Review: Are You There?, aka I Am ZoZo (dir. Scott Di Lalla, 2012)

Are You There?

Are You There?
USA, 2012
Director/writer: Scott Di Lalla

Review by N Emmett.

Five thrill-seeking college students decide to spend their Halloween weekend at an island retreat. Once they arrive, it turns out that the power is gone – but this is all the better for the kind of spooky activities which they have planned. One of them has brought a Ouija board, and they settle down for a night of occult tomfoolery. But they get more than they bargained for when they invoke a malicious entity that calls itself ZoZo.

Like a significant percentage of today’s horror releases, Are You There? (known in the States as I Am ZoZo) has a DVD box featuring a dishevelled Wednesday Addams tribute gazing soulfully at us from her monochrome surroundings. This publicity image belies the fact that the film almost entirely avoids the obvious trappings and motifs of the horror genre.

Admittedly, the characters are familiar from countless other teen horrors – the apprehensive    audience identification point, the gothy Wiccan, the three jokey jocks – and candlelit séances are nothing new either. But somehow, this does not feel derivative. Are You There? has the overall feel of a horror film made by people who have never seen a horror film before: writer-director Scott Di Lalla shows little influence from other movies in the genre, and approaches even the more well-worn elements of the film with a fresh eye.

To a certain extent, anyway. While the film lacks discernible horror influence, it is filled with cues from other genres.

One is the indie teen film. Are You There? has the curious habit of alternating between spooky nocturnal goings-on and long stretches in which its main characters frolic amongst a hazy, there1lens-flare riddled lakeside backdrop as contemporary folk music strums away in the background.

The other is the documentary. That is not to say that the film is particularly realistic, as is generally suggested when we compare a narrative film to a documentary, but rather that it borrows heavily from the aesthetic tricks often found in documentaries. It builds mood with artfully arranged clips that resemble stock footage, the grainy Super 8 filming creates an air of detachment from the on-screen events, and much of the cinematography takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to camera placement.

This last element suggests one of the current major cycles in horror cinema, the found footage film. But yet, even when it finds itself in this familiar ground, the film is distinctly odd in its approach. Aside from the opening prologue, Are You There? is not presented as found footage; there is no cameraman character. But yet, it certainly seems as though there should be: the handheld camera clearly bounces with every step taken by the film’s cinematographer, and takes on a voyeuristic element as it leers at the protagonist stripping to her nightie or taking a shower. In an early scene we are peering at her through a crack in the door, which she then shuts in our face.

there3Exactly whose eyes are we seeing through? Well, those of the ghost, presumably.

Quirky aesthetic touches such as this do a good deal to lift Are You There? out of the doldrums. The storyline, regrettably, plays a lesser role in this task.

To be fair, Di Lalla does not do a bad job of telling his rather modest story. The centrepiece Ouija session is about as well-constructed as we could reasonably hope such a restricted scene to be: the characters first obtain a message which is largely gibberish, then open a more coherent conversation with what appears to be a ghostly child, and finally conjure up the abrasive and bizarre ZoZo.

The film offers a few good tricks when it comes to building up tension. When the board tells the protagonists to look in the bathroom, they all go in and are relieved to find that there is nothing there. And then, one of their number points out that the house has another bathroom…

Storytelling devices like this serve to sustain interest, but the narrative behind Are You There? is really little more than a reheating of there2various adolescent urban legends about Ouija boards.

Like many a horror movie, the film makes the dubious claim of being based on a true story – and it even ends with a Dennis Wheatley-esque warning against dabbling with dark forces. The found footage prologue was uploaded to a YouTube channel called “OuijaWarning” in 2010; predictably, this account has no other videos and is clearly another case of Blair Witch-inspired viral marketing.

So, is there any particular incident that inspired the film? Broadly speaking, the answer would appear to be yes. Google turns up references to Ouija sessions involving the word “ZoZo” that go as far back as 2001 (see here and here). One of the main cheerleaders for the “ZoZo phenomenon” is Darren Evans, who actually has a cameo appearance in the film as himself.

Whether ZoZo is a supernatural entity, a garbled memory of Led Zeppelin, or simply the result of “Z” and “O” being positioned at opposite ends of a typical Ouija board – and, therefore, liable to be there4picked out as the ideomotor effect forces the planchette back and forth – is a matter beyond the scope of this review.

Are You There? is a good telling of a thin story. With its coy treatment of sex, violence and swearing, the film appears to have been made with an eye on the early-teen market, and it is perfectly reasonable fare for that demographic. More seasoned horror enthusiasts may find little to surprise them beyond the offbeat aesthetic choices, but younger audience – one which is more willing to suspend its disbelief and lose itself in the spooky legends of high school hallways – may get a kick out of ZoZo’s antics.