Before I dive into this review, I’ll get one thing out of the way first: I’m a big fan of the so-called “found footage” filming technique. I hate the term itself — as a film student back in the day, “found footage” applied only to the re-purposing of existing film clips for artistic reasons. But that’s neither here nor there. I’ll admit filmmakers all too often use the format as a cost-cutting measure — which has over-saturated the horror market with hundreds of amateurish cash-ins — but when done properly, the “mockumentary” or “POV” style is has been an effective storytelling tool for decades… and at the end of the day, it all comes down the quality of the story being told.

Okay, so now that I’ve cleared that up, and you’re still reading this, I’ll get into one of the more impressive recent entries in the found-footage field — which benefits from a smart setup and concept, and a timely reversal of found-footage tropes.

Dead Voices, directed by William Butler (Madhouse) and written & produced by Jacob Kyle Young (who recently played real-life heartthrob Tab Hunter in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood), takes a premise you’ve seen dozens of times before and turns it upside down in a pretty damn shocking way. I wouldn’t dare spoil that reveal for you, but I’ll do my best to tiptoe around it.

The title is also the name of a documentary helmed by college student Emily (Lauren Albo) for her final thesis, in which she plans to explore the self-professed abilities of psychic mediums using her own sister Sara (Angelica Briones) as the not-so-willing subject. Sara is still mourning ex-boyfriend Jacob, a soldier whose marriage proposal she declined; he has since been declared missing in action during a tour in the Middle East, and Sara — who is taking medication for an undisclosed mental illness — is still tormented by guilt. The wildly over-enthusiastic Emily basically shoves the unstable Sara into the spotlight, using her loss as a litmus test for psychics who claim the ability to contact the spirits of the dead.

One such alleged medium is Paul (Riverdale’s Lochlyn Munro), who is interviewed by a local news station in the movie’s prologue, following an undescribed but apparently fatal catastrophe tied to Emily’s project. It seems as if Butler and Young are showing their hand too early here, as I gathered Paul (who is quickly dismissed as a fraud) is the only survivor of this event… but as it turns out, that’s a deliberate misdirection; what really went down behind the scenes is far more disturbing.

The main plot takes hold when the sisters contact Mike (writer-producer Young), who comes across as a genuine medium after entering a trance and revealing information about Jacob that only Sara would know. But while he earns the sisters’ tentative trust (and Emily immediately begins crushing on him), there’s something decidedly off about Mike; he’s also so tightly-wound it feels like he’s going to explode any second.

Again, I won’t reveal the twist, but suffice it to say the first and second acts pull the viewer down one path before whiplashing you into the “real” story in the third, when everything goes violently sideways. The filmmakers also drop multiple red herrings throughout the film, often through homages to prior found-footage flicks like The Blair Witch Project (wandering through the dark woods by camera light; a tearful on-camera confession) and Paranormal Activity (one character stares silently at another as they sleep), while thankfully establishing Emily learning how to use a Steadicam rig, which dodges the issue of motion-sickness that tends to plague films like this.

But all of these creepy set-ups are just the tip of the iceberg, and hints of Satanic rituals and unseen creatures lurking just out of sight in the woods are later called into doubt. That’s all I can reveal here without spoiling the finale, which involves a seriously creepy gaslighting scheme perpetrated by a far more human monster… or possibly more than one.

While it takes a bit too long to build momentum, once Dead Voices gets rolling it never lets up. Despite establishing that Emily is not a very experienced filmmaker, the camera work punches up the tension and sense of doom, making the most of the dark and claustrophobic log-cabin vacation home owned by Jacob’s parents — who are absent for reasons unknown — where the sisters and their psychic companion attempt to contact the missing soldier and capture the “evidence” on camera. I also have to give props to Butler and Young for avoiding cheap jump-scares or other worn-out horror tricks in favor of building steady tension and a sense of impending doom… which gives added impact to the film’s brief moments of shocking (and graphic) violence.

Further kudos go to the three leads: Albo nails the balance of enthusiasm and naivete that makes Emily both sympathetic and a bit annoying; Briones plays Sara as distant and removed, which we’re led to believe is both a product of her grief as well as her illness (she also forgets to refill her prescription before they head to the cabin), and we’re set up to expect her breakdown to come at any second… but when it happens, it’s not for the reasons you might expect. Young brings an eerie intensity to Mike that Sara and the audience can clearly see, but Emily is too busy flirting with him to notice. All three actors are ridiculously good-looking, but they never play this up for the camera, and their sexuality is never exploited — though it does factor into the final act.

While it’s not quite a game-changer for the genre, Dead Voices delivers where it counts, slowly cranking up the suspense until you find yourself scanning every shot for clues and jumping at the right moments. Most importantly, it stays laser-focused on the story itself — a story that manages to pack a lot of scares into a terse 86 minutes.

In summary, if you haven’t written off the found-footage technique just yet, you might be pleasantly surprised (and spooked) by this smart and entertaining tale.

Dead Voices premieres On Demand June 12 via High Octane Pictures.

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