ALTAR is the terrifying story of a group of former college classmates who get lost driving to a college reunion camp out in the Sierra Nevada mountains. After stopping for the night, they stumble onto something much darker. They must battle to escape the evil they unleashed to not only save their own lives but their souls as well.
Altar (the new film from writer/director Matt Sconce) is my third film in a row which I’m reviewing – which happens to be found footage.
But before you get your panties in a bunch, as I almost did – Altar has a lot going for it, so put down your mob torches (meant for the found footage filmmakers) and hear me out.
Teenaged Bo (Jesse Parr) is dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death and his debilitating anti-social behavior (as a result of his Asperger’s). His older sister Maisy (Stefanie Estes) is now his caretaker as well as his greatest champion. Several of her old college chums – Chelsea (Brittany Falardeau), Ravi (Deep Rai), Asher (Tim Parrish) and Asher’s new girlfriend Pam (Jessica Strand) – are having a reunion camping party in the Sierra Nevada’s, and she convinces Bo to come along. He agrees, as long as he can record the whole thing on his new camera; and get some filmmaker experience to boot. When their car breaks down, this smaller group gets separated from the larger reunion caravan and they end up spending the night in a neck of the woods where they should not be. With a weirdo named Ripper (Michael Wainwright) and his ax on the loose and a strange altar (thus the title) discovered nearby, I’ll fall back on one of my tried-n-true horror film catchphrases, “What could possibly go wrong?”
The film’s strongest card is the authentic performances from the majority of the cast.
The only exception to this generalization is the performance from Jesse Parr as our cameraman. We see most of the film through his lens. His not-so-great performance is never terribly distracting when he’s filming, since we’re seeing the good work of everyone else. But when the camera is turned on him, it just screams, “I’m out of my league”. Certainly, one could make the argument that the character’s social awkwardness is taking center stage, but I just didn’t find his work genuine. He couldn’t sell it.
As for the rest of the cast, specifically Stefanie Estes as older sister Maisy – absolutely terrific all around. I’m going to go ahead and assume that like so many other found footage films – that there was probably a lot of ad libbing going on here. And while so many other pieces serve to show off the actors’ inability to “make it up as they go along”, Altar was just the opposite. And if indeed this was all completely scripted, then the actors deserve just plain old acting kudos for their realistic line deliveries.
I was quite smitten with the brother/sister relationship (generally I’m a sucker for well-done sibling relationships portrayed on camera) and I have to lay that praise at the feet of Estes. I feel like she was giving much more to the chemistry than Parr was. Regardless of Parr’s shortcomings, this sibling connection is charming, heartfelt and endearing. Nothing captures it more beautifully than their frolic in a lovely flower-lined mountain meadow as the camera records.
And that brings me to the topic of the camera. It’s always a problem in found footage – and so few films have overcome it through common sense or some brilliant new idea. Why, oh why does the person filming, continue to carry the camera – even in dire and life-threatening situations? Sadly, Altar isn’t one of the films to sufficiently explain it away. I’ll buy the camera as security blanket for Bo through most of it, but when something big happens, the other characters would have turned to the innocent Bo (I don’t care how fragile he is) and said, “Turn the ****ing camera off.” When you see the film, you’ll know the moment I’m talking about. It just defies human behavior.
The film has a couple of good “boo” moments, and achieves that rarely-achievable sense of dread I so love in horror. But even with that nice build of “this can’t be good” going for it, the film still takes far too long to get where it is going. It feels like we’re in the car with these folks – before they finally stop for the night – for a short eternity. Don’t get me wrong, I like the performances and the character work, but we also need to get to the goods. And once the s*** really hits the fan, the film began to fall apart – feeling disjointed and then uninspired, and ultimately it became boring.
The ending wasn’t great and was rather abrupt, but it allowed Estes to shine some more in her performance before the screen cuts to black.
A big problem in the film was the introduction of Ripper as the antagonist. He appears in a brief prologue – showing that this altar has a history – but in both his performance and the direction/dialogue, it’s very over-the-top and doesn’t gel with the realness of the rest of the film. It’s a big misstep. And the prologue as a whole was unnecessary.
I was quite distracted by the first full-on appearance of the titular altar. It honestly looked like it could have been purchased a day before it was to appear on camera – at one of those Halloweentown-type costume/prop stores. It was as cookie-cutter as could be, and looked chintzy. With no apparent faux-aging process given to it (you would have expected as much, based on how the characters were describing what they were seeing), I simply didn’t buy it.
With mostly strong performances and lots of promise, Altar can’t hold onto the good things it first throws at the audience and we’re left asking the question, “What if?” What if things hadn’t fallen apart and what if the authenticity of character and strength of performance could have made up for the unoriginality of yet another found footage The Blair Witch Project knock-off?
The answer? Well, then I might be offering the film a higher score than a still-respectable 3 stars.
Altar is now available on multiple VOD outlets.