Of the many American independent films released in the cinematically bountiful year of 1999, American Movie and The Blair Witch Project both stood out as efforts that made a uniquely powerful impact on their respective genres.
The former of those was the complex, funny, and emotionally affecting non-fiction feature that introduced the world to Wisconsinite Mark Borchardt, an aspiring filmmaker and blue-collar family man whose quixotic effort to complete a short horror film took a hefty toll on nearly everyone in his life. The latter, meanwhile, was a monumental success that – with a killer conceptual hook and a next-to-nothing budget – pioneered the “found footage” horror genre, inadvertently spawning a legion of imitators eager to capitalize on its buzzworthy reinvention of what Pauline Kael used to call the “boo movie.”
Nearly twenty years on from those films’ release, their legacies loom large over Butterfly Kisses, a faux-documentary from writer/director Erik Kristopher Myers that chronicles both the hunt for a horrifying local urban legend and – with a heavy dose of self-reflexivity – a wannabe documentarian’s last-ditch effort to launch his own directorial career.
Somewhat surprisingly, it’s actually the second of those two undertakings that Myers’ film really nails. Despite a couple of well-orchestrated shocks, a fairly unique boogeyman, and a keen understanding of the strengths and limitations of the found footage form, Butterfly Kisses isn’t quite as compelling as a horror movie as it often is as a portrait of a frustrated filmmaker’s descent into obsession, rejection, and, ultimately, self-destruction.
“…chronicles both the hunt for a horrifying local urban legend and a documentarian’s last-ditch effort to launch his own directorial career.”
The film takes the form of a behind-the-scenes documentary about a down-on-his-luck, married-with-child wedding videographer named Gavin York (Seth Adam Kallick). He makes a startling discovery in his in-laws’ basement: a cache of early 2000s-era Mini DV tapes purportedly shot by a pair of college students who met their mysterious ends while making a documentary on a folkloric demon known as “Peeping Tom”.
Seeing the tapes as the basis for a real-life found-footage movie that will propel him to filmmaking fame and fortune, Gavin sets out to investigate the tapes authenticity and, at the same time, generate some pre-release buzz for the project that he’s convinced will be a “game-changer” on the same level as Blair Witch. A film crew (Myers himself being the director) follows him throughout the process, and thus – in a particularly “meta” move – Butterfly Kisses is mainly about a documentary that’s being made about the making of a documentary that is, itself, about the making of a documentary.
That’s all sort of head-spinning, conceptually, but Myers and editor Kenny Johnson prove to be quite adept not only at making things easy to follow for viewers but also in steadily ratcheting up suspense and interest as the film cuts back-and-forth between the 2004-set segments (shot in grainy black-and-white) and the present-day material. The realism of those “found-footage” sequences – in which doomed filmmaking duo Sophia (Rachel Armiger) and Feldman (Reed DeLisle) unwisely attempt to capture “Peeping Tom” on camera – is somewhat marred by a certain woodenness in the performances, but that quality actually serves the story; a significant part of Gavin’s difficulty in finding backers for his project is that nearly everyone he shows the footage to believes it’s all been staged, either by him or the original filmmakers.
“…that thread of cynicism and self-awareness…establishes Butterfly Kisses as a smart alternative to standard fright-flick fare.”
What might be Butterfly Kisses‘ biggest deviation from standard supernatural horror storytelling is that “Peeping Tom” himself is afforded basically no backstory at all. Yes, there is a particular methodology for how to conjure him, and yes, the way he’ll “get you” once you’ve done so is clearly explained, but – in yet another clever, thematically appropriate choice – his origins and motivations are never once explored by anyone in the film. It’s as if Sophia, Feldman, and, later on, Gavin aren’t really all that interested in actually learning anything about him at all – he’s just a means to an end for two separate generations of ambitious filmmakers desperate to claim that they’ve put something never-before-seen onto movie screens.
It’s that thread of cynicism and self-awareness – further supported by interview segments with real-life personalities such as film critic David Sterritt, an editor from Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot series, and a “special guest” whose appearance is so perfectly apropos, it ought not be spoiled – that successfully establishes Butterfly Kisses as a smart alternative to standard fright-flick fare. It also makes the gradual dissolution of Gavin’s career and personal life feel that much more crushing, as he doggedly and hopelessly pursues a project that both experts and potential audiences come to see as nothing but shameless manipulation. Kallick really sells the character’s persistence and growing desperation, which, as in American Movie, leads to some particularly selfish and ugly behavior on his part. Even as Butterfly Kisses ramps up the traditionally spooky stuff in its final half hour, it’s Gavin’s tragic and relatable story that really resonates in the end.
As thoughtful and original as Butterfly Kisses is, it’s fair to question who, exactly, the film is really for. It’s the kind of thing that’s bound to play like gangbusters at film festivals, where savvy, cinematically-literate audiences will fully appreciate all its references, commentary, and self-reflexive genre critique. More casual horror audiences, however, will likely be expecting something more conventionally and consistently scary. Nevertheless, the spirit of The Blair Witch Project and American Movie, and the reasons those instant classics have endured have rarely been evoked and – even more fascinatingly – questioned and debated as engagingly as they are here.
Butterfly Kisses (2018) Written and directed by Erik Kristopher Myers. Starring Seth Adam Kallick, Rachel Armiger, Reed DeLisle, Eileen Del Valle, Matt Lake, David Sterritt, Steve Yeager, Andy Wardlaw
7.5 out of 10