In 1999, The Blair Witch Project confused and enraptured audiences with its unique documentary style narrative and a realistic website that built an entire history around the film, including police evidence and photographs. The film’s clever marketing campaign only further confused the masses, leaving a media frenzy in its wake questioning the truth. Was this an actual account of real missing persons? Was this valid proof of the existence of a supernatural entity? The reveal of the truth behind the film only solidified its legacy. More than just a film, The Blair Witch Project was an experience. One that Justin Cole will never forget as memories of his 13 year old self sat stunned, pondering the authenticity of what he’d just watched.
This is the inspiration behind The Upper Footage. His desire to re-create that experience that so many found footage copy cats failed to achieve in the following years resulted in one of the more interesting media experiments recent memory. Cole began a very intricate media campaign, starting with uploading a video on Youtube of a mysterious girl tragically overdosing. It was released under the guise of an extortion plot. The realism caused the video to be picked up by entertainment news shows, speculating on the identity of the girl and her potential celebrity status. For the next three years the footage snowballed into a huge Hollywood drug scandal until the film’s release last year.
Touted as genuine documented footage of an overdose cover up by young New York socialites, Justin Cole takes a meticulous approach to realism. Upper class rich kids Blake Pennington, Will Erixon, Taylor Green and Devon Petrovsky spend the night together getting drunk in the back of a limo and bar hopping, demonstrating their character as they make sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic remarks while in pursuit of scoring drugs. It’s this very pursuit that lands them in a lower class neighborhood bar, where Devon picks up Jackie. A large amount of coke and Jackie in tow, they head back to Blake’s apartment to continue the festivities. Poor Jackie can’t handle the amount of alcohol and coke her new “friends” are pumping into her system and she overdoses in the bathroom. The four fall apart as they try to figure out how to deal, and their choices prove horrific.
It’s the camera work that gives the film its realistic quality. With vlogger Will as the night’s documentarian, his face mostly hidden behind his handheld camera for much of the running time, the angles and shots are meticulously presented as amateurish to give that authentic aesthetic. Shots are out of focus and some scenes stretch for minutes with the camera shooting nothing in particular while the characters converse in the background. The haphazard style makes it all appear unplanned.
The inherent flaw, the thread that undoes such a complex undertaking, resides with the four socialites the carry the entire story. None of them are likable. Taylor and Will combined may make up ¼ of a decent human being, though any decency is shown in fleeting glimpses. Devon and Blake are irredeemable completely, however, and the short 90 minute running time can feel an excruciating eternity at moments while we suffer through their vile decisions and hysterics. Their abhorrent, uncaring personalities are precisely what shove events into the horror spectrum, but to the detriment of alienating viewers. Long stretches occur where nothing happens at all, save for yelling and shrieking, so that the only thing carrying viewers to the end becomes problematic soon.
In the end, the media storm preceding release eclipses the film itself. Justin Cole’s clever marketing and the details behind the scenes prove far more interesting than the end product. There’s no real story either; everything relevant was already released in that Youtube video years ago. Poor girl tragically overdoses; asshole rich kids are to blame. Justin Cole spends so much time crafting believability that he forgets to say anything at all. At least his successful media experiment demonstrates an intelligence and potential.