Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (US limited); October 11th, 2013 (UK)
Genre: Horror; Thriller
Starring: Aaron Poole, James Gilbert
The Conspiracy struts its way on screen like a middleweight boxer ready to unleash a one-two combination. The first jab is swift and fairly unrelenting. As the film begins we peer skywards, eyes fixated on a pair of tall building not dissimilar in style and size to the World Trade Center. The brooding tone is set; a faux-documentary tale ushering in the notion of elitist secrecy and hidden agenda. We reside in a globe ripe with conspiracy theorists and theories, undoubtedly. For a short while, the impact of jab number one lingers. Unfortunately, the second swing can be seen coming a mile off. From feeling slightly spooked due to the prior injection of pseudo-realism, we now enter a particularly tiresome realm known as found footage horror. Intrigue gone, not even a vaguely haunting final act can save The Conspiracy. In the end, blurred lines only serve to expose.
Aaron (Aaron Poole) and Jim (James Gilbert) are two documentary filmmakers looking to delve into the world of dishonest suits. They meet up with Terrance (Alan C. Peterson) — a conspiracy nut whose maniacal preachings have been doing the rounds on the internet — with intentions firmly set on relaying his story to the world. However when Terrance inconspicuously vanishes, the only remnants left behind are his DIY newspaper wall-charts. The duo’s subsequent search for answers leads them closer to an alarming truth, and further from the security of normality.
Director Christopher MacBride attains a solid opening half hour through well-dug foundations. In a transparent age where every decision is questioned and every answer analysed, his film manages to strike with a fistful of relevancy, at least for a while. Messing around on chat-rooms, Aaron and Jim embody the modern web-surfer whose bible takes the form of a Wi-Fi connection and a computer screen. As they mingle online, a curious sentiment arises: if a conspiracy theory is born out of somebody’s buzzing and immaterial imagination, how can it be disproved? This dichotomy captures our attention and even throws a temporary blanket over the poor acting on display. The occasional shimmy of odd wit breaks through a not-so-subtly humorous poise at times: “So what are you guys using this for?” asks a shopkeeper as he sells the nosy pair a couple of hidden cameras. In a perversely amusing twist, the two no longer seem to care much for missing pal Terrance, the whole point of their documentary originally. It’s when Aaron and Jim start getting followed that proceedings take a turn for the generic.
As the largely dour and unsurprising reveal comes to fruition, the wheels come off. Rather than an inquisitive socio-political engagement, The Conspiracy morphs into a standard horror flick. Up until now, the documentary presentation has justified its found footage approach, but upon emittance of clarity motioning that things are not quite as straightforward as they seem — they really are, in truth — said approach loses value. As soon as the narrative starts to resemble The Blair Witch Project, bouts of infectious groaning can be heard resounding from the throats of viewers the world over. Or maybe that was just residual noise from the handheld camera.
The horror aspect struggles to horrify. Sure, we’re subject to an unsettling few minutes, but it’s not enough. That aforementioned blanket of security covering some terrible acting goes up in flames, exposing amateur hour. Effectively, all of the good work done in establishing a documentary platform unravels in lieu with the film’s wavering focus, so much so that you begin to question the success of the opening 30 minutes. On reflection, scenes that previously passed without too much sincerity interrogation (we were along for the ride at that time) now reek of coincidence; a guy on bike just so happens to show up in the same place more than once, and the partner of one of the chaps just so happens to invade goings-on as the duo are testing concealed camera equipment.
Frustratingly, the narrative concept may well have had some legs if the switch in prerogative from conspiracy documentary to ritualistic horror wasn’t presented so jarringly. Are we meant to believe that every conspiracy has a secret organisation behind it? Associating mysterious societies with business leaders and the like is a corny ploy too; as if all of these oligarchic bank managers and stockbrokers choose to spend their evenings dressed up as The Undertaker while scampering around forests playing games of Cowboys & Indians. Whereas the use of archived 9/11 and Kennedy assassination footage within the documentary-esque context is warranted, the employment of these particular images begins to feel a tad exploitative as the film shifts viewpoint.
Though it begins with a sense of intrigue and purpose, The Conspiracy soon face-plants in a subpar horror hole. With greater focus and better component parts, perhaps Christopher MacBride could have unearthed a gem. However, as the credits began to roll I was left simply wishing for the return of Terrance who, over the course of an hour, had become the new archetype of sanity.
A mean feat indeed.