Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
Once again, I have been tweaking my October Horror Movie Challenge selection well into the month. Butterfly Kisses was a recent addition, following a discussion with Evan Dorkin over on The Good Friends of Jackson Elias Discord.
I had originally planned to watch Uncle Sam today, attracted by the Maniac Cop team of screenwriter Larry Cohen and director William Lustig. Evan suggested I choose something else, however, as apparently Uncle Sam is a bit of a stinker, despite such a pedigree. When I heard Evan and Paul Yellovich mention Butterfly Kisses in the same context as Lake Mungo and The Borderlands in a recent episode of Tear Them Apart, I decided to give it a punt instead.
As I mentioned in my recent review of Incantation, I am trying to be less closed-minded about found-footage films. While Incantation was definitely a superior example, it still suffered from some of the problems that make me wary of the format. So will Butterfly Kisses do a better job of changing my opinion?
Butterfly Kisses is currently available for rent or purchase on Prime Video in the UK.
Filmmaker Gavin York claims to have discovered a box of old videotapes in the basement of his in-laws’ house. He presents segments of these tapes, digging into their backstory. Gavin’s hope is to get financing to make a documentary about the story they tell.
These tapes were made in 2004 by a film student named Sophia Crane. They document her investigation of a Maryland urban legend: Peeping Tom, or the Blink Man. Supposedly, if one stares down the length of the Lichester Tunnel between midnight and 1 AM, without blinking, Peeping Tom will appear. He then moves closer every time you blink, finally reaching you, with fatal consequences.
Unsurprisingly, no one Sophia films can go an hour without blinking. Sophia’s cameraman, Feldman, suggests the camera could be their eye instead. An hour into their recording, a fuzzy shape appears at the end of the tunnel. From then, every time Feldman uses the camera, it records a dark silhouette moving closer.
Back in the present, Gavin has limited success tracking down Sophia, Feldman or anyone they interviewed. In order to progress the project, Gavin hires another director — Erik Kristopher Myers, the real-life writer/director of Butterfly Kisses — to turn all this into a proper documentary. Even so, Gavin faces accusations of fabricating the tapes as viral marketing for a found-footage horror film. This becomes increasingly credible as we learn more about Gavin’s life, finances and ambitions.
The film continues cutting between Sophia and Feldman stalked by Peeping Tom, Gavin trying to prove his legitimacy, and Myers getting drawn deeper into the web of mysteries and lies.
What happened to Sophia and Feldman? Did Gavin fake the whole thing? Or does Peeping Tom really pose a mortal threat to everyone involved?
Peeping Tom remains a suitably vague, ambiguous figure throughout the film. The footage in which we apparently see him is all low-resolution black-and-white video. When we do see more than an outline, however, he looks suspiciously like the Babadook.
Despite the familiar nature of Peeping Tom, he remains a creepy presence throughout the film. The “butterfly kisses” of the title come the brush of his long eyelashes as he gets closer, forcing you to blink. “I thought the lashes would tickle,” Sophia tells us, “but they itch.”
Gavin York makes for a fascinating protagonist. While he is sympathetic at first, his abrasively defensive attitude whenever challenged wears us down. Almost every character he meets ends up hating him, which is unfortunate for someone trying to be a documentarian.
The strongest moments of Butterfly Kisses come when its characters challenge the very foundations of the found-footage format. Eduardo Sanchez, the director of The Blair Witch Project, turns up as himself, pointing out all the faults with the footage Gavin claims to have discovered. There are too many lucky shots when the camera just happened to be rolling, for example. His criticisms could be directed at almost every found-footage horror I’ve seen.
While the legend of Peeping Tom was constructed entirely for the film, director Erik Kristopher Myers spent some time laying groundwork for it before production began. Volunteers spread the story around Maryland, establishing it to the point that it now turns up in books on local folklore. This approach is described as “fakelore” in the film and the volunteers are listed under that category in the final credits.
Butterfly Kisses is less a found-footage horror film than a film about found-footage horror. Erik Kristopher Myers clearly set out to deconstruct the genre, critiquing and even lampooning its more jarring aspects. At the same time, he also managed to make a damn good horror film.
None of the elements that make up Butterfly Kisses are exactly novel. Urban legends and cursed media are staples of modern horror. Hell, even the creeping doom of Peeping Tom himself feels like a combination of It Follows and the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. What the film does with these elements, however, feels genuinely fresh and exciting.
The real strength of Butterfly Kisses as a horror film lies in the way it keeps us off-balance. Between the three nested layers of filmmaking, the incorporation of real people into the fictional narrative, and the way we are presented with opposing and supporting evidence for every assertion its characters make, this is an utter mindfuck of a film. It would be easy to lose the audience on a wild ride like this, but Myers is skilful enough to keep us hooked at every stage, even as we are repeatedly confounded.
I’m not sure that Butterfly Kisses is the best found-footage horror film I’ve seen, but that’s only because The Borderlands exists. It may be the most imaginative use of the format out there, however. This is a rare combination of clever and relentlessly entertaining. Ultimately, Butterfly Kisses may have done more to improve my opinion of found footage than any other film, which might be ironic given the director’s apparent intent.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!