1st Summoning: Found-Footage Horror Makes The Occult Feel Dull

All the rage in horror several years ago, found-footage horror movies have slowly fizzled out. In the last few years, a few gems have been released including Creep and Unfriended. But we’re a long ways away from the annual trotting out of Paranormal Activity movies. But earlier this month, Netflix added under-the-radar indie horror, 1st Summoning. It’s another addition to the found-footage subgenre that promises devilish scares with its occult-hunting storyline.

Synopsis

Aspiring student filmmakers venture off to a small Arkansas town to document rumours of the occult at the abandoned Millbrook Factory. Ultimately, they intend to recite a ritual and, hopefully, capture evidence of otherworldly forces. But as their documentary progresses, strange events begin haunting the production. Undeterred, the young filmmakers eventually arrive at Millbrook where something much worse than a legend is waiting.

The Blair Witch Project Meets The Last Exorcism

For much of its runtime, 1st Summoning feels a lot like The Blair Witch Project, albeit less scary and less engaging. There’s the obsessive filmmaker chasing down the local myth. Director Raymond Wood gives us interviews with local residents about aforementioned myth. Spooky occult relics randomly turn up. Once the movie transitions into its final act, 1st Summoning feels a little reminiscent of The Last Exorcism. Wood may know the lyrics, but he doesn’t get the beat. Vague familiarity is as close as 1st Summoning comes to either of these superior movies.

Less ‘Slow Burn’, More Grinding Halt

Arguably, 1st Summoning’s biggest problem is pacing. That is, the movie only has two speeds – grinding halt or rapid, jerky cameras. Most of the movie rests firmly in the former. 1st Summoning really drags for a good hour, with few scares and almost no tension. Several scenes feel utterly pointless. Moreover, 1st Summoning’s occult mythology is never fleshed out like the ‘Blair Witch’. Instead, screenwriter Chris Piner’s narrative feels choppy and somewhat convoluted. A ‘relationship problem’ subplot bogs the pacing down even more. What’s left is a movie that waits a long time to try and scare you.

1st Summoning Can’t Overcome Its Found Footage Limitations

It’s not hard to see why studios like found-footage movies. They’re cheap and lend a level of realism that can often be unnerving when done well. But there are some hurdles the filmmaker needs to jump in order for the format to work. Case in point – why would people in danger continue to film? And who exactly found and assembled the footage? Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project adequately addresses both these issues. Thought it’s not his best work, George Romero uses ‘found footage’ and the need to ‘document’ as a central theme in Diary of the Dead. In contrast, 1st Summoning stumbles with the format.

Ambiguity in horror is a good thing; confusion is not.

Several glaring errors in logic pop up across the movie. Like other lesser found-footage movies, 1st Summoning never offers up a convincing reason why its characters wouldn’t just drop their cameras and run like hell. Sometimes it’s not clear whose actually doing the filming. Near the end of the movie, a music score inexplicably accompanies the action in what isn’t supposed to be a ‘movie’. How the footage was found and assembled is also unclear. Perhaps the most egregious problem – discussed above – is that the format results in a choppy narrative. Ambiguity in horror is a good thing; confusion is not.

Creepy Ending Can’t Save 1st Summoning

Though 1st Summoning’s last 15 minutes or so offer some creepy scares, it’s a case of of too little, too late. Too familiar, too much unnecessary build-up and too many ‘found footage’ logical inconsistencies drag the movie too far down. Few horror fans will have the patience to sit through the dull first hour. And even the largely decent final act isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. As a result, 1st Summoning is a forgettable entry to the found-footage subgenre.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C-

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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