Yes, yes, yes: I realize that an awful lot of readers are not tremendous fans of it, and I certainly understand their reservations. Occasionally this visual technique is overdone by budding filmmakers to the point of inducing a mild (or severe) case of motion sickness, and we’ve all been there done that, especially in our pursuit of some good scares. Horror projects are, perhaps, the widest purveyors of found footage; and given the amount of blood, guts, and other bodily fluids typically spilled onscreen in these efforts, this match isn’t always one made in Heaven. Still, when the framework is used smartly, it can make for an incredibly visceral experience, so I’ve always been willing to risk a headache in hopes of being rewarded with final twist.
However, somewhere along the way, storytellers kinda/sorta lost sight of what truly makes found footage its own unique subgenre. From my perspective, this happened when these tales decided they needed to ramp up even more scares in the run times, a narrative switcheroo that typically required some kind of post-production editing in order to legitimately compete with stories of greater depth. Not all legends are created equal – chiefly meaning that not every fable can authentically work within this caught-live-in-the-camera construction – and, thus, directors and screenwriters started to cheat just a bit.
As for Mean Spirited, a Horror/Comedy heavily advertised to be ‘found footage?’
Well, they cheated a lot, so much so that I think it’s not entirely appropriate to call it found footage.
In fact, it’s much more like a podcast production. It’s never quite ‘live’ but does tinker with that approach a great deal, so much so that I get why some might think of it alongside features like The Blair Witch Project (1999) or any of the more effective Paranormal Activity films. But make no mistake: it’s still a worthy Horror/Comedy endeavor, despite the fact that we’ve all likely seen all of its tricks elsewhere before.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A failed YouTuber’s weekend in the Poconos turns into a nightmare when a demon joins the party.”
In comparison, Mean Spirited (2022) reaches for similar aspirations and definitely with the same comic intensity. Its basic premise involves a group of friends all getting back together in a somewhat remote location wherein a dark supernatural force – that may or may not be linked to one of them (sorry, I try to avoid spoiling central plot points, folks, so that’ll have to do) – slowly begins to manipulate these players one-by-one, though what agenda is being served remains largely elusive. However, there’s very little ‘found footage’ in here, as – come the big finish – it’s very clear that the entire production was heavily altered in post-production (even by its players, since it’s a video blog film-within-a-film) in order to deliver its final message.
And yes: there is a final message. Stay through the opening of the end credits, and you’ll see what I mean.
Writer/director Jeff Ryan – who also stars as Bryce and shares screenwriter duties here with Joe Adams (who as well has a small part) – does an affable job keeping Spirited’s wheels turning even when there’s not an awful lot of action onscreen. Granted, most of the plot is more than a bit formulaic here, so that may not seem like much to some. Still, kudos on producing a script that minimally tried to give a few of its players a bit more substance to work with than is the case on most Horror features. There’s a back history linking several of the characters – there’s even an old grudge that plays well into the scarier bits – so the fact that there’s some water already under the bridge both benefits and elevates some of the material in interesting ways. While it would’ve been nice for more discussion (forgive me for liking character arcs, people), there’s enough to flavor a few small moments with a hint of something extra.
Still, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that there’s just no great compelling main performance here. Spirited works as a functional ensemble – the ladies get the true short shrift here, so far as I’m concerned, getting reduced to the most common stereotypes in even the best Horror films – but even a theater troupe usually benefits from a great lead. No one quite emerges from the flock here, and I think that winds up ultimately weakening the brand to the point wherein the script’s clichéd twists have lesser impact than they otherwise could’ve.
Not caring who survives works fine in dark dramas … but in comedies? Well, you still wanna root for the underdog. I just wish Spirited really had one.
While I’m a pretty big proponent of ‘found footage films,’ I’m honestly not much a fan of those flicks who don’t quite buy into the format, thus using it more as a crutch to attempt something unique as opposed to something original. In that regard, Mean Spirited is almost entirely mean spirited, taking advantage of the tips and tricks that make found footage worth the time and investment in favor of delivering a finished product that’s entirely too predictable if not entirely too blasé about what could’ve otherwise been a useable frightfest. In trying to be something that it’s not, it ends up being exactly what audiences expected … without a notable performance in sight. Yes, it’s a bit of a creative miss, but kudos in still facilitating a worthwhile “be careful what you wish for” moral in its after-the-credits scene. In the words of any Scooby-Doo villain: “Maybe that’ll teach those meddling teenagers!”
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment Squad provided me with complimentary streaming access to Mean Spirited (2022) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.