After making the genre-changing Blair Witch Project for a tiny budget, filmmaker Eduardo Sánchez spent over a decade recovering. He worked on a string of unsuccessful movies, but now he's trying for a comeback with his first feature in a while, Lovely Molly. Like Blair, this indie horror flick incorporates found footage into a nerve-jangling story of a place haunted by child torture, poverty, and maybe even [insert your favorite snakey, slurpy Ancient Evil Mythos here].
It's undeniable that Sánchez' disturbing, evocative found footage style in Blair changed horror filmmaking forever. Without it, there would have been no Paranormal Activity, no Cloverfield, and no The Last Exorcism. Despite the flood of bad found footage flicks and ARG campaigns that Sánchez unleashed by inspiration, he also opened the door for a new kind of documentary realism in horror that infused the genre with new life. What many forget is that his movie was also notable for its use of sound and abstract symbols to evoke fear that the Saw series could only dream of. While other filmmakers were trying to shock us by bathing our faces in guts and eyeballs, Sánchez has permanently colonized our nightmares with those insanely terrifying scenes showing nothing but bundles of sticks and rags.
You can see a lot of Sánchez' distinctive style in Lovely Molly, but here the ghost haunting our characters isn't some distant legend. He's the father of Molly, our protagonist, a working class newlywed struggling with loneliness (her husband Tim is a truck driver and often away) and torn apart by her past as an abused kid and heroin addict. She and Tim can't quite make ends meet, so they move into Molly's empty childhood home. At first we only get hints of how disturbed Molly is — she seems happy at her job as a department store clerk, and found footage flashbacks to her wedding reveal a big group of family and friends who love her. But she's still obsessed with her parents' deaths, and she begins to hear weird noises in the house when Tim is away.
As the movie goes on, Molly descends into what is either demonic possession by her evil, abusive father's ghost, or a drug-crazed spiral into homicidal freakout mode. There's something frankly tedious about the "is it all in her mind" storyline, which succeeds only in rare instances like Pan's Labyrinth. In Lovely Molly, it seems like an excuse for Sánchez not to take responsibility for what he's doing to Molly's character. There doesn't need to be rhyme or reason to what she's doing because hey — she's crazy! or possessed! whatever!
Most of the film is a frustrating muddle of scenes that are crisp, brilliant distillations of pure horror and scenes that are the sloppiest kind of random sexual exploitation I've seen in a while. As Molly's visions of her father intensify, she starts trying to capture his ghost on camera — presumably to prove to herself or other people that he exists, but we never really know. In one intensely chilling sequence, we get a first-person videocamera view as she descends into an ancient cellar in the house, humming sweetly, eventually reaching a creepy goat/snake bas relief carved into the wall before we hear gibbering, slurping noises. It's a delicious moment of what-the-fuckery. There is also an incredibly disturbing sequence where Molly is waylaid by the ghost in a dark service entrance at work. When we later see what happened in security footage, it's a truly fantastic example psychological horror.
But a lot of the movie is just given over to clichéd representations of Molly going crazy by getting really horny, or smoking a lot, or not doing her makeup. We're supposed to know she's in a bad place because she wants to have sex all the time and keeps wandering around naked. As these lust scenes slowly transform to blood lust orgies, it feels like you're watching every Satanic possession movie ever made. For some reason, Sánchez can't bring his startling originality to Molly's descent into madness/evil. The film slowly builds to a climax you saw coming from a mile away, and no amount of gratuitous sex and violence can save you from boredom.
Lovely Molly is a mixed bag. It will definitely freak you out in places, but it remains a mostly unsatisfying story with a lot of promise and no follow-through. Tragically, it feels like a bad ripoff of found footage movies like Paranormal Activity — movies that Sánchez once inspired, and is now exploiting for warmed-over ideas.