Before watching Beckoning the Butcher I was worried; as yet another entry into the recent slew of found-footage ghost films made on a shoestring budget (reportedly just $3000) with a no-name director and cast, I was fairly sure it was going to be a tedious affair. What a welcome surprise it was to find that not only was the film fairly decent, it was also (arguably) better than most entries into the Paranormal Activity series – from which it fairly heavily pulls influence. Not only that, it was also one of the better Australian productions I’ve seen in the past few years and (maybe unsurprisingly) one of the only one’s not bankrolled by Screen Australia.
The film follows Chris (Damien E. Lipp), a youtuber famous for filming his unsuccessful attempts to summon spirits through incantations and rituals that he sources online. After Chris’s brother (Lliam Murphy) sources a new ritual called “beckoning the butcher” on the deep-web, Chris, his girlfriend, and his best mates travel to the country to perform the ceremony and rack up some new footage in the process. Unfortunately they get more than they bargained for when, in contrast to his prior attempts at conjuring spirits, this one is successful. Chris and his mates are left fighting for their lives as they attempt to evade the spirit that they have unleashed.
Structurally, the film is a sort of PSA, with footage of his brother and a medium (Janet Watson Kruse) encouraging viewers not to try this at home cut into the footage from the “beckoning the butcher” ritual. They justify the release of the footage to “discourage copycats”. It’s a nice little structure, even if it is a bit derivative of another contemporary Australian Horror feature, The Tunnel, and the medium’s dialogue strays into the ridiculous a couple of times (there are some hilarious lines about blood literally being our lifeforce that forced some chuckles out of me).
It is clear watching Beckoning the Butcher that writer/director Dale Trott had seen many recent entries into the found-footage Horror niche and said to himself “I can do this better”. He has constructed a film that that, despite being just as conventional as the others, managed to avoid (most) of the pitfalls of its predecessors. Firstly, his cast (like normal human beings) are able to hold a camera relatively steadily – it’s easy to follow the action and the visuals aren’t an eyesore. Secondly, by encasing the film in a Tunnel-esque kind of documentary/PSA, Trott accounts for the surfacing of the footage fairly well, allowing for the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Thirdly, the characters are actually somewhat likeable, and there’s none of that macho, tough guy nonsense that plague some of the more Hollywood-y entries into the genre – when scary stuff happens our cast seem genuinely scared by it. Finally, the film doesn’t attempt to extend beyond its budgetary limitations so none of the effects come off as particularly simulated or fake (for the most part).
All of this allows you to really immerse yourself in the film, and makes Beckoning the Butcher a far more engaging experience than all of the Paranormal Activity sequels (thank god this didn’t have anything ridiculous like the second film’s levitating pool cleaner sequence or the third’s fan cam). It’s also pretty nice to see a film finally engage with the deep-web (unless you count Assayas’s Demonlover), even if it was a little bit hokey – I’m sure there’s a lot more of this to come in the near future.
Beckoning the Butcher isn’t fine cinematic art; it never purports to be – and don’t be misled by this review, it isn’t a masterpiece. The film is fun, a little silly, and over-the-top. It occasionally packs a bit of punch with a few great scares and solves most of the issues associated with modern, found-footage Horror flicks. It’s a fine debut, and demonstrates that Trott can do wonders with a small budget (bring on his second feature Killervision!).
Films like Beckoning the Butcher are the breath of fresh air the Australian Horror scene needs to kickstart another golden-era of exploitation, so it’s a bit of a shame that current distribution models mean that its audience (for the most part) probably won’t be aware of its existence. If you want to see a found-footage ghost story done right (and you can’t make any of the Sydney Underground Film Festival sessions), I’d recommend picking up the DVD release from Monster Pictures, although if you’re not into this kind of stuff I’d probably skip this – it won’t convert you by any means.
Beckoning the Butcher screens at the Sydney Underground Film Festival on Friday the 5th of September at 10.30pm and Saturday the 6th of September at 8.30pm. The director Dale Trott will be in attendance. Alternatively, you can pick up the DVD distributed by Monster Pictures.