Necessary Death, A (US - DVD R1)
Gabe catches up with Last Exorcism director Daniel Stamm's first feature...
Writer/director Daniel Stamm is best known for his work on The Last Exorcism, a surprisingly fresh horror mockumentary that I was shocked to enjoy when I reviewed it back in early 2011. Last Exorcism was produced by some pretty big names in modern horror, including Strike Entertainment partners Eric Newman, Thomas Bliss and Marc Abraham, and Hostel series director Eli Roth. Before his high profile gig Stamm made another, far smaller-budgeted horror-laced (though not horror-specific) mockumentary entitled A Necessary Death, which Roth apparently saw and was impressed enough with to approach Stamm in a producer capacity. Now, thanks to Film Buff and MPI, A Necessary Death has found its first official US video release and we can all judge for ourselves.
The story concerns a student film crew (G.J. Echternkamp, Valerie Hurt, Michael Traynor and Stamm himself behind the camera) that plans on following a suicidal individual through their final days, eventually capturing the final act on film. The crew puts a want ad on the internet (on an unnamed Craigslist duplicate) and, following a long audition process they settle on a young British man named Matt (Matthew Tilley), who is planning on killing himself before he’s killed by an inoperable brain tumor. But things are complicated when Matt and filmmakers grow closer and the impending suicide is no longer the forgone conclusion it once was.
I tend to make a habit of complaining about subgenre overload every time I’m sent a mockumentary/found-footage movie, but there are a couple compelling factors that give A Necessary Death a pass, though. First of all, independently financed films need to save money and few things save money as well as mockumentaries, which utilize little in the way of sets, special effects or professional actors. Stamm’s film was also made before the post- Paranormal Activity deluge, which gives it the benefit of the doubt in terms of the cash-in experience. Most importantly, however, Stamm is working with a largely original concept and one that fits the subgenre heading. This isn’t a mash-up like Last Exorcism, where horror conventions are crammed into the mix, and both the realism of the faux-document and terror of the horror are damaged by the blend. A Necessary Death is a film that only really works as a mockumentary, conceptually speaking, and the subgenre heading isn’t an afterthought. What immediately strikes me about the film is how natural it is, and how perfectly it captures the feel of a real amateur documentary. Stamm’s direction is about as secretively hands-off as it can be without entirely losing control, the editing is loose, but rarely jagged or droning, and the performances are incredibly natural without seeming particularly unprofessional (though the leads do stand apart from the incidentals as actual actors).
Tonally, things also begin quite lightly, or at least light for a movie about suicide, right down to a handful of jokes, funny inserts and playful music. Then things begin to turn all melancholy – mocking the emotional mawkish tone a ham-fisted documentary on suicide would likely take (Joel Anderson’s supernaturally-laced Lake Mungo also managed to exact the patterns of these largely made-for-television products). There are plenty of affecting pieces throughout the film as well, but more importantly, there’s little to specifically clue us in to the fact that we’re watching a horror film in disguise. Well, besides the droning spectre of a major character’s suicide. This deliberate pacing has been a mainstay choice of horror-mockumentaries since Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, but all too often it turns into a waiting game instead of a clever and thoughtful journey through heavy moral concepts with genuinely likeable characters. There’s a bit of a drag in the center of the film, but I rarely found myself driven out of the narrative experience by the wait for something more disturbing to happen. It’s also probably important that I note that A Necessary Death isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense. Viewers should not be waiting for things to quickly turn into some kind of bloodbath, supernatural or otherwise, but the sense of disturbance and the characters’ loss of control is gut-wrenching at times. This emotional exploitation and manipulation, and the suspense of impending doom marks it as a psychological horror film in my book.
A Necessary Death utilizes (as far as I can tell) two different video formats, digital video (for the documenting of the documentary) and 16mm (for the official documentary sequences). Neither format really requires/is capable of a 1080p image anyway, so it’s not a problem that this release wasn’t given the Blu-ray treatment. This 1.33:1 DVD transfer. well, technically it's an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer with black bars on the sides, has plenty of obvious video-related shortcomings, but almost all of them are a natural part of each format and even compression artefacts tend to not make a noticeable difference in the viewing experience, even after years of my eyes adjusting to HD video. There are some issues that might’ve been corrected in HD, like inconsistently jagged edges, Bayer effects and shimmering edges. The 16mm scenes have the richer colour quality without much banding (though reds bleed a bit), deeper blacks, and also feature a steady sheen of grain.
This soundtrack is the most true to actual documentary-source sound that I’ve heard since the mockumentary/found footage thing started springing up so much recently. That is to say that the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is as minimalist and unimpressive as something shot on digital tape/16mm with a single microphone should sound. The bulk of the sound comes from somewhere around direct center and is mixed only for the sake of understandable dialogue. Ambient noise is dirty and clarity is inconsistent, but the actual words are easy to discern. Even the musical moments (none of which take place ‘in-film’; they’ve been added by the faux-filmmakers) are mostly centered, though they do feature a cleaner overall sound and better bass warmth.
The extras begin with two commentary tracks. The first track features Stamm solo. His approach is educational as he rattles through the production history, his personal history, his history with the cast and crew, and the filming process all in a well-prepared, even tone – as if he’s giving a lesson plan on his film. The tone is occasionally lacking fun, but there’s never a sense of Stamm talking down to his audience (he’s also plenty hard on himself about his narrative choices) and there are plenty of brief breaks for laughter, which make for a warmer experience than other similarly prepped commentary tracks. Blank space is minimal, or at least brief, Stamm rarely runs out of steam, and there’s no behind-the-scenes process left secret in favour of maintaining the illusion of the film (a mockumentary/found footage commentary practice I find obnoxious for the most part). The second track features actors G.J. Echternkamp, Valerie Hurt and Matt Tilley, and is a bit more playful, thanks to the group dynamic and lifted burden of knowing the entire production history. Though, they do know a lot about production, revealing a real sense of community on the picture. There’s a bit of overlap, so I don’t really recommend watching both tracks right in a row, but it’s nice to have the variety in experience.
The extras also include a substantial deleted scenes reel (36:00), many of which are genuinely intriguing from a character perspective, but would’ve slowed the pace of the already slightly overextended film (I had an Ennio Morricone geek-out as a brief section of ‘Il Gatto’ is used in the deleted scenes), an alternate ending (3:40), and two trailers.
A Necessary Death could’ve been just another lazy, gimmicky mockumentary/found-footage cash-in, but writer/director Daniel Stamm’s film is a fully formed and unique subgenre entry, and it is never limited by its modest, independent budget. This release’s particularly horror-tinged ad campaign might leave some blood and guts fans disappointed, so I’d like to again make it clear that A Necessary Death isn’t a horror film in the strictest sense of the term – it’s a dark psychological drama. It’s also pretty funny when it’s not too concerned with disturbing emotional manipulation. The only real shortcomings are an occasionally listless narrative form, which is sort of part and parcel of the whole faux-vérité thing. The film’s modest A/V practices don’t require an HD release, so this DVD is just fine despite the formats’ limitations. The extras include two informative and entertaining commentary tracks, along with a solid collection of character-expanding deleted scenes.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 29th May 2012
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Director's Commentary, Actors' Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Alternate Ending, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Daniel Stamm
Cast: G.J. Echternkamp, Matthew Tilley, Valerie Hurt, Michael Traynor
Genre: Comedy, Drama and Thriller
Length: 100 minutes
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