For those who browse horror sites on a daily basis, we know the long and arduous journey Justin Cole has been on since 2009. We know the twists and turns his film The Upper Footage has taken. His film has become a part of modern mythology. But for those who knew nothing about The Upper Footage and stumbled across it through Eventbrite.com, some of its luster may have been lost.
If you had no previous knowledge of Cole’s hype machine, what you witnessed may have been simply chalked up as another entry in the (now long running tradition of) found footage fare. The narrative is simple: four despicable teens go clubbing and bring home a girl that’s below their social class. They feed her cocaine and booze until she over-doses. Once she’s dead, they attempt to figure out what to do with the body.
As a found footage film, it revolts against the golden rule of having a protagonist with the camera. All of the affluent teens are disgusting human beings, and we are forced to bare witness to their horrid nature. The film is also aesthetically unpleasant which provides for another level of realism. Many shots remain static on total darkness or uninteresting details while we hear the teens arguing. The camera is merely unattended, which is how it would be in this scenario. While other times the camera is in a frenzy to catch up to the action around them. Every part of the film feels believable.
Back in 2009 when Cole released bits of footage on YouTube, he began a wildfire of rumors. The scandal was covered by prominent news sources, and there was speculation as to who the pixelated socialites were. In leaking information and videos, Cole began one of the best self-promotion campaigns ever. He fooled everyone and in our instant info age, this is incredible. The hype would not last as he was pressured to reveal his secret. By casting a real socialite with a famous mother and or father (he’s kept her identity a secret), Cole was forced to take drastic measures with his film.
Due to the controversy behind The Upper Footage fliers were distributed that read, “murder is not entertainment.” Thus a conspiracy ensued. The Sunshine theater that was scheduled to screen Cole’s film suddenly pulled it. Publicity like this is normally a good thing, and a lot of filmmakers will attempt to stage these events themselves. One of the greatest examples of this is William Castle destroying his own theater, painting Swastikas everywhere, and calling a press conference to say he wouldn’t be bullied. Cole unfortunately had to succumb to the bullying tactics just to see his film released.
He redesigned the film to keep the character of Jackie hidden under layers of pixels and removed a longer version of her nude scene. In the end, it works to capture the realism of the story. The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity were never forced to publicly say they were works of fiction – this is because of their supernatural subject matter. The Upper Footage is more in the realm of Cannibal Holocaust: it makes you feel uneasy and question the reality of the project. Justin Cole will not have to go to court to prove his work is fiction, yet he was forced to do so even before the public had a chance to react to the actual film.
Even though the overdose and subsequent events were staged, the terrifying truth is that vapid socialites like Will, Devon, Taylor, and Blake exist. When you attempt to categorize this group they are a mix of Bret Easton Ellis’ apathetic affluence with a heavy dose of Jersey Shore bigotry. You cannot sympathize with any of the characters – not even Jackie – and if you do, then you are part of the problem.
From day one, when Cole released a segment of the footage to bring forth scandal, it was always a commentary on the 1%. The upper crest depicted here have no worldly worries other than when to get a pedicure, where to get more blow, and who to score with. The misogyny they represent plays for laughs in comedies like Superbad, but here it is their air of superiority that burrows under your skin. In the first ten minutes of meeting these people you get to witness blatant racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and rampant narcissism. These are the teens that will one day inhabit Ivy league schools and take over their parents empire. They will be the rulers of the economy as CEO’s and executives of corporate America. So while The Upper Footage does not strictly adhere to the normal definitions of horror, it shows there is nothing more horrific today than privileged youth.
In a discussion I had with Justin Cole, he stated that his inspiration for the film derived from the experience of The Blair Witch Project and how it became a media phenomenon. He began to wonder why found footage films failed to take their movies that far anymore. Found footage has become a gimmick rather than a tool to create real fear. Cole said, “The whole genre was really being under-utilized and wasn’t being taken seriously by anyone.” I agree with Justin. While I loved Paranormal Activity, V/H/S 1 and 2, and The Bay, I have often wondered why there are not more found footage films like Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon or Man Bites Dog. By contemplating the found footage genre and its ineptitude for actual realism, his idea began germinating.
“I think that the scariest things are things that could happen in real life, and in my opinion the scariest villains in the world today are the 1%. Just making a film showing these people as they are would not have done the trick for me. I thought what if I could make a film showing them for what they are, while showing that the media that tells everyone that they are fantastic is completely full of s***.”
Once his outline came together, he then began searching for his actors. He went through three casts before finding the right actors for the film. He sold everything he owned and moved multiple times to come up with the initial money needed to begin his project. He kept the mantra: no matter what I will see it through and complete it. When the bullying began he couldn’t do anything about it since he wanted to keep the film “real.” He was contacted by different distributors after a few screenings, but none of the distribution companies wanted The Upper Footage as it was. They all wanted cuts and were afraid of the liability of keeping some of the footage, and none of them were willing to sell it as real. Cole came clean in a letter to DreadCentral.com, and from there spent months trying to release his film. He even thought to release if for free just to get his vision into the world.
Finally, after years of struggle, you can purchase a ticket to see it at an online theater, and I would highly recommend it. Even if The Upper Footage fails to release to the general public, the film has earned its status as a postmodern phenomenon and will rest in the annuls of cult mythos. By creating a media hoax covered by Entertainment Tonight and other reputable sources, The Upper Footage raises the bar on how a found footage film can transform into a snuff film about Hollywood. While the media is hard at work creating our reality, it is wonderful to see a film’s ability to pull back the curtain and reveal that our lives are made up of rumors and gossip rather than fact. With today’s age of celebrity death hoaxes and internet trolling, the public is finally beginning to realize that our reality is constantly in question.