By Billy Huntsman
I remember when I saw The Blair Witch Project the first time. It scared the hell out of me.
I remember when I saw Paranormal Activity the first time. Once again, it scared the hell out of me.
Several years later I watched both films again, and couldn’t bear to get through them.
Though terrifying upon first viewing, the “shaky camera” and “found footage” subgenre of horror does not at all lend itself to repeating viewings. In fact, watching such films a second, third, fourth ad infinitum times makes them evermore sillier.
I have only watched Mr. Jones, currently available on Netflix streaming, once. I don’t know that I’ll ever watch it any additional times. But I know that it was a powerfully affecting horror film.
Let’s do a quick plot synopsis: married couple Scott, an apparent aspiring filmmaker, and Penny, an employed photographer, uproot themselves from society and move into the boondocks, in order for Scott to make a nature documentary.
The venture soon reveals itself not to be as stimulating as Scott had once thought, and he goes into the filmmaker’s equivalent of writer’s block, spending hours rhapsodizing into the camera about the foolishness of his recent actions, as well as philosophizing about the ephemerality of art.
At the same time, his relationship with Penny starts crumbling—again, as it turns out this endeavor was also meant to mend their marriage.
Relationship woes and creative impotence are soon in the back of their minds, though, when the couple discover a run-down cabin not faraway from their own. The inside looks like the abode of some hoarder, and further investigation yields a basement, full of grotesque candlelit twig-and-bone-and-rope-and-cloth effigies
Penny, the art enthusiast, soon recognizes the works as the modus operandi of Mr. Jones, the art world’s Thomas Pynchon. Penny tells Scott of how Jones came onto the art scene abruptly, disseminating his works to several people throughout the country for seemingly no reason. The ghoulishness of his aesthetic quickly seized dilettantes and aficionados around their throats, so that Jones’ works could sell for upwards of $1 million—if only he would make more.
But he doesn’t. He’s a recluse, nothing of him is known to anyone.
Upon this character’s discovery, Scott’s passion is reawakened. He decides to make the documentary about Jones and then flies to New York City to interview the owners of the art galleries displaying Jones’ works, as well as Jones-fanatics.
One interview in particular is of a man who received an original Jones—and soon thereafter destroyed it. Why?
“They get inside your mind and they explode.”
Meanwhile, Penny remains at the cabin, taking photographs of the Jones cabin and of the effigies—called scarecrows—there around. Scott wants to make a documentary about Jones, while Penny wants to create a coffee table book. One night as she’s taking photos, she comes more or less face-to-face with Jones, a black-robed shadowy figure with just the vaguest hint of a dirt-brown skeletal face within his hood.
But he doesn’t attack Penny, and afterward Penny describes her feelings upon meeting Jones: she never felt afraid.
Though Jones’ figure is ominous, is he really what Scott and Penny should fear in the woods?
The film’s Blair Witch influence is almost immediately evident, and for about half the film a viewer might think Jones is merely imitating Blair Witch. But Jones’ third act, replete with the ambiance of David Lynch’s more disjointedly nightmarish films—Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive—dispels this idea.
Jones is most certainly an ambitious, original film, even if its “found footage” motif is dreadfully trite in this day and age.
But its use of this filming method, like Blair Witch, is more organic within the confines of the film’s narrative—Scott is a filmmaker making a documentary. The “found footage” genre is even briefly uplifted into the more refined realm of true documentary by Scott’s interview with the New York people.
These interviews are well lit, angled, and shot on a tripod or monopod. Though Blair Witch tries to portray itself as a documentary film, it does not go to such lengths, does not worry about such details, as watchability, which the “shaky camera” technique takes for granted.
Though there are some portions of Jones that are difficult to watch because of the flatness of the filming, the shaking of the camera, and the lack of lighting, there are other stretches that are perfectly watchable because of their professional quality.
This is a disparity on which I’ve gone back and forth in terms of whether to criticize or praise.
Because while most of the film is either Scott or Penny filming, there are some parts of the film in which neither is filming and in fact their camera is not being used, leading me and perhaps other viewers to the presumption that the film’s actual camera operators are doing the filming.
Is it acceptable for the film to begin with essentially breaking down the fourth wall, only to intermittently reestablish it throughout the movie?
I lean more and more to the side of “yes.” I generally despise the “found footage” and “shaky camera” subgenres, and what Jones does is to make both more tolerable while still maintaining the undeniable anxiety both instill within a viewer.
Another aspect of the film I find might warrant criticism, of both Jones and other FF/SC films, is the idea of who edited the film together?
Take the Paranormal Activity movies, for instance. The narrative asserts that the hauntings were recorded by cameras installed for the express purpose of proving the existence of malevolent spirits within the houses.
Fine, but if the cameras were recording all night and perhaps all day for months at a time, that amounts to hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of footage. Who put an hour and a half film together from it all?
An average person likely has neither the knowledge nor the patience to do such work.
Then perhaps the FBI? I desperately hope the filmmakers do not think their audiences so stupid as to accept the idea that the FBI, in addition to hunting down murders, terrorists, rapists, and cyber criminals, has a Found Footage Division, the sole purpose of which is sifting through thousands, millions of hours of gas station, mall, and traffic camera footage, in order to create an hour and a half commercial film to be released to movie theaters worldwide to perhaps, maybe, catch the perpetrators of unsolved crimes.
This question has frustrated me with every other FF/SC film I’ve seen—The Devil Inside, The Last Exorcism, The Sacrament, Devil’s Pass, Chernobyl Diaries, and dozens of others—but with Jones I’m more at ease with this question, as Penny, the wife of a filmmaker and a photographer herself, seems a likely editor.
Perhaps I’m too nit-picky. And anyway all that matters is what Mr. Jones amounts to, which is a good horror film, one that will long resonate with viewers.