I’m starting to think that I should create a boilerplate introduction for generic found footage horror movies, just so I don’t have to keep repeating myself every time another one of these lost puppies ends up at my doorstep. Seriously. It seems like I’m cranking out at least one found footage review a week, most of which are built upon formulaic blocks made of cheap scares, poor production values, and weak storytelling.
My latest shaky-cam foray, Nightlight, is another jumbled found footage romp, but there’s something even sadder about this specific film – it didn’t have to suffer such a fate. There’s a fresh concept hidden beneath weak jolt-tactics and dim flashlights, but it’s never given a chance to breathe. You can’t force an urban legend, and that’s exactly what filmmakers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods attempt to do.
Shelby Young stars as Robin, an awestruck highschooler who finally gets her chance to hang with the cool kids. She’s invited by her crush, Ben (Mitch Hewer), to play a game called “Nightlight” with a few other popular friends, where they drink alcohol, act promiscuous, and taunt the Covington forest through cocky douchebaggery – because a haunted forest sounds like a great place for underage shenanigans. As the legend goes, those brave enough to explore Covington end up possessed and suicidal, which is something that Robin experienced when her depressed BFF Ethan was found dead after a school dance. Well, they say that curiosity killed that cat, but in this case, it’s a haunted forest. And it’s not a cat, it’s five dimwitted kids who think that dealing with the paranormal is a laughable game.
Nightlight is primed for scares from the get-go, because there’s nothing more horrifying than being isolated by Mother Nature’s echoing loneliness, and Team Woods/Beck even manage to find a unique shooting method through bouncing flashlights. Most of the time is spent looking through Robin’s personal flashlight, no matter who’s holding it, and we can even hear the metallic clinging of inner-springs as she runs from unseen forest monsters. The screen always holds a flashlight beam front-and-center, like it’s an FPS reticle, and the batteries clang around as cheerful games turn into nightmarish tricks, but that’s where any individuality goes dead.
Once the whole flashlight gimmick becomes overused, all we’re left with are frustrating jump-scares, mindless teenagers, and some of the more convoluted horror storytelling that you might fall victim to all year. Like I said, the “Nightlight” game IS intriguing – but Beck and Woods divulge absolutely NO Covington information besides a quick ghost story told by the resident horndog, Chris (Carter Jenkins).
Alright, so it’s a haunted forest – I get that. People walk in, captured souls make them jump off a cliff, and the forest’s army grows larger. But then Robin introduces Ethan’s spirit as a vengeful villain, malevolent forces start appearing in shape-shifty demon forms, rogue flashlights start flickering, and absolutely NOTHING gets explained. Ethan scores screen time during an opening and closing webcam confessional, where he seems like a depressed social outcast, but never as someone who would turn into a bloodthirsty, enraged spirit. So who was doing the killing? A darker spirit? The Covington curse? Was there PCP in the beer and everything was just a hallucination!?
It quickly becomes apparent that Robin is the only character of value, since we never leave her side. Nia, played by Chloe Bridges, and Ben, played by Mitch Hewer, get a few moments to stare death in the face, but the remaining two sidekicks are mere kill fodder. Chris is a hilariously inept stereotype who brings upwards of twenty condoms in hopes of getting laid, and Amelia (Taylor Murphy), well, she’s good at dying? And avoiding trees? That’s about it. Granted, Shelby Young doesn’t deserved to be lumped in with her unequal playmates, but there’s entirely too much running, falling, and splashing to even let Robin catch her breath. Why bother with character development when you have a killer story, right? Well, what’s you’re excuse when your story and character development BOTH need a recharge?
The biggest performance ends up coming from Kramer (the dog), who actually does an amazing job heightening levels of tension as he barks in the direction of shapes we can’t see ourselves. While Ben is blindfolded, Kramer is looking directly at the flashlight (camera), gazing intently at something evil we know must be looming. Believe or not, but Kramer’s beady eyes piercing through the darkness remains one of my favorite shots, and without Kramer, the few moments of palpable tension would have been dead and buried. Yes, I’m giving praise to a canine performer, because his primal instincts are utilized perfectly for horrific thrills.
Isn’t it annoying when you encounter genre movie characters who you actually want to see die? That’s Nightlight in a nutshell, except with a lot more dark wooded paths than you’re willing to tolerate. Anyone with a Handycam and access to some large, sprawling wildlife reserve could recreate almost every single scene, as long as they can find some actors who can convincingly run away from blank nothingness. Being alone in the dark sucks, and being trapped in a dark forest alone sucks even more, but somehow Nightlight wastes this inherently skin-crawling setup on yet another mindless, first-person rollercoaster ride that derails shortly after leaving the station. Please, for the love of Satan, CAN WE JUST START LEAVING FOOTAGE WHERE IT’S BEEN FOUND?!
Like a flashlight that's running low on juice, you can feel the life oozing out of Nightlight with every faint flicker.