The exquisite fear of Marble Hornets

Full disclosure: I get scared very easily.

Today, I came across Marble Hornets, a long running original horror series/ARG on YouTube. The series is like a weird, glorious mash-up of disparate horror and fantasy influences, combining the aesthetic of found footage films with a story similar to The Ring/other J-Horror films told in a manner reminiscent of Lost and serialized in tiny, bite-sized chunks.  If you aren’t familiar with Marble Hornets and would like to experience it without any spoilers, I direct you to its first, introductory video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wmhfn3mgWUI&feature=plcp

Spoilers follow.

Season 1 (Introduction, Entries 1 through 26)

The key difference in story between Marble Hornets and other found footage films is that Marble Hornets follows a parallel track of narratives. I mentioned The Ring earlier as an influence because Marble Hornets utilizes a similar horror mechanic (i.e. something freaky and paranormal that causes the deaths/disappearances of various people) and, like The Ring, tracks the procedural, increasingly terrifying investigation into the phenomenon.

Marble Hornets follows the troubled post-mortem investigations of intrepid film student Jay into the freaky occurrences during the production of the titular short film.  The in-universe “Marble Hornets” is a rather unspectacular, archetypal college student film helmed by the cocky and possibly missing Alex, who’s well connected enough to con an ensemble of other friends/local actors into joining his project. There’s Brian (the jovial chap playing the lead), Tim (the one with sideburns),  Seth (the underdeveloped one) and Sara (the tits). Jay originally served as script supervisor for the film, before getting promoted to de-facto director when Alex bolts town and, hesitantly, hands over the completed footage to Jay.

The first series of entries detail weird/unexplained moments found by Jay in the completed footage. Mysterious artifacts, both visual and aural, crop up. Half of the tapes seem to consist solely of Alex staring worriedly at a computer screen. There’s also this big, tall, faceless…slender bloke that appears to be stalking Alex and the “Marble Hornets” cast. Strangest of all, Jay doesn’t seem to remember any of these things happening. Jay snoops around his town for clues about what became of Alex, Brian et. al, encountering mostly dead ends as elements from the film start creeping into Jay’s own life.

It is here, around entry 16, where Season 1 starts hitting its horrifically mangled stride. The horror elements, mostly played straight and low-key, are quite potent during the snippets of “Marble Hornets,” but they achieve an even greater level of mindfuckery during the second half of the season. We identify with Jay because we’re doing what he’s doing – piecing together the strange and most disturbing events during production from snippets of captured footage – so when that creepy shit starts bleeding into his life, we start getting paranoid about that creepy shit happening in the background of our lives. Of particular note are the visits to the fantastically scary abandoned house, culminating in a pant-soiling daytime chase through a fucked up, possibly alternate-dimension series of hallways.

The production makes the most of limited budgets. Pre-DSLR revolution visuals jive with the cheap-ish feeling coming off of “Marble Hornets.” The vlog format is also handed nicely. Unlike The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (the YouTube Pride and Prejudice adaptation), the format never feels forced. Rather, the vlogs feel integral to the tone of the series, serving the same narrative purpose as those Polaroids from Memento. Acting follows similar lines – nothing is particularly great, but all the actors are convincing enough as frustrated film students.

The first season concludes on a breathtaking cliffhanger that complicates matters further for poor Jay while, at the same time, adding new implications and hints about the Marble Hornet universe. It’s a bit of a masterpiece that overwhelms its somewhat sillier moments with sheer, primal terror.

Season 2 (Entries 27 – 52)

Season 2 opens with a ballsy leap forward in chronology. In a clever twist, Jay awakes to find that about 7 months (exactly the length of the season break) have passed, and he doesn’t have a clue what happened. Stranger still is subtly fucked world he seems to be inhabiting. He’s left with no apparent footage to show for his efforts and a weird, Overlook-esqe hotel to call home. It’s a creative gambit that works, at first, because it suggests a satisfying way for the second season to replicate the successful parallel story dynamic of the first season.

