“909 Experiment” is a found footage paranormal horror film and mockumentary written and directed by Wayne A. Smith. The film follows two graduate students who are paid $300 to spend 72 hours in a haunted house and record any paranormal activity as part of an ongoing research study.
The details behind the making and production of 909 Experiment are shrouded in as much mystery as the subject matter of the film itself. 909 Experiment was never publicly released. Found Footage Critic has made a diligent effort to contact the director, actors, or anyone affiliated with the original production, but to no avail. