[Review] The 16th Episode
I agonized far longer than I care to admit over just how to start this review. The 16th Episode (AKA Little Horror Movie) has a couple choice lines that I think really summarize the film. My interior monologue asked, should I go with this:
“This could be the beginning of a horror movie”
—Einar (Einar Kuusk), our first meta horror fan
Or, I could have gone with:
“You know how in those found footage movies, they always get the camera facing the actors for no reason? I just did that. What do you think?”
—Mark (Cody Heuer), our second meta horror fan
For a movie that relishes imitating or referencing so many horror films, I figured, what the hell. Why not both? If The 16th Episode wants to have its cake and eat it, too…why can’t I?
But before we get to the cake and before I completely lose my analogy, let’s start at the start. A YouTube video tells us that it’s Episode 15 of a video series called “Permanent Residence.” It’s a show where host Helen (Rebecca Ramon), her sound guy Einar and DP (and very cute cub) Mark go to a country and instead of visiting, set up a semi-permanent residence there to get a better understanding of the culture. Episode 15 is about Brazil where they are robbed during filming, which causes a nicely shot chase sequence filmed with a mix of first person, found footage-esqe photography and more traditional cinematography.
Turns out that their views are down, even though they almost died three times in Brazil. But it’s not enough. The audience wants more. “Maybe they want to see us die,” the grouchy Einar states. But Helen has a more hopeful attitude that maybe the audience just wants to root for them more. And Mark? Well he’s just a jolly guy who looks down on this type of filmmaking and would rather just be making his “Ultimate Found Footage Film.”
“It’s an overused technique,” Einar retorts.
This is a refrain that continues throughout The 16th Episode as the small group sets out to the city of Casablanca, Morocco where they’ve rented a house from Mrs. Frangier (Rosine Young), a fairly eccentric and cartoony old marm who comments that Mark looks like her son Daniel before calling him cute and almost kissing him. The house is one of those Gothic-looking houses you’d expect to see in a found footage film or a Creaky Old House film. Long story short, after a chance encounter at an outdoor bistro with a guide named Tareek (Abdellatif Chawki), who invites them to a wedding, bad shit happens to Helen who appears to be possessed.
Okay so The 16th Episode throws a lot in the mix. Writer/Director Jérôme Cohen-Olivar takes an almost kitchen scene approach to his horror story. It openly riffs on Rosemary’s Baby and there’s some imagery towards the end that I would hazard is at least semi-inspired by Martyrs. But then there’s the aforementioned Creaky Old House subgenre. Found Footage. The dumb Americans(-ish) in creepy foreign land horror. Possession. And even the third act twists the story even more into spoilery directions. It’s a mishmash of subgenres, but in some ways feels more imitative of them, as if Jérôme just wants to sample everything to make, what one of his characters would call “the Ultimate Found Footage Film.”
A couple issues plague the movie, though. Jérôme Cohen-Olivar is a much more interesting director than a screenwriter. The dialogue is clumsy and the acting ranges from decent in regular, every day situations to overwrought and overacted in the more intense/scary scenes. The possession angle feels a bit played out as it throws in all of the typical possession tricks (chanting, growling, unnatural abilities, vomiting, bad language, etc.) with only a slightly Arabic bent to it with discussions of Djinn and a character rebuking another for using a cross: “It’s a Muslim demon, it’s not going to give a shit about Christ!”
There’s an ambitious story hidden here. One that had some genuinely interesting turns, particularly in the third act. But a poor script and some moments when the budget was obviously stretched thin (I’ve seen better electrical/lightning effects in an 80s sword and sorcery movie) took me out of it. And while the mix of found footage style filmmaking and more traditional cinematography was interesting in the beginning, it started wearing thin by the end.
As actual Estonian YouTuber Einar Kuusk says at one point, after being chased into a bathroom by a possessed woman and forced to act into a handheld camera that’s, for no reason, aimed directly at him: “Found footage is dead, okay. I already told you.”
Maybe he’s right.