When I was a kid, my parents and I went camping at a place called Thomas Mountain in California. Eerie place – you always felt like someone was watching you. One time we found a bunch of camping equipment left behind: blankets, sleeping bags, thermos, etc. No one ever showed up to claim them. I remember wondering what happened to the campers. Watching Altar may have just answered that question and I might never go camping again.
Altar doesn’t start off very promising: the opening scene is typical low budget found footage with sub-par acting, but give it a few minutes.
The opening goes like this:
Newlyweds spending their honeymoon at a lodge hear a knock on the door and get an ominous warning from some creepy bald tattooed guy telling them to stay in for the night. Ignoring the warning, they go on a hike. This whole scenario is so contrived! What newlyweds go on a hike in the snow at night and film themselves doing said idiotic thing. And why did someone this hot marry someone like this chubby, bearded nerd?
The bride starts freaking out about being lost even though there was no indication they were lost before this point in the film. The nerd-groom just keeps trudging through the snow. You know this marriage isn’t going to last because he already doesn’t listen to her.
The camera picks up some blue light in the woods and new husband decides it’s a good idea to head in that direction while his bride is all “have you seen what happens in like every horror movie ever?!”
Then the groom stumbles upon bloody corpses on the ground around an altar that is glowing blue – ooooohhh!!! Before your brain even has time to register this bizarre scene, scary bald tattooed guy comes out wielding an ax and says “Sorry you had to see that” and proceeds to axe the groom while the bride holding the shaky camera screams and runs somehow holding onto the camera, which must be attached to her head because you can see her hands (moving very unnaturally) in front of the camera to indicate that she is running. Remember the point of view scenes in the Chucky movies, where you see his little doll hands moving up and down as he chases after someone? That’s what this looks like. I promise this is the stupidest part of the movie – it gets much better from here. The bride manages to keep the camera attached to her head so we can see the crazy bald axe guy come toward her as he says “I tried to warn you.” And then the screen goes black, the word “ALTAR” appears and the real movie starts.
Enter Stefanie Estes!!!! From the minute the camera zooms in on her exotically beautiful face, you know that this movie is going to be different, in a better way. First of all, she is gorgeous. Second of all, she can actually act, and totally owns the camera her character, Maisy’s, little brother has directed her way. Little brother Bo is played by Jesse Parr (please, if there is ever a remake of Revenge of the Nerds – CAST THIS GUY!) Bo is the one filming the action from this point forward (most of the time). Having social interaction issues, he is not thrilled about the trip he and Maisy are getting ready to go on with some of her college friends. This plot point is what separates Altar from most other found footage horror films: the camera is not a contrived plot device meant to make us feel like we are with some research team doing a documentary; and it’s definitely not there to cater to the “look at me” – everyday life is a reality show, 90 minute selfie with horror elements added in, crowd. No, in Altar, the camera serves a unique purpose. The camera is there to help Bo, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, cope with being around people and leaving his comfort zone. Maisy is going to a college reunion with three carloads of friends, sharing a car with her brother and four friends – well three friends and a pervy professor who is dating one of them.
Surprisingly, these college friends are not obnoxious and annoying – typically I find myself rooting for the killer because I can’t stand the characters. These characters are likable and most of the actors do a more than adequate job portraying them, even when it seems they are improvising the dialogue.
There are some of the same old tired horror movie ideas in Altar – college friends on a road trip, meet a creepy guy and are rude to him, take a wrong turn, but still this movie offers something different. A surprise I can’t give away.
For a “found footage” film the cinematography is actually really good. Not too heavy on the shakiness or speed swerves that make me feel like I need a Dramamine.
The movie has a slow build but paces the scares, suspense and tension just enough that you don’t feel like you need to take a nap in the middle. There is a fairly long scene in the car as they are driving to their camping destination, but it serves the movie well in letting the viewer get to know the characters enough to care what happens to them. There are actually three cars of friends but the focus of the story is on the car with Maisy, her brother with the camera (obviously), the pervy professor and his girlfriend, and the token diversity guy of undeterminable Asian persuasion who is driving. There’s a really touching scene where Maisy and her friends try to make Bo feel more comfortable and loosen up and you can see he really wants to but just can’t do it.
