Before found footage invaded genre cinema, Americans had already versed themselves with syndicated police chases in midnight airings of Cops. By the time reality TV saturated the market in the early 20th century, shaky cams and confessionals had become a shared language in our film vocabulary.
In 2010, docu-horror is hardly an innovative concept but when executed with the right eye, it can still offer a new look into narrative. With his new film Bounty, Kevin Kangas (Fear of Clowns, Hunting Humans) explores its possibilities.
Taking a few cues from Dog: The Bounty Hunter, Bounty is ‘filmed’ by a documentary crew following Grunt, a Baltimore-based bondsman played with likable gruffness by Tom Proctor. At first, it’s business as usual as Grunt, his recovering addict son Kelly, and some paranoid, bulletproof vest sporting partners pick up ‘skips’ and discuss the daily happenings between parole and prison. Life is normal (for men who spend their lives chasing minor criminals) and for quite some time, so is the film. Interesting as character buildup but without an obvious destination.
Cue the zombies! Kind of. Our plot kicks into action when Grunt & Co. learn of a bigger than average bounty on a scientist named Ernie Litwak (Neil Conway). Hot on his trail, Grunt heads to the doctor’s home where he instead discovers a young woman tied up inside. Assuming she’s been kidnapped for nefarious means, Grunt lets the surprisingly apathetic prisoner leave but not before she manages to take a quick bite of Kelly’s arm.
You’ve seen enough horror films to know that strange infections never yield good things. There’s an unusual zombifying strain now spreading through the city of Baltimore, but Bounty avoids the tried and true Romero hallmarks that have come to define (and often, limit) so much of modern genre cinema. Starting with the familiar building blocks of mad scientists, documentary, and government testing for a new breed of super soldier, Kangas manages to use the roots of typical zombie horror to give us an entirely new tale.
Performances help. As Grunt, Tom Proctor has the kind of grizzled face that screams for a close-up and he holds the lead with understated, reliable charisma. A scene towards the end between Grunt and his wife reaches a true sense of tragedy, mostly due to the refreshing sense that Grunt and Maggie (Michelle Trout) feel like an actual husband and wife, a realistic middle aged couple that reminded me personally how the bland pretty people cast kept Cloverfield from ever rising above its innovative premise. Not all local actors are created equal (and there are certainly more stilted performances amongst the cast), but led by Proctor, Bounty’s core keeps the audience caring.
There are definitely dips in some of the pacing, particularly towards Bounty’s middle section where we get not one but two search-the-city montages. Although some of the exposition comes a little forced, the base explanations of what’s at stake feels scientifically and politically grounded. By the time we reach the final act, we’re invested enough in the characters to hold our breath during their last stand. A frantic chase sequence shot in an eerily quiet Baltimore street is loaded with tension, both in what our one camera-in-motion sees and even more intensely, what it cannot.
Avoiding the shaky cam chaos of films like Quarantine while staying consistent to the found-footage parameters, Bounty finds a nice balance between established style and new twists, offering solid proof that no sub-genre is completely dead if a filmmaker can find the right way to make it fresh.
Bounty is currently making its way around film festivals. For more information on upcoming screenings, visit http://www.kangaskahnfilms.com.