The Presence (Die Präsenz)

Germany (2014) Dir. Daniele Grieco

Found footage horror films are apparently still a thing two decades after The Blair Witch Project kicked things off and spawned many an imitator. Many countries have had a go at this subgenre, including Spain’s REC series, and this is Germany’s entry.

Anthropology student Markus (Matthias Dietrich) tricks his girlfriend Rebecca (Liv Lisa Fries) into thinking they are going away for a romantic weekend, but when he stops to pick up his friend Lukas (Henning Nöhren), Rebecca relies this isn’t the case at all. In fact, Markus takes them to an abandoned castle which is said to be haunted and they document their stay via video camera.

The mission is to capture any paranormal activity around the castle to boost Markus’ chances of scoring big on his college paper on the subject of the supernatural. The story that intrigued Markus is of malevolent spirits driving a woman mad to murder her family. At first things are quite, aside from the odd noise in the night, but soon something with evil intent begins to torment the trio.

Whilst this branch of filmmaking is popular for being economic on the production front it also has its limitations in the content as far as originality is concerned – in other words, if you’ve seen one, you’ve probably seen them all. Maybe that is a bit spurious since you could chose from a range of creepy antagonists, but the basic premise makes it a little harder to create something completely fresh from it.

In that regard, The Presence has to overcome being “just another found footage film”. Keen aficionados of horror cinema and this particular subsection of it will assuredly find many a reference point to the celluloid ancestors of Daniele Grieco’s effort; those of us less entrenched in this world should find it easier to judge it on its own merits.

Greico therefore is effectively duty bound to try being original in at least one area even if he is astutely aware that he is reinventing the wheel, which, in fact, he does. And to do this he uses the one crucial weapon in his arsenal – the camera. Okay, this might seem a tad obvious – and apologies if this has been done in films I haven’t seen – but bear with me on this because this twist is where the real horror is.

Before we expand on that, we should meet our rather tropey protagonists – Markus the idealistic, single-minded catalyst, Rebecca the sensible girlfriend, and Lukas restless clown. He is not beyond trying to scare Rebecca for his own amusement, so if anyone is going to get theirs, nobody will be sorry if it is Lukas. Meanwhile, Markus wants to keep a happy group dynamic, a hard task once things start to go bump in the night.

Per the found footage premise, the story is presented as real, going as far to open and close the film with supposed genuine police reports. The setting is Castle Hohnau, home to a Count Marian, a man with a dubious history – he married his own daughter, who gave birth to a disabled child, both of whom Marian had locked up in a dungeon. Markus wonders if the restless spirits of mother and child are behind the alleged hauntings.

Not much happens in the early going, with eerie incidents sparingly introduced into the story, but tension is always in the air. The build up is quite steady for an 82-minute film but this is your typical lulling the audience into a false sense of security, and following this exponential pattern, the scares come thick and fast. And of course, being shot on the one camera means no cuts to alternate angles, integral to the rush of the final act.

Starting small with doors opening by themselves, and kamikaze birds in the attic, it is a testament to Greico’s imagination how he is able to use his surroundings and everyday objects as tools of terror. Rebecca is the nominated victim of possession, sleepwalking at first then acting more sinister. Because this is all caught on night camera, the effect is truly chilling, bolstered by judicious and subtle use of speed ramping to make Rebecca’s movements even creepier.

Heading into the climax, things get manic, catastrophically so, as the pace quickens into a disorienting gallop, a maelstrom of panic and insanity, before reaching a crescendo akin to a visual cacophony. It can’t be understated how the single camera perspective enhances the nightmare experience, keeping the shots tight and the haphazard, whilst the cast deserve credit for their part in living this mayhem for our enjoyment, Liv Lisa Fries in particular as Rebecca.

Even with a meagre budget, funded by a Facebook campaign, the presentation is highly competent, although the concept doesn’t require a glossy high-end production. This allows Greico more room to focus on staging and effects, which are simple but effective, such as the ominous shadows that appear in the footage. The only minor grumble is when they are watching back the footage on a laptop, it is clear it was added in post, rather than played back through the computer screen.

Coming from a documentary background, Greico blends this experience for his fictional feature debut with the admitted influence of films like REC and Paranormal Activity, but with the added twist of the footage showing someone (or something) behind the camera that isn’t Markus or Lukas. The 14th century Castle Veynau in Euskirchen, North Rhine-Westphalia is the perfect location, and apparently, some real spooky occurrences took place during filming there!

Regardless of how derivative The Presence may be in story and execution, especially for hardcore horror fans, it certainly does deliver what it sets out to and that is a realistically  uncomfortable viewing experience. Cynics will turn their noses up at this but forget them – this is an effectively scary and immersive film that proves hard to turn away from, even if you wanted to.