The found-footage horror flick has recently enjoyed an unlikely resurgence thanks to Cloverfield, [Rec], Quarantine, The Last Exorcism, and, especially, the Paranormal Activity movies. The appeal is obvious, as this subgenre of horror capitalizes precisely on the sorts of budgetary and aesthetic limitations that might otherwise keep a film from working its spell. In short, the found-footage horror film is supposed to look like shit, and it’s that blurry, distorted, amateurish atmosphere that can lend otherwise traditional menaces a dimension of actual dread, as the “real life” illusion—if skillfully handled—seemingly allows us to directly experience the violation of something unknown and unwanted springing itself on us.
There’s a trade-off, of course: Namely, that the core elements we savor in a good or even competent movie—performances, dialogue, astute camera placement—have been purposefully jettisoned. A good found-footage movie—and both Paranormal Activity flicks are about as effective and canny as this subgenre gets—taps into the primal human fear of the dark. But a bad found-footage movie leaves you deprived, stranded, and essentially stuck having paid contemporary theater-ticket prices for a bad TV reality show. You’re waiting, sometimes desperately, for anything at all to happen.
I’m sure I’ve seen duller horror movies than Apollo 18 in my life, but it’s been awhile. The premise is perfectly serviceable for a cinematic game of spot the monster: We’re told that NASA sent a secret 18th mission to the moon in 1974 despite the much-publicized cancellations in the press, and that what we’re about to see is footage culled together from hundreds of hours of surveillance found on Apollo 18. The film then fades into the obligatory opening shots of nondescript actors uttering a few lines meant to establish their one bit of discernable personality to the camera—“family man,” “second banana,” “stud of few words”—before quickly vaulting the ultimately doomed three into the darkness of space, where they will soon discover some humbling and terrifying secrets about NASA’s checkered relationship with the moon.
The above makes Apollo 18 sound way more fun than it ultimately is though, and the problem is really rather simple: Watching people land on the moon isn’t all that interesting or photogenic, especially when we know it’s pretend. There are some creepy, atmospheric shots, and the editing and production design are convincing, but the majority of Apollo 18 still amounts to watching grainy, ugly footage of three men bouncing around in the dark spouting lunar jargon as an otherworldly entity apparently screws with their heads.
A nasty, cleverly revealed monster might have redeemed some of the monotony of the first (seemingly endless) hour, but the beasty here manages to be ludicrous, dull, and unoriginal somehow all at once, compromising the marginal hope you may have been holding out for the film. There’s one shot—of a man’s face subsumed by creatures—that’s the stuff of authentic nightmares, but you’ll have already peacefully nodded off long before then.