As inevitably happens in this kind of horror film, their car breaks down. The other two cars go on ahead and they are left to wait for the car to cool down, after which they will catch up with the group at the reunion.
Enter crazy-bald-tattooed-axe guy from the opening scene. He shows up, seemingly out of nowhere, and offers to help them with the car. He introduces himself as “Ripper” because he likes to rip trees with his axe. You’ve got to give the guy props for warning people and giving them a chance to go elsewhere before he chops them into bloody kindling. But is he going to chop them up with his axe? What seems predicable and formulaic in this movie is anything but.
Ripper seems nice enough, despite the axe, but he proves himself to be too much of a butt-insky for the group and they tell him to go on his way. He does so, but not till after he warns them to turn around and go the other way. Of course, the group doesn’t listen. College kids know everything! It is here that the movie really begins to create an unsettling feeling of impending doom as they end up lost on a dirt road in the woods. Trust me – I’ve been lost on a dirt road in the Ozarks after making a wrong turn. It’s scary AF.
While freaking out about the impending darkness and their inability to figure out where they are, they encounter a friendly older couple out camping with their fur baby (dog). The couple inform them that they are over two hours away from where they were going and invite them to camp with them.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that this is where the movie becomes your typical crazy guy chasing people in the dark with an ax while one of them holds on desperately to the camera so they can leave a celluloid document of everything that transpired – you know, so that someone out there can make a sequel. You are wrong. Remember, the movie is called Altar.
Another impressive feature of this movie is smart dialogue, even though some of it seems improvised and not scripted. The conversations always feel natural and not forced. Writer/director Michael Sconce doesn’t rely on tons of random swearing and sex scenes to fill the 84 minutes.
There is one plot device here that is so contrived, it’s almost hard to forgive; but you would be hard pressed to figure out a way for the movie to propel forward into the last ten to fifteen climactic minutes that make this film so worth sitting through. Someone has the bright idea to go exploring in the dark, kind of like the newlyweds who decided to go on a hike, on their wedding night, in the snow.
This is when they discover the altar, covered in skulls and glowing blue stones. Scary shit starts going down from this point on. The creepy factor multiplies by a hundred, and I’m not telling you anymore. Let’s put it this way, our campers aren’t in the mood for making s’mores from this point forward.
All hell breaks loose and it’s pretty intense. You find yourself experiencing the confusion and fear of the cast members, along with this claustrophobic panic. At points, the camera work is such that you need to focus behind the characters in front of the camera to see what is really going on. It gives you a bit of a jump on what is going to happen to them. That altar is super spooky. The set designer did a great job with it. My only complaint here is that the gore effects are so low budget that they take away from how good the rest of the film is. There is a scene involving what is supposed to be a bloody tent, but actually looks like someone splashed a V8 all over the tent. And I can’t decide if the murder scenes are cheesy and poorly choreographed, or if they are so realistic that I can’t tell.
I’m definitely of the less is more school when it comes to the length of a film, but I would have liked just five or ten more minutes on this movie. The ending was a bit abrupt and was either a product of running out of money and time on the production end or a clever way of leaving it open for a sequel. To be honest, I would love to see a sequel. There is a lot left unexplained in this movie, which is ok, because I grew up on all those 1970s horror movies where scary things happen to Karen Black and you never find out why. I think with enough money and time, Michael Sconce could make one of those rare sequels that surpasses the original. And that is what is so great about Altar. It relies on letting your imagination do more than the movie itself does. Yes, there is gore, but it’s what is happening outside the periphery of the camera that really has you scared. I was still thinking about this movie days after I watched it, trying to figure out if I missed something that explained the presence and purpose of the altar; that explained who the killer was and why they killed. I still haven’t figured it out. That is why I’ll be watching it again…