I love haunted doll/mannequin/toy style horror movies, TOURIST TRAP being the unsurpassed king of the genre, followed closely by the likes of DOLLS, and, of course, the Zuni fetish doll in TRILOGY OF TERROR.
HEIDI looked to be about a haunted/animated dolly, so I went into it with high hopes. Those hopes paid off handsomely.
But first, a critical tip for viewers and a critique for the filmmakers: Do not watch the trailer.
Seriously. In a movie that does so much well, one of the producer’s biggest mis-steps was compiling a trailer that pretty much ruins everything. You have been so advised.
(UPDATE: It appears that the trailer on IMBD has been updated and does not, you know, ruin the movie anymore. But in case there’s another version out there, I still say avoid the trailer.)
The opening credits roll over a series of unrelated but atmospheric toy dolls—off too a good creepy start. My arms are still folded, though, because I’ve been fooled before by movies like THE BOY, in which the titular character never moves of his own accord or anything like that. (Granted there was a twist involved there, but still. I watch animated doll and toy movies for a reason, dammit!)
HEIDI is anchored by two teenage boys living in the suburbs of Las Vegas. It’s a found-footage film, with the conceit that the boys are aspiring filmmakers shooting a YouTube style prank show. For those of you groaning under the weight of the sub-genre, I understand, but this premise is solid and effective. There are multiple types of cameras used in the film—and with good reason—from expensive digital cams to nanny cams to iPhone cameras, and they are all integrated quite well. There is a pretty neat multi-camera set-up about midway through where the main character is waiting to see if the doll will move…and I got serious goosebumps. The editing is successful at building suspense throughout the film, by and large; the few mis-steps can be forgiven for the overall impact.
The premise is that teenager Ryan takes a job cleaning and older woman’s house, then he and his friend Jack explore her attic while she is away. I bought into this premise immediately; I completely believed that these two teens would do something like that. They’re not being bad kids, they’re just being kids. As a former teenage boy myself, I appreciate this set-up.
The pacing picks up as soon as we meet Heidi, the creepy doll left in the old lady’s attic. Exactly why her mere discovery sets off the events of the film is never really revealed, and I’m okay with that. Once Heidi enters the picture, strange things start happening, not the least of which is Ryan cannot get rid of the damn doll. That’s not unusual for a horror flick like this . . . but things go from bad to worse in short order, leading to some pretty effective set-pieces. And while I’m not 100% sure what happened there at the end, man it was creepy!
The boys’ performance feel authentic, as do those of the adults in the film. Their middle-class houses in a middle-class neighborhood are unassuming but effective settings for the horror about to unfold. The beginning takes a little bit long to establish—editors could have loped off a solid five minutes or more in the exposition without missing anything—and the boys might come off as a little jerky to some viewers. To those viewers, I can only say: they are teenage boys, being teenage boys! Give ’em a little grace. The scares will be worth it.
There are a few stutters in some of the other performances, mostly in those with bit parts. The improvisational quality common in found footage is on full display here, and some actors handle it better than others. Overall, though, these forced performances don’t hamper the overall effectiveness of the movie. Most of the actors’ weakness shows when they are made to say actual scripted lines, such as “Hey, have you noticed there’s dust everywhere except on the doll?” Specific lines designed to move the story forward come off a little wooden. Fans (former fans?) of the genre will recognize the drumbeat of non-improvisational key lines.
I appreciate that these are indeed tech-savvy millennials who use available technology to try and solve the mystery of Heidi. They even look up both Annabelle and Robert the Doll. Hat tip, gentlemen. Well-played.
Possibly the film’s biggest downside was this one specific scene: Tina is a little girl, maybe three years old, who has a scene in which she has a complete meltdown tantrum, brought on by something Heidi-related she’s seen off-screen. It is a convincing performance, her screaming and crying—so convincing in fact, I wondered just how writer/director Daniel Ray got the performance out of her. As a parent, it was honestly a little upsetting, because no three-year-old is that good of an actor. I ended up doing some research into Tina’s “performance.” In an interview, director Ray claims the actress (his real-life niece) was having an out-of-character, nothing-to-do-with-the-movie temper tantrum over getting ice cream, so like any good camera man, Ray began shooting it. He edited the meltdown into the narrative later after filming the rest of Tina’s scene on a different day entirely. I choose to accept that as the truth, because the alternative is pretty aggravating. Furthermore, I’m glad I wasn’t the only viewer who had questions about this scene.
Also: having said all that, the scene leading up to Tina’s outburst is excellent. It’s a long point-of-view shot where we kind of know what’s probably going to happen . . . yet even when it does, it’s still freaky.
There is an unneeded post-script that almost (not quite) derails the rest of the film; it’s not a plot point, it’s just lame.
If you are tired of found footage but are still a horror fan, give HEIDI a chance. The film has quite high production value, and some honest-to-goodness goosebumps for those of us who flip out over movies like PUPPETMASTER. HEIDI is not ingenious or “new,” but is still an effective piece that made me appreciate the found-footage genre again.
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