William Brent Bell: An Exhausting Examination
by Keenan Tamblyn
First let me start off by saying William Brent Bell is a terrible filmmaker, he’s bad, his movies are bad, I’ve seen all of them and laughed every single one off screen. Now that being said it’s also worth noting that he’s the director behind one of the most profitable horror films of all time The Devil Inside.“Oh god” you must be thinking “I forgot about that movie, what a piece of crap”. Well that piece of crap made more bang for it’s buck than any other movie released between 2010 and 2015 ($100 million profit on a $1 million dollar budget). Audiences in 2011 had Paranormal Activity fever and ate up anything found-footage, a genre surely none of us are tired of yet (cue forced laughter), they ran to theatres throwing their money around like maniacs when anything remotely similar to PA came out. How did they react when they finally got to see what would surely be their new favourite horror film of all time The Devil Inside? Well just google “Devil Inside Ending” and you’ll get a general idea.
But why in the name of all that is holy would I write about someone as bad as William Brent Bell, what could possibly motivate me to write this article. Well believe it or not I actually like most of his films, EVEN Devil Inside, beyond that I might even go as far as to say I’m fascinated by them (ok maybe that’s pushing it). Regardless of the laughability of his films I think Bell, like many of the great bad-good filmmakers is actually kind of talented, he knows how to write a story and put it on screen, he just has no concept of what people are prepared to take seriously anymore. There’s a lot of interesting idea floating around in his films but Bell simply doesn’t have the expertise to execute them without inciting countless snorts and groans from his audience. So with that let me take you through this wonderful minor spoiler-filled journey through his filmography while I attempt to break them all down.
If you can remember far enough back into the magical time of 2006 you might have a flicker in your mind of his first film (well technically his second but I can’t find ANY information on “Sparkle and Charm”). Think about Blockbuster shelves being lined newly released horror DVDs, do you remember scanning over them and thinking “what the hell is this… wait is that Frankie Muniz?” yes that is Frankie Muniz and the movie in question is Stay Alive.Stay Alive tried to break new ground by being the first movie about not a haunted house, not a haunted object, not a haunted person, but a haunted VIDEO GAME. Malcolm In the Middle and company find a mysterious game in the possessions of their recently deceased friend who died shortly after playing it and I guess in a bizarre way of honouring his memory decide to play it together. The name of the game is, you guessed it “Stay Alive” and the object is to well… stay alive, but of course there’s a catch to it too, if you die in the game you die in real life! Now laugh at me if you want I actually find that concept kind of interesting and maybe in capable hands could’ve been a good movie but in Bell’s it is not. None of the protagonists are likeable or believable and the game itself is never really fleshed out enough for anyone to find it scary or even understand why it’s haunted, all in all it ends up feeling like a tired Final Destination clone with a twist.
Now video games have come a long long way since 2006, back then they were seen as something you do just for fun and anyone who was really obsessed with them was immediately branded a total loser. In the 10+ years since SA came out video games are now being appreciated more and more by the general populace as a legitimate art form and on top of that being knowledgeable about them is becoming essential for anyone interested in pop culture. But that is now and Stay Alive was then and boy does it show, in what could’ve been an interesting idea becomes a “haha that’s what people thought was cool about games and gamers back then?”. To put it in layman’s terms Stay Alive is the movie equivalent of 2000s frosted-tip hair.
I know that Devil Inside is always going to be the movie Bell is remembered for, which is maybe not going to be his proudest achievement because to how universally hated it is. As I mentioned before Devil Inside is one of many movies that came out during the found footage craze of the early 2010s, it’s storytelling and visuals are a far cry from the generic studio-garbage feel of Stay Alive but it ends up making allllllll the same mistakes. Much like it would take a lot of convincing for an audience to believe a video game could be evil (none of which Bell provides) Devil Inside wants us to believe that demonic possession is SO common that The Vatican has a special division of sexy British priests who teach other aspiring priests about them and that exorcisms are so intense that it’s possible for them to backfire to a degree that the possessed will go crazy and murder their entire families. This is happened to the mother of Isabella, the film’s protagonist, who’s on a mission to find out exactly what happened to her after she was stashed away in an church run insane asylum (or something) in Italy, because that’s totally something the government is authorized to do, ship it’s loonies off to Europe without their family’s consent (or maybe they do consent, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched this movie and I couldn’t bring myself to re-watch it for research purposes so bear with me guys). Then what happens next is, well you know the drill, exorcisms, mom is still crazy, camera is shaky, jump scares, movie’s over, audiences demand their money back.
