February 18, 2019 1st Summoning (Movie Review)
Directed by Raymond Wood (The Canadoo 2016, Cells 2017) and written by Chris Piner (The Bridge 2006, Lonely Love 2009), 1st Summoning started off as The Millbrook Summoning. Due out in select theaters and on VOD platforms- notably iTunes and Amazon Prime- on February 22nd, 2019, via Gravitas Ventures, it is a rather twee title, yet its new title makes it sound more like a film about exorcism. Not the best sign when it is coming 9 years after 2010’s The Last Exorcism, 6 years after The Last Exorcism Part II, and before the upcoming 2019 flick The Last Exorcist. That in mind, in truth, 1st Summoning takes more inspiration from 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Its release could be a date to remember, as it promises to be “the movie fans of this genre [found footage Horror] deserve.” But is this a dedicated goal or a loaded comment?
The movie follows four student filmmakers – Leslie (Hayley Lovitt: Ant-Man 2015), Mark (Teddy Cole: Constantine 2015), Ryan (Brook Todd: Boy Erased 2018), and Ace (Ace Harney: Big Sister 2013). They discover that occult practices used to be done at a nearby abandoned warehouse, so they decide to make a movie about it. However, things get increasingly creepy as they discover things beyond their imagination and comprehension, and there is a good chance that what they went to capture on camera might be lurking amongst them.
Found-footage Horror can be a divisive genre, as was its most famous entry. Some praised The Blair Witch Project for its atmosphere and unique approach to filmmaking, that and its viral marketing campaign which tried to pass it off as a real event. Others thought it was all bunk to begin with and tried to make people scared of nothing; just woods, props, and bickering. The genre has been built-up since, and arguably has stronger entries than The Blair Witch Project, though they have not had as much buzz as its progenitor.
1st Summoning certainly starts off well, in that it feels like a student film in progress. There are the usual behind-the-scenes shenanigans between the cast, and clandestine handheld camera-eye views, etc., but it is not just one guy running after three other people with a shaky cam. They also interview the locals, like the odd pastor Youngblood (Jason McDonald: The Vampire Diaries series, Bull series), which makes it feel more like a project in progress with a goal than just wandering through the woods or security footage.
Twenty years of technological advancements also mean the production is cleaner, crisper and more complex than its VHS forebears. The film shows its crew has multiple digital cameras, so it accounts for the editing and varying shots. It starts off building tension through what can be seen and uncovered, like conversations caught just slightly in view, or relating backstory through props. It works rather well too, helping build up the awkward paranoia between the characters as things ramp up.
Still, as fancy as the camerawork gets, it is not exactly unbelievable; the crew can afford a few cameras, and even a drone. Microphones are another story, and the audience is left straining to hear some of the secret conversations because they sound like they are caught through the camera – and otherwise it would not be secret. It is more authentic that way, unless the cast were being stalked by a phantom boom mike operator. However, it does mean those secret conversations are reduced to murmurs until they start shouting at each other. It can work in the film’s favor, making the audience wonder just what exactly is going on between the cast, yet it also makes them strain their ears trying to listen in.
How about those scares though? Well, clean cameras can make it hard to hide lurking terrors. The film does a good job building up tension through the stressing chemistry between the cast, particularly between Lovitt and Todd. Not to mention Cole’s odd behavior as the project leader. The film does come off as a slow burner though. It picks up once it gets to the warehouse itself, teasing its terror through visuals (or lack thereof) and sound. Then it strikes in sudden bursts, where it works nicely. But until then, viewers have to make do with esoteric symbols, creepy coincidences, and a few jump scares.
Ultimately, Wood probably succeeded in his goal. 1st Summoning is a rather good found-footage Horror film. It certainly does a better job at remaking The Blair Witch Project than its actual 2016 remake and might even stand above the original. The film succeeds in being a spooky, nerve-fraying piece of cinema through its tense build-ups and climaxes. Though it is not without its flaws, like its slow pace and cheap scares. As such, it may be unlikely to convince found-footage Horror skeptics, but the genre’s fans will be in for a treat if they stick it out. The two can add or subtract half a star to taste, but Cryptic Rock evens its score out to 3.5 out of 5 stars.