Popcorn Frights Review: Scott Slone’s Hybrid Found Footage ‘Malibu Horror Story’ Hides It’s Strengths Behind Tired Tropes
Scott Slone’s decade-plus-long endeavor Malibu Horror Story opens by revealing a team of young paranormal researchers in a remote Malibu Canyon cave who are recording the pilot episode of their web series. They’re preparing for the inaugural EVP session and in the process describe their roster of standard spirit hunting tech, including the spirit box they’ll use to communicate with the entity and an EMF reader for indicating the presence of something paranormal. Ashley (Valentina de Angelis of Gossip Girl) sets everything up and after having an eerie encounter they do what any twenty-something researchers would do: bust open a bottle of tequila in the clearly haunted cave. This is only the first of many unintelligent decisions these characters will make across the eighty-five minute runtime, which kicks things off on a frustratingly familiar note despite the film being already more than competent from a technical standpoint. There’s clearly talent behind the scenes of this production.
Jessica (Rebecca Forsythe of We Are Your Friends) brings Josh (Dylan Sprayberry of the upcoming Sick and Teen Wolf: The Movie) over to her laptop to look at the rough cut of their first day. As they begin screening the edit, the style transitions from traditional cinematography over to the found footage portion of the film. After introducing the crew of “Paranormal Files,” which closely resembles a moderately budgeted ghost-hunting production found on YouTube, viewers are introduced to the story of four missing Malibu teens whose camera revealing their fate was found in the aforementioned cave. A blend of archival “news” footage, local talking heads, and commentary from investigators convey this information with mixed results. The acting is uneven from the myriad of faces in this sequence, and the corner-cutting of the hybrid format rears it’s head for the first time here. It’s as if they opted for a hybrid structure simply to avoid the limitations of found footage when it was convenient for them as writers and not to enhance the already weak central story based around an exhausted trope where young, dumb white people wander onto sacred Native American land to suffer the wrath of the angry spirits residing there.
The boys voyage out to one of their family’s rural Malibu Canyon spread and hike up to a mountaintop to camp out for the night. It’s not long before one member of the party accidentally ingests an alarming amount of hallucinogenic mushrooms from another’s backpack, which kicks off the jump scare fueled back half of the film. There’s an attempt to tie in the history of the family who owns the land when the teens discover human remains that one of them thinks belong to his grandparents, but the inclusion of this information is too brief to feel meaningful among the chaos. Eventually they wind up back in the cave where they meet an unknown fate before it transitions back to the paranormal investigators watching the edit. It’s worth noting that the “bro culture” the four teens are seeped in is extremely accurate (fellow 2012 graduate here, can attest) as their primary goal is getting wasted on whatever they can while showing as little regard for the rest of the world as possible. Unfortunately this accuracy doesn’t serve to elevate the film in any way since they’re just as insufferable as they sound, so what happens to them is deserving and anticipated.
Later that night the investigators begin experiencing similarly spooky occurrences that escalate significantly across the finale thanks to some very convincing effects work and a pair of highly talented contortionists (the source of the film’s best moments) taking center stage. The acting from the leads isn’t groundbreaking at any point but it’s also never glaringly bad either, which is ultimately what can be said for most of what Malibu Horror Story has to offer. There’s some tense, frightening sequences in the final act that in spite of being technically very well executed don’t bring anything innovative or memorable to the table, making for a hollow but still enjoyable experience if you’re willing to overlook the many flaws. It begs to be mentioned just how cohesive the film remains after such a long and varied production – an impressive accomplishment even if it doesn’t fully work. At the end of the day there’s an audience for this kind of film, and Malibu Horror Story will surely find a warm reception from that crowd when it finally “possesses” a wide release, but there’s a lot of squandered potential here that could’ve been capitalized on had Slone made some different choices narratively.