With the release of The Blair Witch Project back in 1999, detractors of Found-Footage were worried that the success of the sub-genre might open the door for untalented filmmakers to flood the market with DIY horror movies. While I can’t deny the influx of terrible Found-Footage films since then, we’ve also seen quite a few cinematic gems that we now consider to be horror classics, so I think it was a fair trade. Elitist critics have a habit of complaining when their hobbies become less exclusive, but history’s shown us again and again that the more people contribute to an art form, the more interesting it becomes.
That’s why I’d like to take a moment to talk about Nigel Bach’s 2016 Found-Footage anomaly Bad Ben, and the homegrown franchise that followed it.
The story of Bad Ben begins with 300 dollars and a New Jerseyan military vet willing to devote time and effort into making his filmmaking dreams a reality. Armed with nothing but an iPhone and his wits, Nigel proceeded to make the most of the now infamous “House on Steelmanville Road”; producing a surprisingly entertaining and minimalist take on the age-old haunted house flick.
In this one-man production, Bach plays Tom Riley, an investor who’s just purchased a beautiful house for a steal at a Sheriff’s Sale, and plans on renovating and flipping the place for a huge profit. However, Tom discovers a collection of suspicious surveillance cameras hidden throughout the property, and soon realizes that the house has a sordid history that he wasn’t warned about. When a series of escalating paranormal occurrences attempt to drive Tom away, he realizes that this house might not have been such a bargain after all.
The plot may not sound like much to most horror movie veterans, as there are countless other scary stories with a similar setup, but trust me when I say that watching a grumpy middle-aged man refuse to be harassed by supernatural forces hell-bent on ruining his investment is one hell of a fun ride. It’s hard not to grow attached to Tom during his ghostly ordeal, and the limited budget actually forces Bach into thinking outside the box when planning most of the subtle scares. All this results in an unexpectedly fun slow-burn thriller.
Sure, the film has major pacing issues and some incredibly disappointing effects towards the end (though still miles better than most of the CGI that would eventually show up in the sequels), but the rest of the movie more than makes up for these flaws with charm and the likable main (well, only) character.
Nevertheless, actually making a movie is only half the battle. Luckily for Nigel, in the age of online self-publishing, it’s no longer inconceivable to consider producing and distributing your feature film all by yourself, relying on digital word-of-mouth to do the marketing work for you. It may not be a guaranteed success, but if your movie is entertaining enough (like in Nigel’s case), there’s always a chance that the internet might catch wind of it and you’ll eventually have a hit on your hands.
I actually came across Bad Ben while researching lesser-known Found-Footage films online, and was shocked to discover the amount of fans this tiny little movie had on every kind of forum and image board. I was even more surprised that the movie was profitable enough to warrant three sequels and an ever-expanding mythology. Reading about it, it seems that this online following began enjoying these films ironically, but somehow transitioned into a genuine appreciation of Nigel’s work.
Whatever the case, this audience allowed for a series of homegrown sequels that really pushed the limits of what a one-man creative team can do. The first of these, a prequel entitled The House on Steelmanville Road, while easily the worst entry in the franchise, simultaneously serves as an example of why Nigel’s work is so damned fun. Clearly overreaching as he attempted to implement digital trickery, conventional storytelling and a larger cast in the film, Nigel’s missteps are usually the result of trying too hard rather than the more common apathetic filmmaking that typically ruins this sort of cheap production.
The prequel might have borrowed a bit too much from other similar stories as Nigel attempted to establish himself as a serious filmmaker, but with Badder Ben: The Final Chapter, the director finally gave in to the absurdity that made the first film a hit and gifted us with one of the weirdest sequels in recent memory. Featuring a retcon of the first film’s ending as a team of paranormal investigators bring Riley back to the cursed house for a highly unethical documentary, Badder Ben is easily the most entertaining (if not necessarily the best) film in the franchise.
Adding a sizable amount of humor to a legitimately clever script, this remarkable third entry surpasses the other films in charm and scope, but by no means is it a flawless endeavor. There are several instances of awful effects work and some questionable acting, not to mention quite a bit of cinematic deja-vu, but the self-aware presentation and endearing characters are a heartwarming reminder of how an entertaining story and sheer tenacity can make up for almost any amount of technical limitations.
Naturally, as is usually the case within the horror genre, “The Final Chapter” was a bit of a misnomer as we were soon presented with yet another sequel through Bach’s Bad Ben: The Mandela Effect, earlier this year. While the title alludes to the infamous internet story regarding remembering fragments of alternate timelines, this film works more like a horror-comedy remake of Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola Run. Though it’s a solid return to Nigel’s roots as a one-man crew, remaking parts of the first film with slightly different setups and outcomes, it feels a lot like filler, rushed into production before a true sequel could be made.
And, like clockwork, you can bet your bottom dollar that a new entry in the Bad Ben franchise will be releasing soon, just in time for Halloween! While I have no idea if this next film will be an improvement on the last, this is still, for better or for worse, bona fide auteur filmmaking, and I know I’m curious about what will become of it.
I’m aware that Nigel’s films aren’t exactly re-inventing the wheel here, and they’re not even especially good examples of Found-Footage, but the fact remains that a single person got up off his ass and managed to make a horror franchise, and I find that incredible. Ultimately, the Bad Ben films are more important because of what they represent, rather than what they actually are.
Now, I can’t defend Nigel 100%, especially because of his unprofessional reaction to several cases of constructive criticism, but he had the guts to put himself out there, and I think that’s something we can all respect. Though I unironically enjoy these films despite their glaring flaws (hell, by now I feel like a previous resident of the House on Steelmanville Road), they’re also a fascinating look at an outsider attempting to express himself in an elitist art form.
In all honesty, I don’t even think you can consider Nigel a so-bad-it’s-good movie mogul akin to Ed Wood, since his films actually walk the line between being legitimately good and legitimately bad. However, personally, I feel that the good outweighs the bad here, and I’m glad that we live in an age where anyone can pick up a camera and make a movie. I mean, if you don’t like Nigel’s films (which is totally understandable) why not try to make something better? They say Alan Moore only started working with comics because he was unsatisfied with the lack of creative geniuses in the medium, and we’re all glad he did.
Bach’s films may not be your cup of tea, and I can’t quite argue that his films are modern classics, but by embracing more of these DIY productions we could actually be opening the door for cinematic geniuses who’d otherwise never get the chance to produce anything at all. Anyone of us could be the next Carpenter or Romero, and I think it’s awesome that we live in a time where this kind of movie is possible.