By now, you know how a found-footage movie is going to end before you even buy your ticket.
The Blair Witch Project set the template back in 1999, with its ominous opening text informing us that we're about to see some long-lost footage and that its creators have vanished. The following 90 minutes then play out exactly as you'd expect: slow-burn b-roll of an unfinished film that concludes violently and suddenly with no survivors. Filmmakers have copied this time and time again because it's generally shocking and effective.
Well, at least it used to be.
A few days ago, our own Perri Nemiroff pondered End of Watch and how to keep the found-footage genre fresh. Right on cue, The Conspiracy world premiered at Fantastic Fest and provided a direct shot in the arm of the genre, proving that this style is not only alive and kicking, but capable of innovating, able to push beyond the Paranormal Activities of the world and use the faux-doc approach in a way never seen before. Found footage is far from dead -- it just needed a filmmaker like Christopher MacBride to come along and kick it in the butt.
The Conspiracy practically announces what makes it special within the first 10 minutes of its running time, but the full repercussions aren't felt until the film's shattering conclusion (there will be no spoilers here, so don't worry about treading lightly). We aren't watching a compilation of discovered footage or a series of events picked up on security cameras. We're watching a finished "documentary," complete with talking heads commenting on the action after everything has blown over and experts picking apart the story and its characters as things grow from bad to worse. The fact that one of the main characters (a documentary filmmaker, of course) is one of these talking heads should throw found-footage fans for a loop. Why is he alive? Shouldn't he be dead by the time the credits roll?
The footage on display follows brother filmmakers Aaron and Jim, who set out to make a documentary about a conspiracy theorist they saw on YouTube. Although they initially think he's little more than a mad man (after all, he does scream about how 9/11 was an inside job to irritated people in public parks), he reveals himself to be a bit more sane and coherent than the brothers initially though. Which makes his sudden disappearance all the more suspicious. With their chief subject vanished into thin air, Aaron and Jim decide to look into his findings to see what he discovered and they learn about a secret society called the Taurus Club... which may or may not secretly rule the world. Naturally, things go horribly wrong, culminating in an extended sequence that is as chilling and intense as any horror movie. It should be noted here that while there is a lot to delve into about how this film tinkers with its genre in exciting ways, it is, first and foremost, a total blast to watch.
Bad things always seem to be happening in The Conspiracy, but what makes the film so wicked is that there's always an alternate viewing of each situation. As we are continually reminded, delving into conspiracy theories is dangerous because we start to create connections that aren't there. Watching the movie, we immediately see those devilish little connections because they make for a compelling story. We side with our heroes instinctively because we're the viewers and that's our job. It transforms us into conspiracy theorists for 90 minutes.
However, the film's greatest trick continues to lurk right under the surface. We know we're watching a finished film. It's established early on that someone took the time to finish this "documentary." We know from the opening scenes that, as bad as things get, at least one of the brothers will walk away alive and able to comment on the footage they collected. The Conspiracy directly addresses what no found-footage movie in the past has addressed. It openly asks you to consider who finished this film and what their intentions are. The film's conclusion suggests a much larger story lurking around the edges of what we can see. Are we being shown everything? What has been deliberately removed? Who hired these talking heads? The film's final scenes don't sit well after everything we've seen and that's the point: we, the audience, are being lied to. This "documentary" isn't telling us the whole truth.
This transforms The Conspiracy from just another found-footage experience into a puzzle box, a film that begs to be dissected and obsessed over. And that's why what MacBride has accomplished here is so brilliant and such a massive step forward for films of this type. The use of found footage here isn't a mere stylistic choice -- it informs the movie's thematic core. By presenting this movie as "truth" and then slowly revealing that someone behind the scenes is obscuring it from us, we understand the obsession and the frustration that drives the characters in the movie. We know why they build timelines on their walls and draw connections between the bombing of Peal Harbor and the Kennedy assassination. We know what it feels like to know that the truth is out there and that someone doesn't want you to have access to it. For a genre that has always been about POV, The Conspiracy is the first found-footage movie to truly put you in the shoes of its characters.
Wouldn't you know it? The (fake) documentary called The Conspiracy is, in of itself, part of a larger (fake) conspiracy!
Or is it?