“Lovely Molly” represents a spooky but scattershot attempt by writer-director Eduardo Sanchez to meld the first-person handheld aesthetic of his 1999 horror landmark “The Blair Witch Project” with a more straightforward bump-in-the-night thriller. As much as Sanchez helped to pioneer the found-footage technique that has since spawned countless imitations, the gimmick feels ill motivated in his muddled tale of a young woman who foolishly moves back into the house where she spent her abusive childhood. Still, before it tips over into banshee-wailing, screwdriver-wielding unpleasantness, this experimental exercise generates some legitimate shivers that could entice fringe horror fans in niche release.
Newlyweds Molly (Gretchen Lodge) and Tim (Johnny Lewis) have opted to save money by moving into the old, creaky countryside manse that’s been in Molly’s family for generations and has been uninhabited since the death of her father. No one thinks to warn the happy couple that this may not be the wisest course of action — not even Molly’s sister, Hannah (Alexandra Holden), with whom she clearly shares unpleasant girlhood memories that are never explicitly laid bare.
Soon security alarms and unsettling noises are disturbing the couple’s slumber, and Molly is rattled by a loud pounding at her door, even though regular police visits fail to turn up evidence of an intruder. With truck driver Tim often on the road, Molly becomes increasingly disturbed and, a la “Paranormal Activity,” starts using a video camera to record her movements around the house, hoping to capture evidence of the menacing presence she feels so acutely. These nocturnal sequences are undeniably effective at first, expertly drawing out the viewer’s anxiety over what might lurk in the shadows, down the staircase or behind a closet door.
But it’s a device that can’t sustain itself. An early, flash-forward video capture of Molly, hysterically addressing the camera while clearly in the advanced stages of madness or demonic possession, seems to wink at Heather Donahue’s close-up monologue in “Blair Witch” — a comparison that serves only to underscore how shoehorned-in the technique feels in this more routinely scary context. It’s hard to shake the idea that Sanchez (working from a story by Jamie Nash) made his protag an amateur filmmaker partly to distract from the insufficiency of the material, as Molly’s derangement leads her down the predictable paths: acting up at work, shunning clothing and making inventive use of household tools.
With sharp features and a close-cropped hairstyle that lend her an unusually tough, spunky look for a horror heroine, Lodge gives an entirely committed performance, at times going screechily over-the-top but creepily completing Molly’s transformation into a dead-eyed, bare-bodied succubus. Holden and Lewis are effective enough as her concerned loved ones.
With its bare walls, sparse decor and overall atmosphere of chill and rot, the house delivers all the production value “Lovely Molly” needs. Tech package is rough by design, and despite the problematic juxtaposition of first-person and third-person perspectives, d.p. John W. Rutland and editor Andrew Vona achieve a reasonably coherent blend of footage. Soundscape is outstandingly detailed, though repeated wailings of “Mollyyyyyyyyy…” tether the film to the cheesy horror tradition it’s clearly trying to transcend.