This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
A psychiatrist attempts to unravel an academic’s tale of spiralling madness in Nathan Faudree’s Site 13.
Some films that have had unusually long gestation periods, such as Andrew Getty’s reality-warped The Evil Within or Phil Tippett’s nightmarish stop-motion masterpiece Mad God, ultimately managed to overcome their delays and release in a form as close as possible to what their creators originally envisioned. Site 13 is unusual in that the vast length of time between the production’s commencement and conclusion instead forms part of its structure, the events of the past reappropriated as key details of the present.
Originally conceived twenty years ago as a found footage horror that involved university professor Nathan Marsh (Nathan Faudree) and a group of research students investigating a locus of supernatural energy, the finished movie sees Nathan awake from a decade-long catatonic state that resulted from his experience, and with the help of psychiatrist Catherine Charter (Katie Gibson), attempts to use fragmented video recordings of the events to piece together exactly what happened.
From an opening reference to Miskatonic University and the surnames of its protagonists, the film makes clear it’s riffing on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but it avoids the common pitfall of becoming little more than a monster flick building up to the reveal of some hideous chimeric entity worshipped by a cult of madmen and instead chooses to create an original story incorporating the prevalent themes of cosmic horror. Despite Lovecraft’s work being best known through the eldritch abominations that populate his mythos, since their very nature is to defy rationalisation by the limited perception of paltry human senses it’s far more effective to take the route this film does and invoke the cosmic dread they cause, the unfathomable depths of their power highlighting in an instant humanity’s utter insignificance in a vast, unknowable and uncaring universe.
In realising such a tone, reminiscent of the seminal and similarly-themed works of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Faudree largely eschews flashy effects and instead focuses on the human side of the tale, namely the protagonists’ increased feelings of despair as the scope of events becomes apparent, as well as their helplessness in their very sanity being encroached upon by a creature from beyond the veil of reality. An atmosphere of profound unease is created through techniques as simple as disorienting camera angles, inverted colour palates, repeated refrains of portentous statements, or a well-lit figure standing against an inky backdrop, each of which constantly reminds you that you don’t quite have a handle on what’s going on. A debatable addition sees several of the mental hospital’s patients being overtly sinister, and even though it can be justified by the influence of the malign entity, it still has uncomfortable echoes of stereotypical depictions of mental illness.
Aside from an excellently ominous opening, the material shot back in 2003 is in all honesty not much more distinctive than any of the myriad other found footage efforts made in the early 2000s in the wake of The Blair Witch Project, not to mention its premise having noted similarities, and had it been released back then in such a form it would likely have been written off as a pale imitation of that ill-fated Burkittsville expedition. However, with the footage instead being used as a part of this story rather than a complete one in its own right, the resultant experience takes on the form of an accidental cinematic experiment that affords itself augmented authenticity.
The interplay between the two leads keeps the present-day narrative engaging as the inexorable doom descends. Having lived with the character in one way or another for the best part of two decades, Faudree wields Nathan like a puppet, a few minor facial contortions twisting his features into a grimacing parody of humanity, revealing something entirely Other looking out through his eyes while it growls echoed portents in a distorted voice. Catherine, a former nun traumatised by a past failure, hopes in helping Nathan she can somehow redeem herself by bringing back someone once thought beyond saving.
The climax is a suitably tense ordeal injecting some welcome and quantifiable stakes through sudden action, and although its ambition is slightly exceeded by its execution, that in no way detracts from it being a gripping culmination. Likewise, the attempted emotional beats that haven’t quite been earned still manage to land effectively enough to accept.
Like the tales of weird things in the shadows slipping through cracks in human perception that inspired it, the film maintains its atmosphere of lingering dread, and its realisation of the primal fear of the unknown is a worthy variation of such classic stories.
Site 13 is a straightforward yet engrossing spin on a subgenre rarely achieved well on film, fusing the past and the present into a single tale of damnation and madness. A found footage mystery, a cosmic horror, a 2000s chiller, a 2020s psychological exploration and a contemporising of immensely popular yet uncomfortably dated stories, the film is many things at the same time and manages to do justice to them all.
- the melding of filming from two separate times to create one story
- the tense atmosphere maintained by simple techniques
- the focus on the human rather than the monstrous
- the strength of the leads
- the action of the climax
- the climax’s emotional beats not quite being earned
- the portrayal of mental patients
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