PLOT: After one of their conspiracy theorist subjects mysteriously vanishes, two documentary filmmakers get deeply ensconced in a horrific secret society ritual.
REVIEW: Christopher MacBride's low-budget Canadian feature debut, THE CONSPIRACY, fresh off its Fantastic Fest premiere, is a movie I had little to no knowledge about going in. I'm glad such was the case, because in spite of its limited resources and parsimonious visual aesthetic, the found-footage format is actually employed quite cleverly to subvert documentary convention and instead offer an immediate dose of terror. In other words, the shaky cam works here because of the intrinsic nature of the narrative, and instead of seeing the format as a lame gimmick, the material is compelling enough in the first half to just play as a straight documentary. Fully onboard and invested, it's that very reason why the late horrific turn feels earned and authentic.
Jim and Aaron are making a documentary on conspiracy theory culture; secret societies, the Illuminati, New World Order, and the like. When they score a plum of a subject in a frenzied man named Terrence, their minds are opened to a whole new conspiratorial way of seeing the world. However, when Terrence vanishes one day, his apartment ransacked, Jim and Aaron shift the focus of their film onto what happened to the guy. Was he killed for getting too close to the truth? After researching Terrence's endless news clippings and interviewing a shady columnist who once wrote a scathing exposť on the Tarsus Club - the organization tying all of these global power conspiracies together - Jim and Aaron stupidly decide to infiltrate one of the society's secret gatherings and witness themselves whatever dreaded rituals take place. Not terribly wise, as you can guess, and in the end, the two filmmakers get a lot more than they bargained for.
When Jim and Aaron successfully sneak into the ritual, things obviously turn terrible. At this time the film still purports to be a real doc, with the camera hidden on Aaron's person, so every other attendee at the party is shrouded by blurred-facial FX and ominous voice scrambler (as are the interviewed subjects). For a horror film, these conventions are effective, as everyone looks and sounds eerie and unidentifiable (it's also far more logical to have the cam hidden as opposed to having to account for a cameraman). By the same token, we know by now this is NOT a real doc, so in that regard the same FX seem rather silly. Not a make or break deal either way though, as it's all preamble to a pretty shocking finale I won't give away. Suffice it to say, I somewhat admired the resolution even if not entirely satisfied.
For conspiracy theorists, or even those remotely interested in the unseen or untold, THE CONSPIRACY is sure to keep your interest. The first half plays like a straight up doc, and since I'm not immune to fabled hearsay like Kubrick's Apollo missions or JFK's second shooter (neither touched on in the film), I was personally into it. And since it's presented as an authentic doc, the handheld camera work complimented the story instead of distracting it. More, since conspiracy theories in general are so predicated on mystery, fear of the unknown plays heavily here...the uncertainty of the characters is reflected on us, and as we unpeel one layer after another as they do, we get further and further tangled in the web of mystery, the growing tension and unease is palpable. I seriously got chills once or twice. And while the culmination wasn't as satisfying as expected, it was certainly unpredictable, and for that, even if a partial cop out, must be at least partially commended.
As for downers, they're your typical for this caliber of film. The acting is at best dubious, at worst amateurish. The technical aspects often feel chintzy, even with the clever documentary format. Worse, early on there are a number of real life shots of the twin towers being hit on 9/11...not only cheap and gratuitous, but tasteless and truly disgusting as well. I had a hard time overcoming this part, and almost turned the flick off completely. It's simply useless and exploitative, and way too repetitive. One shot maybe, but three or four? Pretty gross. But in the end decided to wait and give MacBride the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately I'm glad I did, though I'd probably score the film a whole point higher if those images were not included. And I don't offend easily.
At the end of the day, THE CONSPIRACY is a compelling if minor spin on the faux-doc horror template. It works well because of how genuine the first half plays, the questions it raises, and the subtle transition into the horrific thereafter. It does help if you have a predisposed interest in conspiratorial musings, otherwise you might immediately right the flick off as pure hogwash. But even then, it's less about exposing elite power groups as it is what happens to these two characters seeking the truth. Alas, it's no EYES WIDE SHUT (but what is), THE CONSPIRACY is a competent shoestring effort only suffering from lack of production value and some questionable acting, but at 84 minutes, it's a brisk and taut enough tale to hold your interest. It held mine!