12 hours have passed since my viewing of Johnny Martin’s Delirium, and I’m still unsettled by it. The film – a low-budget but super-slick mix of found footage and traditional narrative camerawork – spooks and jolts in all the right spots, yet has the temperance to be more shaded and subtle with its frights and performances. What’s also of note is there’s almost no heavily-objectionable language or massive amounts of gore, a welcome change from most modern-day horror films. Delirium doesn’t rely on the overt and ostentatious to deliver its shocks and scares, opting instead for intensity and a near-suffocating atmosphere full of dread and terror.
Delirium culls its tone and tenor from all manner of horror staples. Its early score by Mathieu Carratier brings to mind Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave’s electronically-tinged, foreboding music from Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, and its later score during the climax contains some very familiar-sounding reverbed syllables. We see visual nods to Phantasm (UPDATE: Delirium‘s main location is The Tall Man’s mortuary!), The Shining, and countless haunted house films. Obviously, lines to The Blair Witch Project can be drawn. But Martin takes his disparate elements and combines them into a freaky little package, the running time of which flies past; it doesn’t even give you enough time or space to look at your watch before it’s over.
At its very core, Delirium is a relative of the old campfire story involving fraternity pledges being sent inside the neighborhood haunted house, being told to either spend the night in it or to place a candle in the uppermost window. The results in either case wind up disastrous and horrifying, and Delirium updates this folk tale – complete with the harrowing conclusion – for the viral video era. There’s no fraternity here – just a group of pre-drinking-age dudebros calling themselves “Hell Gang,” the initiation rites of which involve sending a prospective member to a haunted house, rigged with video cameras for proof of the deed.
Film student Austin (Griffin Freeman) is heard over the film’s opening logos giving this hazing ritual’s instructions to Billy (Troy Osterberg): go through the woods to the “old Brandt house,” get video evidence of himself standing on the porch, and then come back. But this testosterone-fueled solo trip into the woods quickly devolves into madness, with Billy seeing and hearing things he shouldn’t be seeing or hearing before he winds up not just on the porch, but disappearing into the house without any further word.
At this point, it’s worth noting the film’s use of first-person and third-person perspectives, and how the camera itself serves as an unreliable narrator. We’re given close-up, Snorricam-esque views of Billy as he makes his way to the Brandt house, but the next edit suddenly separates us from him with a wide shot showing him holding his camera. This kind of shift often happens in Delirium, disorienting and discombobulating us to the point of confusion over what the camera’s subject is actually seeing. As if to hammer this point home, there’s a section in the film where Austin sees things through his camera’s lens which aren’t there in reality, and we wonder if what we’re watching is a product of an overactive imagination or if this is proof of the supernatural.
After Billy goes missing, the Hell Gang decides to kill two birds with one stone: try out another hopeful and look for the missing Billy, which allows us to get to know the personalities of our lead characters. Through moments like pranks and conversations, each character’s tone is laid out for us. Austin tries to remain detached and aloof, preferring to be so in order to maintain a filmmaker’s objectivity. Chase (Mike C. Manning) is our man of action, doing what needs to get done, even if it’s breaking a window and throwing a friend out of it to try to save their lives. Muzo (Seth Austin) is our resident skeptic, someone who doesn’t exactly take the mysterious circumstances seriously. Lucas (August Roads, who also provides the closing credits song) seems to be a kid who’s out of his depth but along for the ride.
Which brings us to Keith, played carefully by Ryan Pinkston. For a film boasting a found footage angle, Pinkston delivers the film’s most solemn and oddly tilted performance, giving Keith the brains and the heart of the Hell Gang. He seems to be the only person who’s at least done their homework on the Brandt family and the horrific events which took place inside the fateful house, and he’s the only one treating it as serious as it should be. There’s a sadness and fear which Pinkston gives Keith; it’s a soulfulness which eludes the others just a bit, as they’re all written as kids looking to have a good time instead of being cautious.
There’s not much of a physical female presence in this movie to balance out these five men; their female peers and friends seem to be more of an afterthought than anything else. But it’s largely to contrast the mental (and ghostly) presence of Lady Brandt (Elena Sanchez), who may or may not be responsible for what happened to her thirteen children and her husband a long time ago. Even though we’re told differing stories about her family, and even though we don’t see her much throughout the film, she hangs over the film and its events like a guillotine blade, waiting for the right time to make her devastating mark upon these kids.
All the principals elevate Delirium past its low-budget trappings with nuance and flavor, with Martin making sure not to push them into overblown hysteria. It also helps that he treats the mansion like a character itself, imposing its foreboding presence upon our would-be rescuers. Each creak on the stairs, every nondescript hallway, all the doors which seem to open and close on their own – the Brandt house becomes a living, breathing, malevolent being, working in tandem with the spirits Austin keeps seeing.
One measure Martin takes to slow-roll the audience is not allowing Austin to tell anyone about what he’s experiencing. Ordinarily, any kid his age would immediately alert his friends to the sight of a ghost (especially if she’s naked, as happens in one scene), but he’s so desperate to stay in control of his situation to the point that he’d rather keep all of this to himself. It’s a little maddening, considering what he’s seeing, and you’re left wondering why he’s not sharing any of this with people he supposedly cares about.
But like all good carnival haunted houses, you have to have a reason to be there and to keep going, don’t you? That’s where Johnny Martin’s Delirium succeeds in fine style. Long, uninterrupted takes and relentless action make its running time short and sweet, pacing itself from a slow trot to breakneck speeds as it reaches its merciless end.