Acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Stone famously began his career directing schlock like “The Hand” and having associations with the likes of Lloyd Kaufman. It seems only fitting that son Sean Stone would follow a similar path into filmmaking. But while yesterday’s up-and-comers make their bones in skeevy genre filmmaking, today’s film school brats are a bit more formalistic, emerging out of the directing womb with autocritical theories and refuting of accepted tropes. When James Cameron was making “Piranha 2,” the attempt was to build a new wheel. With Sean Stone, the attempt is to subtly tweak it. So forgive expectations for being a bit higher for the progeny of the man behind “JFK” with the new thriller "Greystone Park."
This new horror film comes stamped with an “inspired by true events” tag, but they would have been better off emphasizing the film’s familiar pedigree. It’s found-footage, the mention of which in a review of a horror film is beginning to become increasingly irrelevant, given how the subgenre has been embraced by the film going community. Sean stars as the skeptic of a group of filmmaking friends, all of whom seek to cause havoc by breaking into an abandoned psychiatric hospital and filming the ghosts and ghouls found therein. It’s amusing that most of these films use this style, all blurry footage and shaky handheld, simply to tell a “Scooby Doo” tale, and “Greystone Park” feels like a very specific case of decent adult actors pretending that they‘re riding the Mystery Machine.
There’s an assist in an early scene from the elder Stone, who shows up as a doomsayer friend who suggests the group may be barking up the wrong tree. He might as well be discussing moviemaking, as the son, playing a character with no clear relationship to his offscreen father, is unreceptive. He’s dismissive, blasé about the threat of Greystone Park, a generic asylum where tougher-than-usual practices had previously been adopted, leaving the spirits of the mistreated wandering the halls looking for whatever it is dead insane people look for. The son borrows from the father by interspersing discussion of the practices of Greystone Park with old file footage of inhumane documentary clips reminiscent of “Titticut Follies,” adding unrelated, suggestive shots of death and disaster to create a collage of systematic abuse. It doesn’t make much sense given the format, but “found footage” shares its inspirations with Dogme 95, neither style/movement/genre of which seems dedicated towards being strict about their own superficial trappings.
Even with the aggressively unpleasant shooting style (for this type of picture, the image is awfully muddy and cluttered), you can tell Stone is working from a base much stronger than most young horror directors. There is doubtless chemistry between the three leads, even if they spend most of the film inorganically bickering, particularly as stakes begin to rise (the asylum is haunted, in case you didn’t get that). Snarky Alexander Wraith co-wrote the picture with Stone, and between the two of them you sense a long history of ruined jokes and stupid pranks, with one of them clearly the recipient. And the beautiful Antonella Lentini makes a smart, savvy member of the trio, her sly smile bringing an organic sense of mischief to the proceedings.
Naturally, this dynamic disappears once the characters end up knee-deep in paranormal activity©. Would it be a surprise to see that these three spend a large chunk of the film’s second half running, screaming, cursing, and generally reacting incredulously to the spooks surrounding them? And would it be far-fetched to reveal that most of this is in response to events we only witness through jumpy, glitchy jump scares we can barely see? The moments we can see are overly-theatrical grandstanding from ghouls who want to put on a show, sequences that suggest these boogeymen have returned from the afterlife with a bit of camera-ready flair. And of course these moments are preserved on camera—the ideal found footage film is one where it doesn’t occur to the camera person to put down the equipment, given that they aren’t aware they are in a life-or-death situation. The idea of making the protagonists of these movies film brats, or even documentarians, just feels like a circle jerk, a self-loathing one considering the narcissism behind refusing to stop “documenting” what’s going on. “Greystone Park” is even worse in that regard because they don’t appear to be using the footage for any particular gain, other than drunken remembrance.
Perhaps Stone knows he’s cracking a joke about an otherwise lame style of moviemaking. At one point, a character remarks that a ghost looks like a Japanese spirit, familiar with the popular avatar of J-horror, the young girl with stringy black hair. At another, he threatens to pull one over the characters and the viewers with the brief suggestion of a movie within a movie. It’s likely Stone calling attention to the superficial aspects of the genre in which he exists. “Greystone Park” is junk, in other words, mostly unrecognizable from the glut of similar films on the marketplace in its cheap scares and rote staging, with Stone only interested in the margins of such a film and not the content. Maybe he’ll be a filmmaker like his father one day. At this point, that seems impossible to guess. [D+]
"Greystone Park" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.