Found footage is a complicated genre and it takes a certain degree of wherewithal to pull it off. In the case of The Break-In, Justin Doescher’s 2016 horror movie, the results are mixed. The characters are well-rendered if uneven and the strain builds in part thanks to the conceit and in part because watching an irritatingly romanticized set of characters face some tension is a rather good time.
The ubiquity of the camera gets out of hand, with the protagonist filming everything from mealtimes to private conversations to a jog around the neighbourhood. He even films himself drinking a glass of water at the sink and opens his front door with phone constantly in hand. There are some half-assed rationalizations to this pervasiveness, but the behaviour still seems absurd – and for good reason.
Jeff (Doescher) and Melissa (Maggie Binkley) live in a nice apartment next door to their very best friends Steve (Juan Pablo Velza) and Lisa (Melissa Merry). Melissa is pregnant and Jeff is paranoid about some burglaries in the neighbourhood. He purchases a costly home security system. He’s also in love with his new phone, which means he films the living hell out of everything.
One day, Detective Garcia (Ted Fernandez) drops by with a few questions about the rash of break-ins. He even tells Jeff it’s a good idea to film everything because something important could show up in the frame. Later, Steve and Lisa are the victims of a burglary. A frustrated Jeff seeks out a possible suspect and the tension sets in once more, with a final night culminating in a blood-soaked surprise.
Doescher does well to build The Break-In from the ground up. It’s apparent that he has a plan and he spends the first two-thirds of the picture laying down breadcrumbs, with pieces of dialogue painting a troubled picture. It can be difficult to catch this disquiet, as Jeff and Melissa are almost exasperatingly cheerful.
Jeff is the sort of person who wakes up in the morning, turns his phone camera on and asks what the day’s activities are going to be. Most of the conversations he has with his wife have to do with how lucky they are to have such great friends and so forth. They go jogging, have meals, go shopping. They never seem to work or go through much strife, even when the neighbourhood is inundated with crime.
Melissa is bubbly to the point of annoyance. She’s the sort of young woman who hops up and down when she’s excited, the sort of person who makes little squeaking sounds when she speaks. Despite the script informing the viewer that she’s stressed by the break-ins, there’s little to indicate she’s all that bothered until late in the picture.
The viewer is told that the footage is part of police evidence, which confirms that something bad is going to happen. Doescher’s arranging of the evidence hits a few snags, like when music or ambient noise flips in during a tense scene. There is a lot of seemingly superfluous footage, too, but one could imagine the significance of such material in the context of the movie’s ending. There is also the late-game suggestion that the footage in question may be a matter of perspective, which has eerie implications.
The Break-In runs just 72 minutes in length and it does manage to get a fair bit done, functioning like a disturbing short story swinging on a Hitchcockian device. The fear of the home invasion forms the central thrust, but a broader examination of character psychology would’ve facilitated more tension. The characters are never really paralyzed by fear, which limits the fright factor.
In part, this is because of the restraining nature of the medium. There is only so much irrationality one can stand, especially when a scared-shitless character stalks through his house at night with a knife in one hand and his phone in the other. He still has the capability to precisely aim the screen despite facing potential doom.
Perhaps that’s commentary in and of itself. After all, in 2015 more people were killed taking selfies than by shark attacks. Maybe the omnipresence of technology trumps good sense, even in the face of a masked intruder and all the profane terror that comes with it. In that sense, maybe The Break-In has it about right after all. How scary is that?
You can rent The Break-In on Vimeo.