To a point, “VooDoo” manages to put a spin on the fatigued found-footage-horror subgenre, via conceptual simplicity and a heightened sense of foreboding — the idea that when the worst finally does happen, it’s gonna be very, very bad. Unfortunately, once Tom Costabile’s debut feature reaches that point, it all goes to Hades in the most literal sense, with a prolonged climax that’s rather too much like a tour through an evangelical’s Halloween “Hell House.” This indie scarefest opens on one Los Angeles screen Feb. 17, then in several other U.S. cities the following week. But it will undoubtedly achieve most of its (minor) impact via home formats.
A brief, effectively blunt prologue shows an apparently possessed man (who still manages to wield a camera) violently separating a mother from her child in a public park and taking the girl to an abandoned building nearby. There, the child’s grisly fate awaits at the hands of a woman (Constance Strickland) who requires the sacrifice of “innocent blood.” Her motivation is made clear by subsequent onscreen text that quotes William Congreve’s famous passage: “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turn’d/Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorn’d.”
Post-credits, the mood lightens considerably as Dani (Samantha Stewart) arrives in Los Angeles from New Orleans on short notice to spend a month vacationing with aspiring-musician cousin Stacy (Ruth Reynolds). Dani gawps at the wonders of movie-star-land, although the closest she gets to “fame” is an awkward bar encounter with porn icon-turned-horror-cameo king Ron Jeremy (playing himself). After taking in numerous tourist attractions and even more inebriate beverages, Dani confides the real reason for her trip: She fell in love with a man who turned out to be married, and whose wife is “some voodoo priestess” who scared the bejeebus out of her. So it was time to get the hell outta town.
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Alas, that hell has followed her cross-country — although we get only an occasional indication of that in the film’s first half, which comprises Dani’s first day in L.A. It’s on her second night in Tinseltown that the full fire-and-brimstone arrives, at first signaled by loud noises that Dani assumes to be Stacy’s band practicing at 3 a.m. The disturbance turns out to be something else entirely, however, and within a few minutes our heroine is dragged screaming into a netherworld of torments.
It would be tempting to label her predicament the Lowest-Budget Circle of Hell, but the problem isn’t so much the cheapness of the effects — though they’re certainly a liability — as the cheesiness of their conception. In this papier-mâché, torch-lit, red-tinted cavern-slash-torture dungeon, the various ghouls who terrorize Dani are purportedly played mostly by theme-park actors. Stewart keeps screaming gamely, but the corny horrors she endures are all too tangibly visited on her by a bunch of young performers in black robes and demon makeup, laughing maniacally as if they were players at a cautionary Fright Night performed by the Second Presbyterian Church of Des Moines. Even the more tastelessly outré bits (involving cannibalism and sexual assault) feel just silly in this context.
Though there have been occasionally interesting large-scale literalist depictions of Hell (the 1935 “Dante’s Inferno,” Japanese “Jikogu,” recent popcorn fantasy “Constantine’), for the most part horror cinema has fared better by hewing to more abstract, state-of-mind interpretations. Eschewing that approach entirely on slim means, “VooDoo” winds up in the campy terrain of such vintage celluloid efforts as the Brazilian “This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse” (albeit without Jose Mojica Marins’ flair for idiosyncratic surrealism), “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” and Ron Ormond’s churchy “The Burning Hell.” A brief coda back in the “real” world only exacerbates the lameness of a movie whose notion of ultimate terror basically comes down to people in Halloween costumes saying “Bwa ha ha! You’re DEAD! Ha ha!”
Nearly two decades after the original “Blair Witch,” it’s a mystery why any filmmaker feels the need to be “purist” about the found-footage format when it’s been done to death. While we can accept Dani’s need to film everything on her L.A. trip as a keepsake (and for her “daddy” back home), it makes no sense that the prologue, let alone the entire half-hour in Hell, should also be shot first-person—and by persons unknown. Reverting to a conventional presentation of these sequences would have heightened credibility as well as aesthetic variety in a package that’s otherwise technically competent within its chosen limitations.