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It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This review - Indie filmmakers shake up a familiar subgenre


This review is a part of coverage of Queer Fear Film Festival 2023, check out the full spread in the October 30th issue of Film Club 3000.


In 1999, the culture of horror was rocked by an independent film called The Blair Witch Project. A year leading up to its release, the “documentary” follows three students who take off on a journey into the woods to make a film. It was the topic of message boards, people questioning and theorizing whether the manipulative promotional circuit was real or fake. Buzz grew until its release, purporting to be the real life footage of the students found and stitched together, three students who were said to have met their gruesome end.

The comparisons between The Blair Witch Project and It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This are clear - both found footage films made on a low budget by actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves - they also resemble each other due to their brave and innovative approach to independent filmmaking. The latter is a continuation of a trite sub-genre at the end of its rope in terms of unique storytelling potential, especially to the hardened horror fan familiar with the intricacies of the tropes on display, but it is the smartest and most clever use of found footage in the independent space since 2014’s Creep. The filmmakers pay homage to what comes before it, truly succeeding by an unwavering commitment to its own unique conceit, and turning left whenever you expect it to go right. 

It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This follows a horror-obsessed married couple, Nick Toti and Rachel Kempf (also co-directors and co-writers), who buy an abandoned duplex for the purpose of shooting their independent horror film. The home reveals itself to be much more intriguing than it first let on - random strangers are drawn to the building but never approach it. They watch at all times of the day in a zombie-like trance. Excited to find themselves in the midst of a real-life horror story, Nick begins documenting the adventure with the help of Rachel’s best friend, Christian. 

Through an impressive display of over 20 years of archival footage we get a glimpse at the bigger picture - how Nick and Rachel met when they were young and how the three friends made low budget films with the gear they had at their disposal. Nick even alludes to a past jealousy of the relationship between Christian and Rachel, though Christian is a gay man. Through the archival footage we get a very real sense of the relationship between the three, the real life relationship that is at the heart of the story. The story gets its proper start among the revelation that Rachel and Christian historically have an interest in performing seances.

We are shown footage of the two performing these seances in years past, eyes closed and hands held sitting across from each other, always filmed by Nick. Each cut serves as the passing of time and we watch as they age before our eyes, Nick acting as our voyeuristic eye on the vulnerable act. The stunning way Toti and Kempf meld their real world experience with that of the horrific narrative they crafted is enough to get you hooked. Here lies the inception of the thought that there is excellence, or at least intrigue, to come. 

The duplex where we spend most of the runtime comes with its own sense of terror. It is derelict and run-down, which doesn’t stop Rachel and Nick’s excitement as they explore the home to its deepest depths, uncovering unnerving polaroids, graffiti on the walls, and a dozen doors detached from their frames and strewn around unwittingly. A part of what makes this film unique and such a joy to watch is that our main protagonists are lovers of horror. They are obsessed with the paranormal and are experts in fright, so with each occultic twist they grow more intoxicated with thrill. This makes for a fascinating narrative journey that is in direct opposition with many pieces that fill the horror medium — they aren’t running away from evil, they are chasing it.

It’s not all fun though. Many moments are genuinely skin crawling and anxiety inducing, a display of the right ways to do a found footage horror film. The strengths of this sub-genre lie in exploration of the unknown - much of the third act is a shaky camcorder exploring the dark crevices of the creepy home with a flashlight as the only source of light, or running through the ominously empty streets of Kirksville, Missouri - but where others would punctuate these moments with a jump scare, Toti and Kempf buck against the tropes they know all too well to underline these sequences with character and heart. 

This is at full display when build up leads to a three-minute seance in the attic of the haunted duplex that is done in complete silence over an abandoned altar. Three minutes of Rachel and Christian with closed eyes, their hands joined together over a flickering flame, the only source of illumination. Nick captures them silently with his camcorder that sways ever so lightly, something he’s done so many times over the years. It’s innocent, a group fascinated by the paranormal doing what comes naturally. This is an unwaveringly bold sequence crafted by artists who don’t wait for permission to break rules, who follow truth and dramatic potential rather than standard convention. 

The story comes to a halt in the third act when Nick takes a moment to reflect as he vomits in a ball on the floor. Through his retching he strings along a monologue, coming to the realization that what they’re doing doesn’t feel good. None of it feels good. A hell that they brought upon themselves because of their morbid curiosity, their macabre desire, their selfish need as filmmakers to create a film based on their experience facing the supernatural head on and willingly. This is where both Toti and Kempf really shine as performers, in particular Kempf’s mania and obsessive transformation in pursuit of the truth of what lies inside of the home. The characters bring us along on their voyage and we watch as they make every wrong decision. A classic tale of hubris, they are Icarus — chasing a story they could put on film that flew them too close to a hellfire burning sun.

This film does a lot for the evolution of the found footage film, and the real life-narrative entanglement makes for a jolting attack on the perception of the audience — we spend so much time in the story that we get lost in the question of where reality ends and where the story begins. Modern audiences have evolved with these aspects of storytelling and are privy not to be fooled as ones once were with The Blair Witch Project, but this proves that the concept isn’t a broken one. 

This is a good film, a great horror film, and an audience is out there waiting for it: to theorize, to break down every moment frame by frame, to argue over the ending (and it has a fantastic ending). But the filmmakers never plan to release this movie online. “Our intention is to never release it widely… so you should tell all your friends about it. Maybe we’ll create some buzz and they’ll be interested and they’ll watch,” Toti made clear. He goes on to state that as filmmakers, they are interested in doing things the “wrong way”. He hopes that many will still be given the opportunity to see it, but rather travel across the US and screen the film in person. It is an alternative way of doing things, yes, but by a pair of alternative filmmakers who are working in a historically alternative genre of filmmaking. 

So, this is me doing my part in this strange saga. Tell these filmmakers that their film wants to be seen so that it may rightfully live on in the pantheon of transformative horror. 

You can keep up to date with Nick Toti and Rachel Kempf exclusively on their horror film book publishing site, Die Die Books.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Nick Toti's name. It has been changed and updated accordingly.

1 комментарий

Fantastic review, I enjoyed reading it!

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