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If the whole point of mockumentary/found-footage horror films is to obscure the dividing line between truth and fiction, freely mixing the “real” with the “fake” until audiences are too dizzy to know the difference, then Jake Wade Wall’s debut, Devil’s Backbone, Texas (2015), just might be one of the most successful yet. By interweaving the actual story of his horror writer father’s experiences on the titular patch of land with the kind of traditional found-footage aspects that we’re used to seeing (the Blair Witch Project (1999) is an obvious inspiration), Wall is able to come up with a virtually textbook example of the subgenre. If Devil’s Backbone, Texas is less successful as an actual film, well…let’s chalk that up to growing pains: there’s enough good ideas here to make Wall someone to keep an eye on in the future.

The concept of the film, as mentioned above, cleverly blends the real-life story of Bert Wall, a writer/rancher who lived in the area of Texas known as Devil’s Backbone, with the usual “running through the woods with a camera” found-footage schtick. Wall’s ranch came to fame via a mid-’90s segment on Unsolved Mysteries that detailed the massive amount of ghostly activity that he claimed to witness on the land, including everything from ghostly monks to ghostly Native Americans. Wall’s real-life son, Jake (the film’s writer/director/producer/lead), uses this as the basic setup and then jumps us 20 years into the present. After his father has died, Jake’s mom asks him to take his ashes to his old homestead and perform the “ash ceremony” that Bert always wanted.

Seeing this as a great opportunity to explore stories of the area, Jake takes the ashes and a small passel of his best friends, a group which features the usual mixture of believers and non-believers. As Jake interviews the locals, in order to get a better picture of his estranged father, he also begins to uncover hints of the strange doings in the area: there’s even stories about a mysterious German POW camp on the ranch, providing yet another possible source for the region’s “hauntings.” As things gradually become stranger, Jake’s friends want to pack up and leave, especially after they keep bumping into a strange pickup truck that, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t be there. Jake has become obsessed with getting to the bottom of his father’s death, however, as well as the legends of Devil’s Backbone and he has no intention of backing out. Will Jake’s stubbornness lead to the ultimate revelation of the Devil’s Backbone’s secrets or will his poking around spell the doom for everyone he holds dear?

One of Devil Backbone, Texas’ greatest strengths (perhaps its single greatest one) is the way in which it ingeniously melds fiction and reality within the framework of the film. To be honest, I wasn’t actually aware that there really was a Bert Wall: I assumed that the Unsolved Mysteries segment was a clever mock-up and that the whole film was an entirely fictionalized account of a real area/phenomenon. Imagine my surprise, then, when a little research revealed that not only does Bert Wall actually exist (along with that illuminating Unsolved Mysteries segment from 1996) but that Jake is his son. This sort of (gently) blew my mind, as it managed to recontextualize much of what I had just seen, especially considering the familial angle. Any film that can actually fool me gets big props, in my book, and Wall definitely deserves props.

The main problem with the film doesn’t really have much to do with the story, although it does end up feeling a bit musty, in places: in general, Wall throws plenty of good ideas around and many of them end up sticking, even if nothing is explored in as much depth as it should be (in particular, the German POW bit is so under-developed as to be mystifying). The big problems with the film, unfortunately, all stack up on the actual production side of things: while Wall has plenty of intriguing ideas, the film that contains them is, at best, rather average.

As the lead, Wall has a tendency to swing between an effective, upbeat kind of understatement and a much more ineffective hyper-emotionalism: when Jake really gets wound up, his character tends to come across as whiny,  shouty and altogether unpleasant. Found-footage films have a history of leads like this, of course (think back to Blair Witch’s insufferable Heather), but that doesn’t make it any more tolerable here. If anything, I found myself constantly wishing that Wall had stayed behind the camera: while his character definitely has moments, I found my suspension of disbelief shattered a few times too many for comfort.

The rest of the cast does decent work, although I’ll admit that the only one who actually left any kind of impression on me was the fella who looked sort of like Hugh Jackman: he had an easy-going delivery and charisma that was quite effective. Other than that, however, the group seemed like the usual crew of interchangeable types. As with similar mockumentary films, Devil’s Backbone, Texas, also features various interviews with academics, experts and towns’ folk: this all help with the film’s verisimilitude immensely, even when the acting from the cast becomes just rough enough to notice.

Ultimately, Devil’s Backbone, Texas is a decent debut, albeit one hampered by a shaky lead, slight lack of focus and a rather dreadful twist ending (not to put too fine a point on it but the lazy “surprise” finale is easily the dumbest part of the film, hands down). That being said, there’s something about the film that still got to me: perhaps it was that initial blurring of real and fiction or Wall’s very obvious enthusiasm for the film and subject. Perhaps it was the genuinely creepy location or the standout bit of atmosphere where we see teeming masses of spiders all over the walls of Bert’s abandoned home (as a lifelong arachnophobe, this practically had me crawling out of my skin). Whatever the reason, I walked away from Wall’s debut entertained, which is quite a bit more than I can say for many micro-budget indies. As such, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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