Jennifer Help Us (2014)
Jennifer Help Us was probably more notable for the experience of seeing it than for the actual film itself. It's the first film that I ever saw at a film festival -- in this case, at the Freak Show Horror Film Festival, which took place alongside the Spooky Empire horror convention held at the DoubleTree Hilton in Orlando. It came with a pair of pretty fun short films before it (Waterborne, an Australian kangaroo zombie film, and American Hell, a home invasion film whose crazed villainess elevated it to being amazing), and afterwards there was a Q&A with the director and screenwriter. For a couple of first-time filmmakers, it actually wasn't bad. Shot in a faux-grindhouse, '70s throwback style that, for the most part, actually looked decent, it was a pretty fun, if insubstantial, little film that could've used some more character development, but still surprised me.
The story is that a trio of high school mean girls, Tara, Pegs, and Mindy, kidnap a new student, Jennifer, after Tara's boyfriend rapes Jennifer. In the hope of ensuring that Jennifer stays silent about it, they take her to a seemingly abandoned house reputed to be haunted, tie her up in the attic, and leave her there for the weekend to stew in her own fear. Unfortunately, a mysterious, mentally deranged woman still lives in the house, and Jennifer uses her to turn the tables on her captors, posing as the woman's mother and getting her to capture and kill them while she herself hides in the shadows.
The best part about the film was the acting from the killer and Tara. The killer is wonderfully deranged without ever speaking a line or even giving the audience a glimpse of her face; the contrast between her freaky "mask" (a cow's pelvis worn atop her head) and her yellow dress was both beautiful and terrifying. And she lived up to the look of her costume, acting almost child-like in her adventures before and during her killing spree, a personality markedly different from your typical masked slasher. The girl who played Tara, meanwhile, was great as both the bitch in the beginning and as a badass final girl in the end, and was beautiful on top of it (one of the people in the Q&A compared her to a young Uma Thurman). She deserved to have a much larger role rather than spending the middle of the film tied up and gagged, especially since the girl playing Jennifer, the film's real villain, wasn't up to her level in terms of acting, failing to convey much in the way of either menace or anger at the other girls. The other two girls were alright, though I felt that the girl playing Pegs did the better job of the two; the girl playing Mindy had one moment of terrible line delivery that still sticks out. As for the look of the film, for something shot on an iPhone using an app to make it look like an 8mm film, it was gorgeous, almost perfectly evoking the style of something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Granted, there were times when this style slipped and you could tell that the film was shot on a modern, high-definition smartphone, especially towards the beginning of the film, but fortunately, they were few enough that I was able to soon overlook them, especially given the attention to detail in other areas of the production.
What wasn't so easy to overlook was the writing. It took me a while to figure out just why Tara and her friends had kidnapped Jennifer; initially, I thought it was because she slept with Tara's boyfriend willingly rather than having been raped by her. Likewise, I didn't quite get how Jennifer, despite being stated to be new to the town, knew about the haunted house, let alone knew enough about it to figure out how to get its crazy inhabitant to do her bidding. It's stated pretty clearly in the beginning that Jennifer is just now learning about this place, mostly through Tara telling her that the place is haunted. Apparently, the filmmakers cut out quite a few of the characters' conversations in the first act so as to help the film move at a swifter pace. Given that the film ran at just about an hour and fifteen minutes according to my watch, I feel that some of these scenes should've been kept in the film so as to clarify the plot. Finally, neither the ostensible heroine Tara nor the villain Jennifer were all that pleasant. While Jennifer wins sympathy points for having not only been raped, but then kidnapped by the rapist's girlfriend, the story and her actions clearly paint her as a bad guy, while Tara is never truly redeemed for her heinous actions that open the story. The only real sympathetic character is Pegs, the one who tried to go to the police, and she's a fairly minor character without a lot of screen time.
Score: 3 out of 5
It has some shaky writing, and a bit too much story and characterization was left on the cutting room floor, but overall, Jennifer Help Us is a solid effort for first-time indie filmmakers. Go check it out.