Fantastic Fest Review: 'Afflicted'

With the “Paranormal Activity” franchise finally losing its annual momentum, and given the extent to which the horror genre has bent over backwards to rationalize this low-budget technique (see: the WWII-set “Frankenstein’s Army”), it’s fair to say – or hope – that the ubiquitous “found footage” or “mock documentary” trends of late might finally subside. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been bright spots: last year’s “Chronicle” found an inspired way to tackle the superhero origin story, while next year’s “Afflicted” takes a similar approach to riff on “An American Werewolf in London” and the familiar lore of another horror staple elsewhere in Europe.

At first, we’re ostensibly experiencing the travel blog of Derek Lee and Clif Prowse, two Canadian BFFs set on visiting six continents over the course of a year. Clif’s a documentarian by trade (because of course he is), and he’s keen on recording all of these newly minted memories because Derek has been diagnosed with a brain AVM, putting him at high risk for a potential aneurysm at any moment. Dismissing concerns from family and friends, Derek takes off this adventure while he still can, and after being violently attacked by a random hook-up, he refuses to seek medical care for fear of being kept from finishing the trip. He soon gets his health back and then some, but poor Derek’s only traded one illness for another, discovering his own sudden super-strength and a curious aversion to sunlight…

While emphasizing the extraordinary through an ordinary lens has long been an inherent appeal of the format, its application here nonetheless keeps the film’s visceral charge up, even as our leads incessantly rationalize their constant coverage and the convenience of certain multi-angle scenarios. (A lively P.O.V. chase kicks off when one desperate character flees their residence, only for the fun to be dampened by the retroactive explanation that they only got out of there with the clothes on their back… and, handily enough, the camera bag.) The first-person framework is better justified by the characters’ giddy curiosity over these puzzling new developments, and among the film’s neatest tricks is the seamless incorporation of stunts and effects in an otherwise unassuming narrative.

Take away the shiny trappings, though, and the story still holds as writer/directors Lee and Prowse (sharing their real names with their fake personas) display an amiable chemistry early on, not to mention a mounting mutual concern over Derek’s fragile, frightening state. Even while dodging the long-established mythology of the menace at hand, Lee’s committed physicality and the camera’s reliable misdirection are responsible for a handful of creepy jolts amid a darkly funny sense of escalation, and with few familiar monuments dotting the landscape between Spain, France and Italy, Derek and Clif’s immersion in such nightmarish circumstances suggests a shedding of modern comforts during their stay in the Old World that is less xenophobic than aptly regressive.

Much bloodletting and backtracking ensue in the homestretch, as you might imagine, culminating in the requisite mid-credits cliffhanger. The “Chronicle” comparison is an especially apt one, and anyone who’s recently seen “V/H/S/2” and its GoPro-zombie segment may experience some serious deja vu, but neither prevents “Afflicted” from putting enough of a new-fashioned spin on archaic nightmares to stake a claim all its own.

SCORE: 7.6 / 10

CBS Films will release “Afflicted” in early 2014.