Written and directed by JP Mandarino with an outstanding cast of young actors, The KAOS Brief provides a refreshing approach to the found footage genre by melting alien encounters, conspiracy theory, and social media obsession. Premiered in Europe as part of the Sci-Fi London Film Festival and having just been featured at the 2017 Cannes Festival, the movie is an intriguing slow-burn, immersive experience into the fear of the unknown.
Mysteriously introduced by a masked figure, The KAOS Brief opens with a hacktivist message warning the viewers about the footage they are about to see. The broadcast starts.
Aspiring vlogger Skylar, his twin sister and their boyfriends are heading to the mountains for a camping weekend. Skylar cannot wait to get some new material to share with his subscribers on his YouTube Channel – Skylar TV. Every moment of the carefree trip is recorded: the weather is splendid, the surrounding breathtaking, and the kids are beautifully enjoying life. We almost wish we were there. We even start to like self-obsessed, vain Skylar and are amused by his ridiculously well-endowed set of tech toys: iPads, iPhones, Macbooks, even a footage drone.
Meanwhile, something happens to interrupt the idyll and reminds us that, in a horror movie, a crew of playful teens cavorting into the woods can lead to nothing but trouble: during the night, the kids spot mysterious lights in the sky. “The fun is over!”, we think. But teen spirit is tough to kill. The kids are too laid back to bother, even when they find impossibly stacked pillars of rocks in their campsite and burn marks in a nearby field. They just pack up, go back home and order pizza. And this is actually brilliant.
Keen to increase his followers and pleased by his explosive U.F.O. uploads, Skylar is too busy vlogging to realise that sharing the footage on his channel may not be the wisest idea. Even when a mysterious internet user contacts the teenager warning him that he shouldn’t have shared his footage online, Skylar does not lose his cool and continues uploading any updates on the matter. It is only when two sinister government officers start to torment them in the middle of the night – and warning them to stop sharing what they know – that the gang start to think that it may be time to take things seriously… From that point forward, the story gradually picks up in tension in a growingly sinister scenario, involving alien abduction and conspiracy theories.
Firstly, we are thankful that our likeable bunch of rational teens are far from typical overexcited, wildly emotional horror movie characters. What many producers want is a lot of screaming and running about: this is how many movies of this genre try to keep you on the edge of your sit, but is not it just exhausting, in the long run? Creating suspense is a proper art. It is not about overstimulating the viewer with constant striking twists, or by making aliens appear from behind the characters at every turn. This just leaves us jaded and spent. The rhythmic pacing of a good suspense story is forged by flirting with the viewer, concealing and revealing information until the thrilling climax. And this is what director and writer JP Mandarino manages to do skilfully in what was correctly defined a “slow-burn movie”.
This is not the only strength of the film: Mandarino aimed to make a budget-conscious movie and the found (here “hacked”) footage genre perfectly responds to this objective. In addition, the hacktivist element and the obsession for social media add a unique angle to the plot and a refreshing approach to the genre. Utilising all forms of available video footage, from webcam, to handheld cameras, CCTV and even a drone camera, makes it much easier for the viewer to follow the story without being stuck by a univocal perspective. Most importantly, this prevents one of the constant criticism of the found footage thrillers: during the most dramatic moments, the characters of this genre should just drop the camera and run. Why do they keep filming? This, indeed, is poorly believable. With so many cameras running concurrently in The KAOS Brief, this problem does not arise.
Moreover, the extensive use of social media and vlogging in the film not only makes it easily identifiable to a modern audience. But it also suggests that our apparently innocuous obsession with sharing any events and thoughts so openly in a blog can be actually dangerous, in a society where privacy has blurred its lines and where we are far more controlled than we think. Sharing provocative ideas, or connecting with activist communities on social networks, for example, may attract unwanted attention from government agencies. This clearly emerges as the story progresses: if, at the start, we are relieved by the fact that Skylar is filming and sharing all those eerie happenings with thousands of people – which makes us feel somewhat safer and not alone – we acknowledge that this is the very problem that will put the characters in a life-or-death situation. What we feel as reassuring and comforting as part of our day-to-day practice, ends up being anything but safe.
The last praise goes to the actors, who admirably drive the story forward with excellent believability and a touch of reality, thanks to their outstanding improvisation skills. Skylar (Drew Lipson) and his sister Dakota (Charlie Morgan), are extremely spontaneous, and their credibility as twins is terrific. Corey (Marco DelVecchio), and Tren (Akanimo Eyo), although somewhat shy at the very beginning, create some of the best footages in the film.
The weakest element of the story may be identified with the masked figure that opens and ends the movie. The way the secret society KAOS is presented almost generates the feeling that it does not fully belong to the film. However, this does not affects the narrative of a movie which can be described as a clean, immersive and refreshing approach to the found footage horror genre.
The KAOS Brief
UK premiered at SCI-FI-LONDON FESTIVAL on Thursday 4th May*
at Stratford Picturehouse
Salway Rd, London E15 1BX
directed by JP Mandarino
written by JP Mandarino
cast Drew Lipson, Charlie Morgan Patton, Marco DelVecchio, Akanimo Eyo
producers JP Mandarino, Edward Singletar, Randall Walk
co-producer Kenitra Beauford
executive producers Aaron Kuhl, Jim Rine
director of photography Benjamin Gaskell
film editing Michael Frost
costume design Susan Chan
re-recording mixer / sound designer Shannon Deane
visual effects Mike Davis
first assistant camera Toto D. Guerra
costume supervisor Isabel Mandujano
assistant editor Charles Wright
production coordinator MJ Caballero
script supervisor Ting Yu
* The film has just won best Sci Fi Feature Film at The International Horror Hotel Film Festival and Convention in Ohio, US