Stoker Hills is Exhibits A, B, and C in the case against modern found-footage films.
Director Benjamin Louis’s thriller Stoker Hills opens in an anonymous classroom setting, where a college professor — played by Tony Todd, of all people — lectures his students on the finer points of film history, name-dropping various filmmaking titans and asking questions about famous quotes that even a ten-year-old with a passing knowledge of the medium would recognize instantly. That this is supposed to be a senior-level collegiate course implies that Louis has no familiarity with the intricacies of actual film school, not that such a thing is a prerequisite to a good movie or a talented filmmaker. The abysmal Stoker Hills, however, makes a strong case otherwise, presenting as a found-footage horror flick crossed with a substandard detective narrative that is self-serious to the point of near parody. Two obnoxious film nerds (David Gridley and Vince Hill-Bedford) armed with a handheld camera and enough weed to smoke both Cheech and Chong under the table set out to make their senior project, a short film entitled Street Walkers, in which zombie hookers wreak havoc on a small town. “Think The Walking Dead meets Pretty Woman,” is how one character describes it, which should clue the viewer in to the level of cleverness on display here. Unfortunately for them, their leading lady, “Two-Take” Erica (Steffani Brass) — trust me, she could use a few more takes — is abducted by a man in a beat-up car while filming late one night, resulting in a frantic search that ultimately involves two jaded police detectives (William Lee Scott and Eric Etebari) who are hot on the trail of a serial killer known only as “The Shadow” and who is unfortunately not a ‘90s-era Alec Baldwin re-enacting a famed radio show.
The first 30 minutes of Stoker Hills are almost entirely found-footage and exemplify the worst traits of the subgenre, including nausea-inducing shaky-cam, shallow focus, limited lighting, and tight close-ups, all of which obscure the action to a degree that makes it impossible to follow what is going on for more than one or two seconds. Once the action shifts to the police detectives and their fourth-rate Se7en shenanigans, the film’s aspect ratio changes from standard widescreen to Cinemascope, while the camerawork limits itself to static point-and-shoot, with the occasional flourishes of Steadicam and tracking shots thrown in. The film doesn’t necessarily look bad in this section and exhibits signs of competency, but it is aesthetically bland, which is at least in line with the sleep-inducing plot mechanics on display. For a film whose storyline ultimately hinges on a pig-to-human heart transplant, Stoker Hills is fatally devoid of any sort of fun, instead choosing to focus on endless filler where the two detectives exchange hard-bitten dialogue that is meant to recall classics of the genre but instead brings to mind a particularly awful DTV misfire from the ‘90s starring the likes of Stephen Baldwin and C. Thomas Howell. No attempt is made to make any of the action the least bit involving once the found-footage angle is mercifully dropped, as the central mystery is completely absent of thrills or surprises. A few splashes of blood here and there do little to alleviate the tedium, and the twist delivered at film’s end is a true kick in the balls that makes the preceding action both essentially pointless and wholly ironic given the final product on display. Found-footage as a whole is in desperate need of a new infusion of blood; Stoker Hills, unfortunately, might just be the final nail in the coffin, another anecdote to discuss in film courses around the globe. Thanks for the contribution.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | January 2022.