FOUND-FOOTAGE is one of the most dreaded buzzwords you could associate with horror. Once regarded as a groundbreaking approach to genre storytelling (most famously the interminable Blair Witch Project), it’s now become a catch-all for lazy filmmakers intent on making a quick buck on a tiny budget. Once innovative and shocking, the found-footage sub-genre has become as rote and formulaic as the slasher, in dire need of a Scream-type send-up of its tropes and clichés.
Megan is Missing, suffice to say, is not it. Banned in New Zealand for “objectionable content”, it’s an infuriating and intensely boring 60 minutes or so, followed by a final 20 minutes that are all the more chilling and effective by the contrast. It’s a frustrating little film that bludgeons you with absurd adolescent hysterics and then crushes you with an extended brutalisation sequence that’s visceral and appalling in all the right ways.
The film frames its child abduction narrative around the friendship between the titular Megan (Rachel Quinn) and Amy (Amber Perkins), two young teenagers who talk exclusively about boys and partying, apparently. The older Megan, having quickly divulged her horrific past of sexual abuse, promptly gets abducted by Josh (Dean Waite), the paedophile posing as a “sk8r boi”. Amy, following some incredibly ill-advised and plot-convenient sleuthing, also gets abducted.
That’s really about it. None of the figures beyond Megan and Amy receive the faintest slither of depth beyond complacent parents, complacent news broadcasters and screeching teen stereotypes that make Clueless and Mean Girls look like documentaries. Josh is opacity itself; a faceless, lurking menace who exists solely to be a creeper, and it eventually proves effective for what the film is going for, but it leaves precious little to discuss. Who is he? He’s just a paedophile. Okay then.
But, of course, this is a found-footage movie. As a result, most of the movie is cobbled together from various, disparate scenes that are “filmed” by the highest-quality Motorola L6 ever seen. Megan and Amy’s endless conversations about drinks and boys and sex – apart from seeming incongruous with their purported age of 14 and 15 – are all filmed at flat angles, and neither Quinn nor Perkins have the skill to breathe life into a ridiculous script.
One of the central scenes involves strait-laced Amy and party-girl Megan – their only defining character traits – as they wade through a house party that looks like it was ripped from the annals of Animal House. I imagine it’s meant to be shocking that such young girls are engaged in such rampant debauchery, but it really just comes across as absurd. When Amy is violently struck by one of Megan’s friends, it bears more resemblance to a cartoon because it’s framed by such absurd surroundings.
Similarly – because it’s a found-footage movie – the occasional cuts to a surreally fake-looking news studio are lumpen dollops of satire that fail to hit the mark. Presumably intended as a commentary on the callous, hysterical attitudes of American news media, what these segments actually deliver is more silliness on top of an achingly serious story. When Amy – having informed the police of Megan’s conversations with Josh – has news microphones thrust in her unpixellated face, we are, again, supposed to feel shock and anger at the heartless news stations prioritising a story over a young girl’s safety. The actual reaction is closer to strained, derisive yawns.
That’s probably the film’s greatest weakness: How desperately unsubtle it is. Intent on stunning us into raw, agitated fear, it forgets that one of the primary ingredients of most good horror films is the prevalence of that creeping dread; the sensation of certain, impending inevitability. So, instead, we are bombarded with these witless stereotypes and half-arsed social commentary as a cheap side-attraction, gravely diminishing the real, deep horror that comes with the thought of child abduction.
When Megan is Missing finally addresses that central conceit – i.e., the entire premise of the film – in its final 20 minutes. It’s a gruelling experience in which we are forced to watch the graphic rape of Amy in Josh’s basement, the camera pitched unnervingly close to Amy’s whimpering face. What this segment also lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in raw horror. It’s a striking and deeply disturbing assault on the senses, accompanied by sickening thumps, clangs and groans.
I’d hesitate to say that the film would make a fantastic short. Separated from the preceding context surrounding Megan’s disappearance, these last few minutes lose much of their impact. Despite that endless hour of sort-of-not-quite build-up, it also proves essential to the impact of those final moments. And that’s why it’s so frustrating – as execrable as the first hour is, it’s almost redeemed by how good the final 20 minutes are. Sure, it relies on shock content to convey its point, but there is no flourish, no glamour, and no unnecessary bells and whistles.
It’s a flash of horrific brilliance at the tail end of garbage. Though “inspired by true events”, Megan is Missing doesn’t pretend to be a monument to lost girls, but it does, perhaps too briefly, provide an all-too-real window into what it might actually be like to be in that awful situation. Without that conclusion, it’s an endurance test, filled with embarrassing characters and plot turns written by a 30-something year old man with no concept of how teenagers speak or act. A very frustrating sit.