by Alex Khlopenko
I’m a huge House of Leaves fan. To the point where my friends tell other people about how annoying I am about it. Naturally, every time I watch a modern horror movie/read a book, I instinctively find thematic and plot parallels, moments that drew inspiration from Danielewski’s masterpiece, and attempts to mimic the unprecedented achievement that is House of Leaves.
Butterfly Kisses, with its commentary on the artistic integrity, ethical dilemmas of using someone else’s intellectual property, lying about it, the financial struggle that any artists know today, and facing mental illness as a supernatural horror may seem like dwelling on the some used tropes. Fortunately, it doesn’t stop there and dares to do something new.
Presented as a documentary within a documentary within a found footage feature about Gavin York (Seth Adam Kallick), a local wedding videographer who discovers a box of videotapes depicting two students’ disturbing film project featuring a local horror legend, The Peeping Tom.
Seamlessly editing helps to navigate the three layers of the story, never leaving the viewer confused or lost – as opposed to most of the found footage films that pride themselves in the shakycam spectacle that they think is “k i n o”.
While marketed as a found-footage film, it is misleading to watch it as one. Only a third part of the film, the storyline of Sophia’s (Rachel Armiger) and Feldman’s (Reed DeLisle) student film is resembling the conventions of Blair Witch. Relying on rare jumps scares, video manipulation, and smart sound direction, – i.e. beating the dead horse of the genre, that’s the weakest part of the film. The Peeping Tom receives an undeservedly large amount of attention, instead of remaining an inexplicable phantom of local imagination. In turn, it erases the ambiguity of whether it is real or maybe Sophia and Feldman sacrificed their artistic integrity and the guilt destabilized their mental health, with Gavin blindly following in their footsteps.
What saves it, is the cynicism and skepticism of the other parts of the film and real-life personalities such as film critic David Sterritt, an editor from Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot series, and Eduardo Sánchez, creator of The Blair Witch Project. They question and debate the whole genre with its tropes and pitfalls – something rarely done in films. This meta-narrative works here like nowhere before.
Much closer to the brilliant (but sucker-punching in the end) The Last Exorcism than The Blair Witch Project, Butterfly Kisses shines in the moments where it denies the conventions of the genre and dares to do something different. It would be erroneous to perceive this film as found-footage really since 2/3 of the film are a kitchen sink drama about a failing filmmaker with his back against the wall.
That nuance, mature portrayal of artistic struggle, inspiration, and ultimate downfall is what stays with you. It is uncomfortable to watch Gavin’s wife and in-laws talk about their finances, selling their home, and breaking up the family.
Just like Will Navidson’s story in House of Leaves, the supernatural, symbolic horror story is merely a backdrop to the real horrors of everyday family life.
Butterfly Kisses shows that independent horror movies are the place for experiments and that they remain on the edge of socio-economic commentary. It allows the filmmaker to be daring and to challenge conventions of the genre and the storytelling itself. That’s the way it should be. There is more depth in heartbreaking moments of Gavin’s denial of his situation and failure than in all last year’s Best Film Oscar nominees. The only thing that can be asked of films like this is to be honest with themselves and stay true to what helps them stand out.
Films like this earn a cult following and in ten years there will film students who, taking pride in their good taste in films, write in their application essays that they wanna create something that complex and nuanced as Erik Kristopher Myers’ creation. Also, anyone who dared to adapt the concept and themes of House of Leaves deserves utmost respect.
Butterfly Kisses (2018) Written and directed by Erik Kristopher Myers. Starring Seth Adam Kallick, Rachel Armiger, Reed DeLisle, Eileen Del Valle, Matt Lake, David Sterritt, Steve Yeager, Andy Wardlaw