Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
Twenty years ago, possibly influenced by Rob Reiner’s landmark “This is Spinal Tap,” co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez answered the question: what if we made a mockumentary horror film?
Relying on something dubbed “found footage,” “Blair Witch” gave birth to a shaky-cam, nauseating sub-genre. The horror film, made for just $60 thousand, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and became a box office phenomenon that pulled in an astounding $248 million worldwide.
Although a significant amount of craftsmanship went into making “Blair Witch,” it spawned a generation of wannabe filmmakers, who were inspired to grab their handi-cam and make their own damned movie. The host of cheap, often thoughtless, and gruesome imitators ushered in two decades of low or no budget cinema.
Few of these shaky efforts broke through as quality work, but studios minted money. The early highpoint was 2007’s “Paranormal Activity.” That film managed to do something unique with the genre by constraining location and utilizing a stationary prosumer video camera with creepy “authentic” night vision images.
Director M. Night Shyamalan breathed new life into the decaying concept and his career with the cheapie (by his standards) “The Visit” in 2015. Just as other well-known directors like George A. Romero (see 2007’s “Diary of the Dead”) had done, Shyamalan built on the elements popularized by Myrick and Sánchez—found footage filmmaking was now mainstream.
So, it’s against that backdrop that writer/director Myrick returns to the sub-genre to further explore its limits. And with “Skyman,” he gives us a little of what worked in “Blair Witch” but, thankfully, with a bit steadier hand on the camera.
This time, a documentary film crew profiles the troubled Carl Merryweather (Michael Selle), a simple, but a kindly man who struggles with the lingering memory of a long-ago alien encounter. As a child, Carl claims to have met an extraterrestrial in the desert. He believes that the Skyman, as he calls it, will return on his 40th birthday.
The documentary crew carefully covers the backstory. We see archived news coverage, get interviews with family and friends, and even go with Carl to a UFO convention. It’s equal parts interesting and amusing.
Myrick is a pro in handling this type of material. And because he’s mining familiar territory, rest assured that there is an inevitably frightening conclusion. Those frights are not as impactful this time around. What works best is the humorous and diverting lead up to the jumps scares and the manipulative handheld camera thrills.
Despite Myrick’s best efforts to improve upon the type of filmmaking that birthed his career, “Skyman” proves to be a lesser example of the found-footage formula. One wonders whether there’s anything more that can be done with it. Maybe director Rob Reiner, with another “Tap,” should try to turn things up to 11.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com