It’s seldom that a found-footage horror movie pulls some new tricks in that overtaxed subgenre, and “Followed” runs no risk of being any such exception to the tedious rule. Sewing together ideas borrowed from other, better movies — notably “Grave Encounters” and “The Shining” — without exactly making a new whole, let alone lending them any novel flair or intensity, this vloggers-in-a-haunted-hotel opus isn’t really any better than 1967’s Ferlin Husky vehicle “Hillbillies in a Haunted House.” And that movie probably looked better at drive-ins, given its use of camera tripods and such.
As yet unreleased in home formats, Antoine Le’s feature is already playing on 40-odd U.S. drive-in and hardtop screens, adding another couple dozen this Friday. Watching low-budget horror cheese al fresco was surely better when the movies didn’t look as if they were shot to be watched on your laptop.
Making an immediately annoying impression that never grows less irksome, Matthew Solomon is Mike aka DropTheMike, whose eponymous YouTube-type series offers “sick and twisted videos” in which he plays snarky tour guide to notorious Los Angeles suicide and murder sites. Incredibly, he has an offline fiancée (Kelsey Griswold). Further defying belief, this show seems to be his sole “job,” and he even has paid support staff in best-friend DP Christopher (Tim Dier) and editor Nic (Caitlin Grace).
Nonetheless, his viewer numbers are low, with a lucrative sponsorship deal possible if he can edge past 50,000 online followers. Ergo he plans a deluxe Halloween edition in which his crew and extra cameraperson Danni (Sam Valentine) spend a weekend at downtown’s somewhat decrepit Hotel Lennox. It has a longstanding reputation among aficionados of the ghoulish, having since 1927 been home to at least 73 “unexplained suicides,” four serial killers and mysterious disappearances including the recent one of a South Korean tourist. Filling us in on some of this backstory as a prelude is local historian Wallace Fleischer (John Savage, second-billed for a glorified cameo).
A skittish believer in “ghosts and evil spirits,” Christopher doesn’t want to go on this field trip, but is persuaded by the presence of crush object Danni. Mike, on the other hand, thinks all things supernatural are pure bunk — making his whole enterprise gratingly cynical as well as grating in most other ways. (Yes, his character is meant to be irritating, but one soon wishes Solomon weren’t quite so successful at that.) Even after inexplicable things start happening, Mike rationalizes them as probable on-site trolling by the vlog’s fans. Of course, he’ll come to regret his cavalier skepticism.
After nearly 40 minutes, there’s a nicely creepy sequence involving the reenactment of an “elevator ritual” that factored in the Korean woman’s vanishing. And eventually there’s an unsettling descent into a sinister boiler room in the hotel’s bowels. But mostly there’s an escalating glut of running, screaming, arguing and camera-jiggling. As in so many found-footage horrors, the spasti-cam makes the horror you’ve waited for difficult to catch more than a fleeting glimpse of, once it finally arrives.
Purportedly inspired by the real-life Cecil Hotel’s violent history (though it was not used as a location), there are too many past hotel traumas and potential ghoulies raised here, none developed into a primary or particularly effective menace. By default, “Followed” becomes a pileup of attempted jump scares that seldom work because we rarely get a good look at them. Framing the whole business as being assembled by a sinister, anonymous web surfer only distances us further from any immediacy of menace. Writer Todd Klick has published books and led symposiums about screenwriting, but it’s hard to imagine anyone citing this particular script as a model of craftsmanship.
Despite the fictive Lennox’s fearsome rep, there’s nothing visually atmospheric about this hotel setting, with its generic rooms and hallways. Nor do some glitchy visual effects add much more than sensory clutter. One plus is Jason Soudah’s original score, which at least provides some of the queasy suspense generally lacking in the action itself.
Indeed, what’s onscreen is sometimes more inadvertently humorous than it is scary. The actors are not well-directed enough to smooth over their more implausible moments, let alone sell dialogue like “Did you not see that guy outside with a hacksaw?!” or (after Mike learns of a grisly past infanticide) “Stuff like that shouldn’t happen to kids!”
At nearly 100 minutes — way too many for material this flimsy — “Followed” even has time for a couple clumsily maudlin bits, not excluding brief yet awesomely trite address of “the homeless issue” in downtown L.A. A movie like this doesn’t need to have a social conscience. It ought to have worried first about having a brain, period.