When executed well, the found footage subgenre can be an incredibly immersive experience, spellbinding the audience and convincing them that everything they’re about to witness is not just real, but urgently so. The most famous of these films is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, which convinced audiences that what they’d just observed was not only authentic, but potentially a snuff film. However, so common place is this style now that it’s being assimilated away from horror-proper into other genres, such as last year’s John Cho-led thriller Searching. No matter what other genres decide to dip their toes into the single-camera, first-person POV format, horror will always be its home. Such is the case with the latest Well Go USA home release Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten, which takes the worst kind of people and places them in the path of an angry force out to terrorize all who get in its way. Essentially, the perfect set-up for a grizzly, terrifying found footage experience.
Outside Berlin lay the remains of a sanatorium used during Nazi era Germany. Here, patients were put through such horrible experiments that the empty shell of a compound is believed to hold the spirits of those murdered there. Always looking for new and disturbing challenges for their prank show, vloggers Finn (Timmi Trinks) and Charly (Emilio Sakraya) make a bet with friend and fellow vlogger Betty (Nilam Faroog) that whomever can’t last 24 hours on the premises of Heilstätten will not only be a loser, but will have their food choices chosen for a month by the winner. When Marnie (Sonja Gerhardt), also a vlogger, learns that her ex-boyfriend, and Heilstätten tour guide, Theo (Tim Oliver Schultz) is going to sneak the other vloggers in, she hurries off to stop the stunt. While the two vlogging channels get themselves set up in the hopes of either seeing something paranormal or figuring out a way not to get bored, Marnie tries to warn them that the spirits are all too real. Unfortunately the group doesn’t believe her until strange things begin to happen around the property. By that point, however, it’s too late and whatever begins terrorizing them, won’t let them leave alive.
The script from director Michael David Pate and co-writer Ecki Ziedrich is fairly clever, building in answers for nearly every question an audience member might ask from a found footage film. Beginning, of course, with the “how did it get found?” question. That detail, you’ll have to discover for yourself, but it’s worth mentioning as so many of these films rarely come up with a satisfying answer. This answer, in some aspects, is the strongest piece of the whole production and really gets at the heart of the narrative within Heilstätten, which is a total condemnation of Internet culture. Whether Pate and Ziedrich feel this way themselves, making three out of the four vloggers in the film absolute trash people certainly seems to back this up. Or, perhaps, the writers just felt having vapid protagonists would make it seem like they deserve to get come-uppance from a spirit rather than punishment. Though a case can be made for Betty, a beauty vlogger, as less mean girl and more generically vapid Popular Girl, the Prankstaz.tv bros of Charly and Finn are introduced to the audience as they sneak into a morgue and take photos with a female corpse − truly Logan Paul-level detestable behavior. With these kinds of characters, a more intellectual audience will develop an immediate disdain for them, which either falls in line with the writers’ personal intent or begins to make the audience culpable for taking some kind of enjoyment in the mayhem. There’s an indictment of “like” culture running through the heart of Heilstätten, it’s just unclear who the writers are targeting. Since the film is of the found footage variety, there’s certainly an inkling that the viewer is as much a depraved individual as those on camera and how challenging a thought is that.
As interesting a concept as that is, the whole of the film isn’t as inspired. While Heilstätten is certainly structured like a film featuring a small group of acquaintances, the audience is almost always struggling to get caught up with the internal dynamics. Marnie is the only one given a clear, specific introduction (she’s the first character we meet after Heilstätten itself is established), but then the rest are just thrown together in a heap of dialogue and action. The Prankstarz and Betty seem to do shows together all the time (based on the introduction), so the realization that they aren’t part of the same show takes a while to establish. Even knowing who they are would be confusing if not for the vlog-specific intro videos they’re given. This means that the characters are well into setting up cameras and screwing with each other as the sun goes down on the property before the audience is given some concrete information on the individuals, as well as the stakes at play for the group as a whole. Audiences don’t just watch horror films to see meat shoved into a grinder, so having something tangible to separate one character from another, as well as understanding the relationship dynamics goes a long way in making a horror film more than blood and violence. Even in that arena, Heilstätten is fairly tame. There’re a few jump scares and even less in the way of brutality, making the scares rely far more on the tension of what might happen over what is happening. For an unrated film, there’s an expectation that the violence would be far more grotesque, so the lower shock value is also strange. That said, the way Pate holds on whole rooms, combined with Pascal Schimit’s cinematography and Andrew Reich’s score, you can feel your blood pressure rising as you wait for something to happen. Similarly, as night falls and things get crazy, the reliance on either the camera light or natural lighting to show what’s happening does create a slight sensation of claustrophobia as terror can come from any direction. Since (a) the film doesn’t want the audience to like the protagonists and (b) it is a struggle to know who they are, the audience has very little reason to care when something does happen to them.
Sometimes, in spite of its blemishes, a film can make an impression. Heilstätten does this in the way it frames the whole piece, as well as presents the meta commentary within it. There’re even some moments when the stakes feel extraordinarily high and the question of the fates of the vloggers a touch distressing. However, since Marnie is the only one really worth rooting for, what happens to everyone else just kinda happens and the audience doesn’t care. The violence is what garners a reaction and that’s not enough to sustain the film. Still, there’s a good idea at the center of Heilstätten that, when it connects, continues to rattle around in your mind. Is the film something that was made because we lust after violence or did our lust for violence create the need for the film? Depending on how you view horror, that question may haunt you more than Heilstätten itself.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack February 12th, 2019.
No special features included with the release, only previews for other Well Go USA releases.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.