Since its unofficial birth in 1999 with “The Blair Witch Project,” the Found Footage genre has had an up and down existence that’s probably featured more downs than ups. Much like George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), a paradigm of such awesome creative and commercial potential was created that everybody and their sister jumped on the bandwagon. And much like zombie flicks, every subsequent success had to struggle to rise above a flood of mediocrity and outright crap. It’s gotten to the point where even an absolute masterpiece like “Found Footage 3D” (2016) can’t make its way into theatres because that sucktastic threequel “Blair Witch” (2016) got there first and stunk out the joint.
Well, the folks at an outfit called POV Horror are trying their luck by releasing a Found Footage movie on various streaming services this December 15…because it’s not like there’s some other film everyone is going to be watching, I guess. “Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare” was apparently made in 2013 but what POV Horror describes as “technical issues” prevented it from being released. The company says it worked closely with co-writer/director/executive producer/star/gaffer/best boy/Lindbergh baby Rafael Cherkaski for over a year to get this motion picture into a presentable state.
Should we be glad they made the effort? The short answer is…yes. If you like quality Found Footage films that exploit the genre’s potential for real emotional impact, then “Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare” is the sort of thing you will like.
Now for the long answer.
Things open with Eastern European native Sorgoi Prakov (Rafael Cherkaski), brimming with enthusiasm and bearing an unfortunate mustache, looking into the camera and telling us that he’s been given a great opportunity to travel the continent and document his adventures with the help of two cameras, one strapped to his head and another on a steadicam harness he can wear. Sorgoi beams like a proud papa as he explains his itinerary and the dreams he plans to turn into reality.
But reality has a way of altering plans, particularly ones like Sorgoi’s that are not terribly well laid. A project that starts out with days where Sorgoi is an object of tourist fascination and nights where he discovers some girls will do anything for the camera begins to falter before a week is gone. Sorgoi tells his audience that he’s unable to contact his producers, which means he’s unable to get any more money, which means he can’t afford his hotel or to get his camera repaired or to eat. Sorgoi tries downsizing to a cheaper hotel. He tries to rely on the kindness of strangers. He tries his own ingenuity.
None of it works and we watch him slide down the bannister of mental health from normal if a bit awkward to quirky to troubled to disturbed to RUN AWAY FROM THIS MAN AS FAST AS YOU CAN! Encompassing desperation, degradation, deviancy, and death, Sorgoi documents the destruction of a human mind and the collateral damage that accompanies it.
I enjoyed “Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare” but I do have to issue one caveat. From its very beginnings, the Found Footage genre has had a problem with camera movement and motion sickness. Some filmmakers cheat and keep the camera just calm enough to avoid inducing nausea. Rafael Cherkaski is not one of those filmmakers. If you get motion sick, it will be a struggle to make it all the way through this motion picture without vomiting. That’s not a comment on its quality, just a function of biology.
Even if you do have that issue, though, I’d still advise you to take some medicine and give this thing a look. It starts the way most good horror films should by giving no indication it’s a horror film at all. It’s one of the most basic rules of the broader genre. If a movie is trying to scare you five minutes in, what is left to go for the next hour and a half? These kind of films need to firmly establish normality before bringing out the knives and the sharp teeth and this one does it quite charmingly. The viewer can see that Sorgoi is endearingly out of his depth and the anticipation of some Borat-like humor is what makes the drop into an impersonal hell so effective.
Cherkaski has the formidable task of holding the audience’s attention despite Sorgoi being neither erudite, charismatic, nor particularly attractive and he pulls it off. He might rely a bit too much on bad haircuts and THE CRAZY EYES to convey Sorgoi’s madness but it generally feels like you’re watching a real person.
“Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare” doesn’t have much of a plot in the sense that Event A leads to Event B leads to Event C. It’s more like stuff happens, some more stuff happens, and then some more stuff happens. But the growing insanity of Sorgoi is nicely paced. It doesn’t suddenly come out of nowhere and the film deserves a lot of credit because it’s not a cinematic sort of madness. It’s not pretty or grandiose or clever or meaningful. It’s ugly, dehumanizing, and uncomfortable to watch at times.
I also have to give this movie credit for explaining away one of the things about the Found Footage genre that makes no sense. No, it’s not answering why somebody is still filming long past the point when any human being would have turned the camera off. The nearly perfect verisimilitude of something like “Video X: Evidence” (2003) is a distant memory by the time this movie enters its closing stretch. What it does do is explain that Sorgoi edits what he shoots every day on his computer, so the viewer doesn’t have to wonder about that…well, until he goes completely bugnuts at the end.
Visually, “Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare” is blessedly free of jump scares, smartly blends powerfully mundane images of violence with even more unsettling implications, and is very sharply edited. Lacking much of a conventional narrative, this film really needs to hold things together and move them along through imagery and both Cherkaski and editor Quentin Boeton get the job done.
I don’t want to overpraise this motion picture. There’s no deeper meaning or groundbreaking advancement here and you need to be a fan of the genre to appreciate it, but “Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare” is worth watching. How many movies can you honestly say that about nowadays?
Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare (2013)
Written by Quentin Boeton, Simon-Pierre Boireau, and Rafael Cherkaski.
Directed by Rafael Cherkaski.
Starring…wait for it…Rafael Cherkaski, Simon-Pierre Boireau, Elodie Bouleau, Roland David, Charles Dhumerelle, and Loic Lefebvre.
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