In the 16 years since the runaway success of “The Blair Witch Project”, one of the last Sundance sleepers to become a mainstream commercial hit, a legion of imitators have flooded the horror market with their own “found footage” films. There have been a few diamonds in the rough since then, but the mere mention has mostly elicited groans and eye rolling from horror fans. The found footage label has become an excuse for amateur acting, sloppy editing, and absence of production design. .
“Blair Witch”, while not pre-internet, was able to take advantage of the fact that viewers were less savvy and claims could not be instantly fact checked. Audiences in 1999 were ready and willing to believe in a frightening new urban legend. It was so effective that residents of Burkittsville, Maryland actually swore they recalled the Blair Witch myth from their childhood. I am not lumping director Justin Snyder’s “Black Eyed Children: Let Me In” in with the granddaddy of found footage films unfairly. “Black Eyed Children” embraces and invites the comparison. It even names one if its characters after “Blair Witch” director Eduardo Sanchez.
“Black Eyed Children” also owes much to horror webseries “Marble Hornets”, which ran for 92 episodes over 3 seasons. It had more layers than a Russian nesting doll and explored a filmmaker investigating the Slenderman urban legend. It is a great model for grassroots viral marketing and cleverly played around in the found footage sub-genre.
Released in 2015, “Black Eyed Children” is not only late to the party; it also empties your fridge, clogs your toilet, and steals your dog. Describing “Black Eyed Children” to a friend after watching it, I explained it to him like this. Imagine that your college roommate stayed up all night reading Wikipedia articles on urban legends and conspiracy theories. Then he corners you the next day and regurgitates everything in one rambling nonsense monologue.
The film follows a documentary filmmaker (director Justin Snyder) who sets out to uncover the truth behind the urban legend of “Black Eyed Children”. The legend goes like this. A child knocks on your door and asks to be let inside. Since nobody would be so cruel as to leave a child out in the cold night, they are let in. Once inside, they are free to kill you? Possess you? Who knows? The movie never decides. Snyder conducts interviews with people who claim to have had personal encounters with the children and lived to tell the tale. The acting ability of those tasked with delivering the exposition varies from Community Theater to dumpster fire.
It’s difficult to convey just how distracting the actors portraying the interviewees are. Usually, found footage movies eschew traditional screenplays for a looser treatment which allows nonprofessional actors (necessary to maintain the illusion of reality) to be comfortable in the scene and not have to be burdened by too much dialogue. The actors in “Black Eyed Children” seem to have been forced to memorize every comma, ellipsis, and specific syllable accent. And if the stiff acting wasn’t enough, in one scene an actress portraying a professor is made to inexplicably wear a costume that is essentially a Dora the Explorer wig and gag glasses. Snyder’s journey to witness the children himself leads him to sleeping in a tent in the woods for no reason other than further ape “Blair Witch”.
What made “Bair Witch” & “Marble Hornets” work is that they were interested in creating a new legend and a believable world. They succeed in their specificity. “Black Eyed Children” is a puzzling hodgepodge of alien conspiracy theories, vampire mythos, and government cover-ups. At one point it even incorporates the local Virginia urban legend of Bunnyman Bridge (which itself was the premise of Robert Elkins’s 2010 “Nightmare at Bunnyman Bridge”). The film seems bored with its own idea and wanders off to talk about other legends.
It’s confusing as to what “Black Eyed Children” is. It’s not passable as an actual document. It doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny that all found footage films are subjected to. The frights elicited are limited to a few jump scares and finding baby dolls outside a tent. It adds nothing new to any of the urban legends it investigates.
I’ve seen other reviews compliment Snyder for completing a film on a sub $1000 budget. I will join them in congratulating him for not only completing a film, but also securing distribution. But lack of budget should never be an excuse for lack of ingenuity.
“Black Eyed Children” is available now to stream online.