Malibu Horror Story (PANIC) Creates Rich Found Footage Subversion
Title: Malibu Horror Story
First Non-Festival Release: TBD
Director: Scott Slone
Writer: Scott Slone
Runtime: 93 Minutes
Starring: Dylan Sprayberry, Robert Bailey Jr, Valentina de Angelis, Rebecca Forsythe
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
This film’s review was written after its screening at the Panic Film Festival in 2022.
Paranormal investigators Josh (Dylan Sprayberry), Matt (Robert Bailey Jr), Ashley (Valentina de Angelis), and Jessica (Rebecca Forsythe) set out to investigate the disappearance of four teenage boys from Malibu ten years ago. What began as tragedy turned to scandal when the video tape taken the night the boys vanished is found and reveals the indulgence and debauchery of the boys and their peers. Soon after, a quick and easy determination is made in their deaths: a natural accident caused in a cave. As the film crew wrap up their second day of shooting in the cave system, they discover something sinister that points them closer to the truth behind the final moments of the teens. The cost for such discovery may be their lives.
Malibu Horror Story proves that found footage isn’t dead with its confident direction and unforgiving tension.
A decidedly scary film, Malibu Horror Story begins in a fashion atypical for the subgenre. Framing the story with a paranormal investigation and the research associated with it, the film starts off with more action and additional context to the story that would not be possible for a normal found footage movie to contain. While some do weave grander aspects of storytelling into the narrative, it is difficult to do it in a way that isn’t shoehorned. Malibu Horror Story subverts this by utilizing its multiple mediums.
The transitions between the multiple avenues of horror storytelling are spliced perfectly amongst each other. The narrative bleeds into one cohesive unit while never feeling clunky or disorganized. Every part fits and writer/director Scott Slone executes the writing perfectly so every transition feels seamless. The film fits in some cool shots here and there but ultimately it still reads typical of the mediums it employs: mockumentary, found footage, and more traditional film. Excellence comes from how they bleed into and support one another.
The entire production is elevated to the nines. As the film progresses it gradually builds on its eerie atmosphere and switches up the type of horror it is serving. From the disquieting nature of the mockumentary portion to the stark terror of the found footage and the subsequent fuller picture given in the end, Malibu Horror Story emphasizes fear over everything to satisfying degrees. Moments, both big and small, contribute to the overall terror of the situation. Heat vision cameras, flying tents, the pale light emanating from neon green glowsticks, and unsettling gusts of wind are all tiny elements that add up to create a claustrophobic and frightening film.
Haunting effects work elevates the scares to another dimension, both in short flashes and horrifying longer takes. The entity in this film is downright terrifying and Malibu Horror Story takes great pains to make its visuals true nightmare quality.
Character development isn’t a huge concern here. Both the investigators and the teenagers are assembled with the stereotypical characters one would normally find in found footage or they are given little personality at all. This works to the film’s advantage, however, as none of them take the true spotlight in the film and they all stay rather endearing, since there isn’t a thirty-minute buildup where the film pads the runtime with poorly done mumblecore dialogue.
In terms of writing and execution, Malibu Horror Story does lean in a bit too heavily into tropes. This is especially true in its found footage section. The sound amps up multiple times before sudden reveals, the cameras go out of focus at the right time, and darkness is used as an excuse rather than an ally in creating tension. This can be said for many films of the subgenre, so it is forgivable to an extent.
Malibu Horror Story fails, however, in one significant way: its depiction of Indigenous people and associated folklore. Dated stereotypes and motivations make it difficult to wholly accept the film. While the intentions seem genuine, as the depiction of the settlers is appropriately critical, the story paints Indigenous people as mystical and malicious. The framing of how characters talk about Indigenous beliefs and people shows that it isn’t all the same. For instance, the investigators are more thoughtful than the glib teenagers. While it is impossible to completely remove Indigenous characters from this story due to the nature of the folklore, more care can and should have been implemented.
Unrelentingly scary and deceptively well-structured, Malibu Horror Story harkens a new age of possibilities for found footage horror films. Relentlessly dark and frightening this new entry into the subgenre poses some new ideas on how to progress with the medium while still employing solid scares and pitch perfect pacing. Its choices to rely on harmful and tired depictions of Indigenous people, however, does knock it down several notches. The craftmanship of the overall product is quality and those concerned with having a truly unnerving experience when watching will find themselves satisfied. Paranormal investigation shows and films may be a dime a dozen, but Malibu Horror Story shows that found footage can still be of a certain caliber.
Overall Score? 7.5/10