French Found Footage: Cold Ground - Reviewed

Found footage movies are a dime a dozen. To say that the genre has been overdone and bled to death is being kind. From its exploitation roots in the likes of Cannibal Holocaust, to the more modern examples like Paranormal Activity and The Bay, the ideas have spanned the gamut from the boring to the brilliant. Now, with a derivative piece of French cinema titled Cold Ground, it might be time to declare this gimmick deader than a mutilated deer corpse.

It's shamefully apparent within seconds of starting Cold Ground that it doesn’t have an original idea in its skull. The blueprints of The Blair Witch Project are all over this thing, and could have been completed to greater satisfaction in a young child’s paint by numbers coloring book. The second time a pile of bloody remains (piles of rocks?) was left outside the hikers’ tents the morning after a night of spooky sounds in the trees, I mentally checked out. Even when Cold Ground does threaten to color outside the lines, it’s only to emulate another modern horror classic: Neil Marshall’s The Descent.

The premise is Blair Witch lite, changing little more than the time period (Cold Ground takes place in 1979). It even starts off with the same sort of opening title card, explaining that two documentarians once ventured into the mountains of Switzerland, looking for a missing team of scientists, escorted by a medic, a forensic investigator and a biologist. The film that follows is supposed to be their “real footage," as if we would fall for the “I assure you this happened” schtick for the 109th time. But before we can even find our footing, we’re immediately yanked out of the movie by two glaring anachronisms — in the very first scene. I am dead serious: This movie can’t establish the integrity of its chosen decade from go. Incompetence like this would be enough to kill Cold Ground dead in its tracks, but we still have 80 minutes to go.

One of the main ways writer-director Fabien Delage decided to transport the viewers into the last days of disco was to fake the look of Super 8mm. This is undoubtedly achieved with the use of modern digital cameras, post-processed with murky color correction, blurry layer masking, and an overlay of stock camera grains, hairs, scratches, etc. If you remember the over-the-top manner in which Robert Rodriguez "digitally aged" Planet Terror, you get the idea. To his credit, Delage restrains himself from going too far with this trick, as the effect does feel far more organic and natural than Rodriguez’s flick. The aged aesthetic and lack of clarity is appropriate for the type of film stock, but this also backfires, crippling moments that might have been gripping had we been able to see them clearly. After all, this is a French horror film: The same country that gave us Martyrs and Inside, two of the most intense and grueling movie experiences of this century. With this in mind, I was fully anticipating a turning point that would reshape this shallow retread into something memorable. Sadly, that moment never came. When the director does try to go full Deodato with an amputation, the scene is so maddeningly stupid that it provokes laughter instead of revulsion.

"I can't see anything." That's okay, neither can we.

Perhaps the single biggest letdown of all is that Cold Ground also breaks the cardinal rule of found footage. At the time of this film's release, The Blair Witch Project is 19 years old, and that film taught us the most important lesson of all in making these types of movies: In order for the audience to successfully suspend their disbelief, and accept that what they’re seeing really happened, the motivations for picking up that camera and hitting record have to be clear and understandable at all times. Like clockwork, all throughout the 86 minutes of Cold Ground, I found myself calling shenanigans when a character would pick up the camera instead of moving their ass. Added on to that, the camera operator for the majority of the film is supposed to have a broken ankle, yet the movement of the shots remain mostly smooth instead of rolling to one side, which would be indicative of a limp. You might call it nitpicking, but I say it's shit-picking.

Much like Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek, another film that failed to subvert the tropes of a tired genre, it falls into the trap instead of springing it on us. This is a shame for numerous reasons. The performances are all uniformly competent, even when the script calls for inexplicable breaks in character. There a couple of good shocking moments, aided in no small part to the authenticity of the locations selected for filming. The setting in the mountains is unquestionably the true star of the show. Expansive, beautiful, cold, threatening, deadly. Credit must be given where it is due, and the filmmakers have all my respect for toughing out what must have been a torturous shoot for the body, the mind, and the equipment. It takes a lot of love — and perhaps foolishness — to brave such conditions in the name of art, even if the result is forgettable.


— Blake O. Kleiner