourceful enough to wring a few fresh chills from a slender premise and a less-than-novel formal conceit. Starring as two camera-wielding Canadian buddies whose trip around the world takes a most unwelcome supernatural turn, Clif Prowse and Derek Lee make a promising feature writing-directing debut with this fun and moderately freaky genre exercise, which proves weaker in the closing stretch than in its gradually unsettling buildup, but easily sustains attention until the end of its tight 85-minute running time. Likely to bite off its fair share of the homevid market following a limited theatrical run through CBS Films, this festival-lauded item augurs well for Prowse’s and Lee’s future projects.
Named after the filmmakers playing them, longtime best friends Clif (Prowse) and Derek (Lee) decide to travel the world for a year — a globe-trotting adventure that Clif, a documentary filmmaker, plans to render as interactive and dynamic as possible by filming much of it and uploading their footage to a blog. The exhilarating “let’s do this!” tenor of the opening scenes is tempered slightly by the revelation that Derek has a brain aneurysm that could rupture at any moment, casting a faintly grim pall over an otherwise carefree transcontinental romp. Derek’s family is understandably concerned about his traveling given his condition, but he’s determined not to let it keep him from his once-in-a-lifetime adventure, even (or especially) if it turns out to be a last hurrah.
It does and it doesn’t. After a few nights’ revelry in Barcelona and Paris, Prowse and Lee orchestrate a nicely chilling tonal shift in which a seemingly innocuous one-night stand with a French babe (Baya Rehaz) leaves Derek unconscious and bloodied. Although he comes to soon enough, he’s never quite himself after that: Moody and out of sorts, prone to taking long naps, and experiencing a decidedly violent change of appetite, he refuses to see a doctor despite the urgings of an increasingly concerned Clif. What follows suggests a cross between “An American Werewolf in London” and the ingenious 2012 found-footage thriller “Chronicle,” and there is no shortage of wicked, stinging moments as Clif and Derek’s attempts to resume their vacation plans go horrifically awry. But there also turn out to be unexpected advantages to Derek’s condition, as he develops superhuman strength, agility and speed, as well as a Spider-Man-like ability to clamber up the sides of buildings.
Indeed, much of the pleasure of “Afflicted” comes from the Spidey-like sight of Derek adjusting to, and gradually mastering, his newfound abilities. In one of the story’s shrewder strokes, this metamorphosis unfolds mainly against the gorgeous, sparsely populated villages of Liguria, on Italy’s northwestern coast — a suitably scenic and secluded backdrop that triggers, among other things, Derek’s sudden aversion to sunlight, while the cobblestoned streets and shuttered windows allow for a few cleverly executed parkour-style stunts. The digital effects are well woven into the film’s deliberately cheap-looking, handheld-video aesthetic (well served by Norm Li’s lensing and Gregory Ng’s editing), and if anything, the economical nature of the enterprise has the effect of rendering its minor stunts all the more impressive: An unbroken handheld take from the p.o.v. of Derek, jumping out a window into the street below, induces a genuine how’d-they-do-that curiosity.
Fortunately, the filmmakers have applied themselves to developing the scenario emotionally as well as physically. Prowse affectingly conveys not only Clif’s increasing fear and concern, but also a true friend’s willingness to help satiate Derek’s growing bloodlust, while Lee, in addition to giving himself over to all manner of violent bodily convulsions (with a key assist from makeup designer Tamar Ouziel), provides a crucial sense of a decent guy trying to resist his worst impulses. But he’s less convincing when required to give an occasional direct-address monologue explaining why the cameras are still rolling, and it’s here that “Afflicted,” like so many films that shackle themselves to mock-doc conceits, begins to falter. Once Derek comes fully into his powers, capable of being temporarily wounded but more or less invincible, the tension and uncertainty of the film’s first half give way to a string of gory setpieces that bring the tale to a neat if not entirely surprising resolution.