Review: Slick and scary ‘Afflicted’ wrings new life from a classic premise

TORONTO – One of the things that makes the 25th anniversary of Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival so worthy of celebration is the number of careers that have been launched from that stage in the Ryerson. I’ve seen it happen several times over the last few years, and I’m fairly sure I saw it happen again on Monday night, when “Afflicted” was screened.

It’s a safe bet that Derek Lee and Clif Prowse, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in the film, are big fans of the John Landis classic “An American Werewolf In London.” I’ve seen a lot of people try to capture the particular alchemy that makes the Landis film such an intoxicating kick over the years, and I’ve seen most of those attempts fall completely flat. To their credit, “Afflicted” doesn’t play like a film that has been specifically engineered to follow that model, but more like a movie made by people who have completely absorbed that film and who understand what they love about it. Like “Werewolf,” the film “Afflicted” follows two young men who are traveling in Europe together, only to encounter trouble that leaves one of them dead and the other one in a severely altered state. Both films use humor and horror expertly, never undermining one in favor of the other. And both films build something fresh from one of the most basic of the horror tropes.

Oh… and did I mention it’s a found footage movie?

Technically, I don’ t think that term is accurate. Nobody found this footage. It is instead a fake documentary, and, yes, I’m well aware that about a week and a half ago, I had a mini-meltdown on Twitter because I tried watching “Frankenstein’s Army,” a horror film that I would have liked perfectly fine if it didn’t tie itself in knots trying to justify a found footage framework. Producers right now are using that as a band-aid to hide everything from terrible performances to shoddy camerawork to a simple lack of anything to say, and in general, I do hate how many of them we’ve been subjected to in the last few years. But of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and “Afflicted” not only completely justifies the device, it actually uses to it to enhance the emotional punch of the film. It is also one of the slickest, most technically accomplished versions of the idea that I’ve ever seen.

The film opens with an explanation of what we’re about to see. Derek and Clif, friends since childhood, are getting ready to go on a trip around the world that is going to take them a full year. As we see them explain the backstory, they show clips from their actual lives together. The line gets really blurry in a case like this, because Lee and Prowse did grow up together, and when you see footage of the two of them staging a kung-fu fight as teenagers or we see the pains of puberty played out in graphic detail on their faces, that’s something that is hard to shake once the film really kicks in. It helps that both Lee and Prowse are natural and relaxed on-camera, and their friendship is the kind that only comes with time. They talk about how this trip is something they’ve been talking about for a long time, and they also reveal why they decided to stop putting it off. Derek was diagnosed with a condition that could lead to an aneurysm at any moment, and since he’s not sure how much time he has left, he’s determined not to waste any more time. Not everyone is sure it’s a good idea for them to go, and Derek’s family seems actively upset by his decision, but there’s no dissuading them.

Clif is the one who pushes to shoot everything so they end up with more than just great memories, but also a website and a multi-media record of everything they see and do, everyplace they go, everyone they meet. Clif packs a pretty remarkable gear kit so that they’ll be ready for anything on the road, and then the two of them leave for Barcelona, where they plan to meet up with some friends who are musicians on a European tour. There’s a great easy relaxed quality to these early sequences, and by spending the time they do on this stuff, they make sure that when things finally do go wrong, it hurts.

Paris is the second major stop for the guys, and that’s where they end up in a club and Derek meets a striking Tunisian woman, Audrey (Baya Rehaz). He takes her back to their hotel room, and by the time his friends decide to go check up on him, something horrible has happened. For a while, it’s not apparent what the full ramifications are going to be, there are symptoms that start to manifest, and a comparison could be made between this stretch of the film and Josh Trank’s film “Chronicle,” not least because of how well the shot-on-video aesthetic works to sell some truly clever special effects. Norm Li’s cinematography is absolutely outstanding, and the film looks like a big-budget effort because of how well-handled the visuals are.

Although I’m sure you can find a dozen reviews with one Google search that will give away what ends up happening from this point on, I don’t want to tip it. I was lucky enough to see the film knowing nothing, and I don’t want to just blurt it out. I will say that they are smart to tweak what we know about this particular trope, playing it their own way, and when the film finally erupts into a full-blown horror film, it’s not only scary, it’s sad. Tamar Ouziel’s creepy and effective make-up designs are well-realized throughout, and they mesh perfectly with the visual effects by Gillian Pearson. There are studio movies that don’t work as well as this, and it’s a testament to how important it is to plan and to hire talented people. They couldn’t just throw unlimited funds at any issue they had here, and they didn’t have to because they were smart about all of it.

“Afflicted” is one of those small films that never feels small, and it serves as a real announcement for the talents of Derek Lee and Clif Prowse as well as all of their gifted collaborators. I hope this not only ends up getting a serious theatrical release, but that the promise made by the film’s final horrifying image is fulfilled at some point in the future. This one’s something special, and a highlight for me from this year’s festival. It will next be playing at Fantastic Fest in Austin, and if you’re going to be at that event, make sure you add this one to your schedule.