Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still peppered with the usual contenders, look a bit closer at the schedule and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. In this installment, we take a trip through the clouds with Josh Trank’s superhero found footage flick Chronicle.
It’s been a rough few weeks for Josh Trank. His Fantastic Four reboot has taken a critical clobbering, pulling in just $26 million on its opening weekend off the back of a $120 million budget. The film isn’t complete trash, rather it’s a two-thirds good and one-third misfire. It was clearly a victim of intensive edits and re-shoots. The elements that work best are the Cronenbergian moments of disturbing body horror, during which the four try to make sense of their new, so-called powers.
Prior to Fantastic Four, Trank gave us another superhero movie with one foot firmly placed in the horror camp: Chronicle, an ambitious, clever and, yes, fantastical look at what might really happen if three, arrogant teenage boys acquired super-powers, the flick was a sleeper hit when it was released in 2012. It’s also one of the best uses of found footage in modern cinema, and the scariest, most realistic take on the typical superhero origin story.
Dane De Haan’s Andrew, a tortured, lonely young man with no friends, decides to narrate his own life, stating matter-of-factly that he’s filming everything (this later negates the usual “why is he still filming” issues). As a result we get a warts-and-all glimpse into his difficult home life (with an abusive father and a dying mother), the bullying he faces at school and, eventually, his emotional and physical breakdown as a result of his powers.
Whereas his two buddies (played by Fantastic Four‘s Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell) take to their new-found skills with aplomb, establishing rules for keeping themselves in check, Andrew soon finds he can’t control himself, nor does he feel he should. The result is a dark, thrilling look into the twisted mind of a tortured teen, disguised as a fantastical super-hero movie.
Trank literally leaps from scene to scene, from the boys playing football up in the clouds to one of them being struck by lightning in the middle of a thunderstorm. The action culminates in a well-staged fight for supremacy, during which the two surviving teens lay waste to downtown Seattle. It should be whimsical and exciting, like a Spidey movie (De Haan actually went on to star as the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2).
But, thanks to some wicked shaky-cam effects that lend a dazzling believability to the airborne stunts, it’s stomach-churning in its intensity. Chronicle pulls off an interesting misdirect because there’s always a sense that Andrew isn’t all there. There are several hints that he’s slightly unhinged, particularly when he pulls a spider limb from limb (he was originally supposed to kill his Dad in the same way, but this idea was nixed for a PG-13 certificate), but it’s after a graphic humiliation at a party that we know there’s no going back.
The flick works both as a fascinating look into what might really happen if three immature lads suddenly found themselves with super-powers, and as a study of how bullying and abuse leads certain kids to go off the rails. Jordan and Russell are great in their respective roles, but this is De Haan’s film and his hollow-eyed, constantly-tired looking state (later put to great use in zom-rom-com Life After Beth) is perfect for the alienated Andrew.
Certain themes in Chronicle were later, unsuccessfully, dabbled with in MTV time-travel production, and fellow found footage farce, Project Almanac. There, the nerdy anti-hero wasn’t believable for a second and the rules he and his boring mates rushed to break weren’t nearly as life-altering. Where Chronicle showcased the horror of finding yourself at the mercy of one of your friends, Project Almanac delighted in cheap shocks in an attempt to put the same point across.
The found footage element would usually render a premise such as this impenetrable, but Chronicle barrels around like a roller-coaster, the camera swooping and banging and crashing into everything. It plays off the audience’s perceived fear of heights, along with the sensation of losing control not just of your own body but of your surroundings, too.
Although the VFX are a tad ropey at times, there’s still something wonderfully horrifying about the way in which the central trio mess with cars, Lego bricks and other people–especially when Andrew first goes too far, sending a car flying off the road. His desire to be the so-called apex predator is borne out of fear, anger and loneliness. He’s impossible to empathise with and yet horribly humanised, too.