Feature film

JeruZalem Review: A Terrible Experiment That Could Lead To a Brighter Future

Monday, February 01, 2016 Rob Samuelson


Directors: Doran Paz, Yoav Paz
Writers: Doran Paz, Yoav Paz
Starring: Yael Groblas, Yon Tumarkin, Danielle Jadelyn
Rating: One and a half stars out of five
Available on demand now

Movies are made with purposeful misdirection. They are manipulations of the viewers' perception in order to generate a desired response, to create a form of thematic truth if not a factual one. Not every film achieves their intended effect on an audience, but they try via a cinematic language that has developed over a period of longer than a century. Now there is something encroaching slightly on that cinematic language, perhaps with the ability, in the long term, to cater movies to a user's immediate view. It is a quasi-virtual reality simulation, and it is done by the newly released paranormal thriller JeruZalem, which is as much a formal experiment as it is a monster movie with a religious slant.

Put aside for a moment the fact that JeruZalem, about a pair of American tourists (Danielle Jadelyn and Yael Groblas) experiencing the night when Jewish, Islamic, and Christian demons rise from a supernatural portal beneath the Israeli capital, is bad. It is stupefyingly bad, in fact. But it is a possible next step in the evolution of first-person storytelling that has thrived in video games for at least 20 years. It never stops feeling like an advertisement for Google Glass – “Glass, [insert command here]” is used innumerable times throughout the 95 minutes of the movie – but the shift from an omniscient camera to an experiential one for an entire film is, theoretically speaking, a worthwhile decision. At least the instinct to experiment with such new storytelling avenues is probably correct, and it is one that can be used in exponential new ways in the future.

But to work, the films made in this newish form need to tailor themselves to what that form can do. The message must be bent to suit the medium. That does not happen in JeruZalem. This may have more to do with the film's content than its formal filmmaking decisions, but the point-of-view of a set of Google Glass serves to dull the sharp edges a more traditionally shot horror film would be able to generate with its scares.

And that's because of the first line of this piece. The movie involves long, unbroken takes from Jadelyn's viewpoint. As such, the viewer gets something approximating “the whole story.” The tension that is possible in this situation – being startled by people or things sneaking up behind you, disorientation in new surroundings, etc. – isn't explored with much fervor by brother filmmakers Doran and Yoav Paz. There are a few token fake-out moments early in the movie, but the sound design is too clear to allow an early moment of Groblas's character, Rachel, sneaking up on Jadelyn's Sarah to throw anyone off – you can hear the footsteps coming seconds beforehand. Without traditional editing to give a haunting and exacting rhythm, everything feels off, either dragging or rushing in a ramshackle way that feels like an out-of-practice garage band playing a drunken, impromptu concert.

When the plot of the movie gets going in earnest, about half an hour into it, JeruZalem cannot break free from its fourth-rate haunted house trappings. Scares are telegraphed too far in advance, either through the already noted sound or through showing demons in the far background long before they pose an immediate threat. The Paz brothers try to work around this issue by making the demons lightning fast, able to leap forward like a coiled snake snapping at its prey. This is wrong for the visual mode the story is told in, because it removes the possibility of a methodical march toward doom and also, because of how visible and audible these monsters are before reaching the protagonists, they don't have surprise on their side.

Some of these issues could be masked over with characters and acting that more closely resembled JeruZalem's obvious touchpoint, Matt Reeves's 2008 handheld Godzilla riff, Cloverfield. Even that movie is just okay, but it gets by with the J.J. Abrams-Bad Robot crew's attention to character and wit. In JeruZalem, the performers are trapped in this in-between area where they aren't sure how to react to anything. With the camera operating as Sarah's disembodied head, it is next to impossible for the best friend relationship between her and Rachel to imprint itself on the audience because only one side is shown. Combine that with some dodgy CGI creatures as the only other acting stimuli, these performers are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to creating a believable scenario.

But more than the issues with new technology creating a difficult acting environment, it is the writing that lets the wind out of everything. The Paz brothers have an understanding of story function – the movie sets things up and knocks them down in structurally satisfying ways – but they lack feel. Everything is pursued in such a utilitarian way, as if they are telling everyone on set, “We need to move onto the next thing at this instant because that's the way it's supposed to be.” This leaves callbacks to clunky emotional beats to fester in an eye-rolling manner rather than landing with any significance. In one scene, during a drunken hookup between Sarah and Kevin (Yon Tumarkin, whose American accent is more like the Swedish Chef from The Muppets than anything), the directors understand that it would be an ironic juxtaposition of action and perception to have Sarah's father (Howard Rypp) send her text messages – which pop up on the Google Glass screen, placed on the nightstand – as she goes about some of that sinful business in the holy city. But they can't let the guilt trip lie with just one flourish. They have the father send multiple texts, saying how Sarah is such a “good” and “sweet” girl, not allowing herself to get into trouble. The first message, an suggestion that he may have caught his daughter while she was sleeping, would have been enough.

So on and so forth JeruZalem ambles toward its rickety conclusion, with other too-cute-by-half Glass-related misadventures popping up along the way – adorable cat YouTube videos during a malfunction, “stressful” rock music coming on during a demon attack, etc. There is value in learning from this movie's mistakes, because there is a nugget of something interesting in first-person visual narratives. But that doesn't change how malignant this particular experiment turned out.

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