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If you think about it, it’s really not so difficult to imagine that some sort of world-wide conspiracy is responsible for the current state of the world. After all, in a time when the rich and multi-national corporations have their hand in everything from food safety to the justice system to scientific research, it’s not a stretch to assume that they don’t really have the best interests of “the rest of us” in mind. After all, the robber barons may have built America but they didn’t build it for the railroad workers, the slaves and the “poor, huddled masses”: they built it for themselves and were “nice” enough to allow everybody else to live there…for a price, of course. Just because the notion of a secret, all-powerful group who runs the world from behind the scenes is plausible, however, certainly doesn’t make it fact. As with many things, the belief in large-scale conspiracies requires no small amount of faith on the part of the believer: after all, you can find a pattern in almost anything, if you look hard enough. On the other hand, however…is it really paranoia if someone is actually out to get you?

Writer-director Christopher MacBride tackles this idea of global, secretive society head-on in his recent found-footage thriller, The Conspiracy (2012) and the results are certainly fascinating, if less than eye-opening. While much of the film revolves around some pretty basic, “Conspiracy 101” ideas (chem-trails, the Illuminati, secret societies, the NSA, New World Order, et al), The Conspiracy manages to be more than just a soapbox: there’s plenty of genuine tension and a cracking good ending that manages to reference both The Wicker Man (1973) and Kill List (2011) while still managing to maintain its own sense of self. While The Conspiracy might not have the capacity to change the world, it certainly offers a nice respite from the usual “haunted house/lost in the woods/exploring the asylum”-type of found footage films and should certainly hold some appeal for fans of more thoughtful horror offerings.

Beginning with a quote from Benjamin Disraeli about how the world is governed by very different forces than we imagine, we’re introduced to our protagonists, Aaron (Aaron Poole) and Jim (James Gilbert), a pair of filmmakers making a documentary about conspiracy theorists. Jim is the more settled of the two, thanks to his loving wife, Tracy (Lina Roessler) and infant son, while Aaron is the wilder and woollier of the pair (at times, Poole reminds of Aaron Paul). We’re told that the dynamic duo began working with uber-conspiracy theorist Terrance G (Alan C. Peterson) in 2011, after coming across YouTube clips of Terrance practicing his particular brand of street-corner conspiracy evangelism. His goal, as he tells the fellows, is to let “them” know that he knows about them: watching the watchers, as it were.

After a July 11th interview, however, Aaron and Jim lose contact with Terrance for four weeks. Going to his formerly cluttered apartment, they find the whole place cleaned-out, save for heaps of the newspaper clippings that Terrance kept tagged to every available surface in his place. Taking the assorted clippings with them, the pair is, at first, extremely flippant about Terrance’s disappearance (“Maybe the mother-ship came and picked him up”) but are still curious about his “research.” As Aaron becomes more and more invested in the clippings, however, he begins to adopt some of Terrance’s rather nutso tendencies, such as filling every available surface in his home with clippings, scraps of paper and pictures while also noticing a distressing amount of mysterious folks hanging around everywhere. Jim is naturally skeptical of the whole thing (“Every conspiracy theory is up there: if you stare at it long enough, of course it will make sense,” Jim tells Aaron in exasperation) but begins to come around when Aaron makes a breakthrough. According to Terrance’s research, Aaron is able to trace the source of many of these conspiracies back to a single group: the Tarsus Club (standing in for the real-life Bilderberg Group).

According to Aaron (and Terrance), the Tarsus Club (whose symbol is a red bull’s head) has been pulling the strings on every major political, socio-economic and cultural issue for generations: their meetings always seem to occur right before big, world-changing events (such as wars) and the group seems unnecessarily secretive: their website describes Tarsus as “a membership-only club for leaders” and a call to their listed phone number only results in an automated female voice repeating Aaron’s phone back, over and over. Clearly, something is going on here and the guys do what any self-respecting researchers would do: they flood the internet with requests for any and all information about the Tarsus Club and their activities. Soon, they’re sent an invitation to meet in one of the online conspiracy virtual chat-rooms that Terrance frequented: once there, they’re introduced to Mark Tucker (Bruce Clayton), the supposed author of a Time Magazine article about the Tarsus Club. Mark agrees to meet with them, in person, and give them the low-down on Tarsus, provided they stop with all the internet stuff: according to him, it’s just pricking the bull (so to speak) and will only result in them getting unceremoniously squashed.

Mark proves to be a rather strange, enigmatic figure, whose obviously broken and reset hand speaks to some pretty dire stuff in his background. He fills them in on the Tarsus Club, telling them that the club actually dates back to a pre-Christian cult that worshipped the god Mithras. Mithras was always depicted killing a bull, hence the bull-head symbol, and Tarsus Club meeting always include the ritual killing of a bull. When asked what the point of all this is, Mark readily points to the New World Order: the desire to put more power in the hands of fewer people has resulted in the entire world being split up between a few factions, all of which are connected to Tarsus.

As time passes, Aaron becomes more and more paranoid: he sees strangers stalking him at all times and ends up moving in with Jim and Tracy after his apartment is ransacked. When a mysterious, black SUV shows up at Jim’s house late one night, he begins to get the notion that this whole enterprise might be a wee bit hazardous for him and his family but Aaron refuses to back down. When Mark tells them that he can actually sneak them into the next Tarsus Club meeting, so that they can see what goes on firsthand, Aaron jumps at the chance, dragging a much more hesitant Jim along for the ride. The pair will soon learn, however, to be careful what they wish for, as they get to witness, firsthand, just how the Tarsus Club conducts business.

As a unique spin on found-footage films, The Conspiracy really stands out, with one rather odd caveat: most of the cinematography is way too good to ever be passed off as found-footage. In fact, up until the two infiltrate the meeting, there’s not much of the film that couldn’t pass for a more “traditional” paranoid thriller. While I expected this to bother me, I actually got used to it pretty quick: in many ways, The Conspiracy is more of a faux-documentary than a found-footage film (at least until the final 15 minutes or so). The cinematography, by veteran camera operator Ian Anderson (who also makes an appearance in the film), is quite good throughout and goes a long way towards establishing the film’s chilly, sinister atmosphere.

I was also quite fond of many of MacBride’s filmmaking tricks, such as the decision to “blur out” all of the faces of the people at the Tarsus Club: this added an extra air of authenticity to the proceedings, which helped with the overall suspension of disbelief. In fact, everything about the Tarsus Club portion is spot-on and pretty great, especially from a horror standpoint. If the film has the occasional rough moment in its first two-thirds, the back-half is consistently well-done and, at times, quite frightening. While I could see the ending coming fairly early on (if you watch enough of these kinds of films, it’s pretty inevitable, regardless of the quality of said film), MacBride still managed to throw a few twists in that I didn’t see coming. The Conspiracy is MacBride’s feature debut and I’m genuinely interested to see where he goes from here: I’m not sure if the gentleman is actually interested in conspiracy theories or is merely mining fertile ground for his own uses but he’s obviously a talented filmmaker/writer, which is always a great find.

Ultimately, despite its emphasis on conspiracy theories and paranoia, The Conspiracy is not simply aimed at a core, captive audience. I’m willing to bet that anyone, regardless of political or social believes, would find something to like in the film: after all, remove the conspiracy angle stuff and you’re still left with a whip-smart thriller that features just enough horror elements to appeal to a wide swatch of potential viewers. While The Conspiracy may not revolutionize the world (or filmmaking, for that matter), it’s a more than worthy addition to the growing canon of found-footage/first-person-POV films and should appeal to anyone with an open mind and about 80 minutes to kill. Remember, though: it’s not paranoia if they’re actually out to get you.