However, the filmmakers appear to have different plans. Instead of piecing together the events of those lost 7 months while embarking on new, twisted adventures, Jay simply faffs about for the first 7 or so entries. Seriously. He finds a 10 second scrap of footage. He visits a park. He meets a nice lady named Jessica. And then HE STABS HER TO DEATH. No, wait, that was just my imagination. Sorry.

It’s a cop out that we return to the subtle camera sensor fuckery of the earliest entries when the supernatural forces had already escalated to full on assault and kidnapping at the end of season 1. The story just don’t seem that scary by comparison. I mean, we already know that there’s some creepy dude (or dudette) messing crap up. It’s just not enough anymore to hint at his (or her) presence. And, after another fucking dull conversation between Jay and the nice lady, the story stops being interesting. Worse, still, the talky nature of these opening bits reveal the weak writing supporting the series.

The conversations Jay has with Jessica are haltingly artificial, existing only to drive whatever little narrative momentum there is. I don’t think you’d ever see hotel neighbors calling each other out for bullshitting one another’s pleasantries. Even the fact that they’re the only two occupants in the hotel doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy. The hotel’s like in some dead end town in the middle of nowhere, right? We’ve yet to see, really, anyone outside of Jay and Jessica. Who knows, maybe it’s purgatory.

Actually, scratch that. If it turns out this is purgatory again, heads will fucking roll.

The story does pick up a bit during entry 34 when the masked freak makes another show stopping appearence, causing Jay to sprint the motherfuck out of that creepy hotel, abandoning his lady friend in the process. But then…uh, I don’t really know. We start seeing footage from those lost 7 months that Jay found during 34 without much information about Jay’s current whereabouts.

It’s fine at first. I mean we all know that Jay is currently shitting his pants across the country by now. That’s cool. The flashback footage is also a nice change of pace from dull yellow hotel corridors. Then a god damned year (both in real time and in-universe time) passes.

We’re lead to believe that Jay, presumably someone with a film degree, took a whole damn year flipping through old footage and sitting on his ass.

No.

No, no, no, no, no.

Not when you’ve just shown us, in season 1, a Jay that goes buttfirst into whatever lead he can find. Not when you’ve just spent the beginning of this season following Jay as he thrillingly picks his nose in a hotel room. Not when there’s a mothercocking INTER-DIMENSIONAL BOOGEYMAN TRYING TO KILL HIS ASS.

There’s no suspense because you already know that Jay, Jessica and that freaky-deaky masked man (who turns out to be Tim) make it past those 7 months alive. You’re just watching them get into the mess in the first place. There are commendable attempts at deepening the mythos that, nonetheless, fail. Partly because the new story elements conflict with the established facts (turns out “Marble Hornets” was actually shot on crystal clear HD cameras, you were just looking at it wrong), and partly because there’s no point.  (EDIT: After some more careful viewing, I realized that, though the YouTube file was rendered at 720p, the source footage was shot on the same, crappy SD camera. The footage was simply cropped to fill the screen this time. My bad.)

At this time, whatever explanation you’ve come up for the fucked up proceedings is likely way, way more interesting than the actual answer. The longer this series drags on, the more we’re just setting ourselves up for disappointment with the real outcome.

I suppose, on the bright side, production values have increased dramatically. Jay now has both an HD Hero and an HDCAM with which to film the ground. And there are, rather surprisingly, moments of absolute beauty in the series, whether it be some brilliant shot composition (see the tilted tunnel shot) or some pleasing lighting (see the night-vision chase).

Even so, I can’t help but be disappointed. What once was a genuinely terrifying and unnerving series has devolved into a mildly diverting series of somewhat scary vignettes.

With great power comes great responsibility. So please, for season 3, make a better Slender Man costume that doesn’t look embarrassingly fake at 720p.