A young woman goes to from America to Europe to investigate something eerie and supernatural involving the death of an entire family, has a bizarre meeting with the individual involved that only ends up raising more questions, gets help from a sexy British man who’s an expert on the subject she’s investigating… oh wait did you think I was still talking about Devil Inside, sorry I’m actually talking about Bell’s next film Wer! That’s right, rather than listening to the countless reviews condemning Devil Inside for it’s badness Bell decided to make a near identical film but this time about werewolves and not possession.
In a massive change from his previous film this time our perky lead is defence lawyer Kate Moore (who’s blonde not brunette, shocking I know, totally different character now) who comes to France to defend a man who allegedly killed a vacationing American family because I guess Bell figured audiences wouldn’t sympathize as much if he killed a French family? In her investigations of his “strange medical condition” she slowly but surely learns his true identity as a WEREWOLF.
Now believe it or not despite their obvious similarities Wer is actually a much better movie than Devil Inside, which isn’t saying much mind you but a fact is a fact. With his terrible track record of never being able to create believably you’d think Bell would fail just as badly this time around but somehow he manages to do a much better job (think a C- grade compared to his previous films’ F). In the “mythos” of Wer being a werewolf is actually a medical condition which is carried hereditarily and passed on through generations, we find out that our big bad wolf Talan Gwynek (actual character name) has been held prisoner by his mother for years, he’s the last in his bloodline and possibly the last werewolf in the world. Like a traditional werewolf he changes when there’s a full moon and becomes overcome with blood lust, however he’s much less of a Lon Chaney-esque Wolfman and more of an extra hairy guy with a mighty strong bite. Not a bad concept entirely, let’s try and justify werewolf-ism as being a type of hereditary lunar-induced mania that causes massive physical changes: extra hair, claws, extreme physical strength and durability, instead of someone being part-wolf, part-man. Great, that’s all the explanation we need for believably, as long as one of the characters doesn’t provide any unnecessary exposition we’ll be fine. Think that’s not going to happen? GUESS AGAIN! After a routine medical examination on Talan goes horribly wrong (he transforms, kills everyone in the room, etc.) Kate’s other investigator friend and Jian Ghomeshi look-alike Eric does some research on lunar mania. He explains that during a full moon epileptics often have more seizures than usual (surprisingly true), that they can have “violent outbursts and they almost get like, super human strength” (sort of true), and that “it has something to do with the water, you know how the moon affects the tides right? Well human beings are made up of almost 60% water, I mean it kind of makes sense right?” (SO UNTRUE I HAD TO PAUSE THE MOVIE I WAS LAUGHING SO HARD). Yes the moon does affect the tides but that’s because of gravity and it has no bearing on the water inside your body whatsoever. If I had to pick one scene in William Brent Bell’s entire filmography that best explains how much he misunderstands his audience’s intelligence it’s this one.
I’ve got one more movie to talk about guys, 2016’s The Boy, a.k.a. Bell’s big return to “high profile” films after it seemed like Wer was going to throw him into VOD hell forever (maybe it should have). Being a full five years after Paranormal Activity Bell finally decided to dispel with the shakey-cam, digital photography his previous two films had and gone into full “I’m going to make a REAL movie” mode. In The Boy Lauren Cohen plays Greta an American woman who, you guessed it, travels to Europe (because it wouldn’t be a Bell movie without that happening) to take a job as a nanny for an older couple in a spooky Gothic mansion. Their “son” whom she’s to take care of isn’t a real boy but rather a super creepy porcelain doll who may or may not be alive…or possessed by a ghost, or whatever. This film is by far Bell’s most traditional, again probably learning from past failures The Boy has a more of a timeless quality to it, trying to rely more on suspense and classic scares over doing something new and dumb. Unfortunately the scares are not there, like at all, the whole thing feels like the first draft of an M. Night Shyamalan script that he’d thrown together an hour before meeting with the producers. Even though the twist ending (spoilers there’s a twist) was actually kind of cool it was so poorly executed I ended up watching it at 1.5x the original speed because I was already so uninvested after drudging through over an hour of monotony already. This movie was so boring it feels like a distant memory even though I only watched it a couple weeks ago, if there’s one film of Bell’s you can skip it’s this one.
William Brent Bell is a director that constantly learns from his past mistakes as he makes new and more hilarious ones, it’s hard for me to hate him because he clearly tries so hard to make movies people will like. Maybe one day he’ll have made every mistake possible as a filmmaker that he’ll finally run out of new ones to make and produce something not terrible, but I doubt it. At least Wer was kind of fun though!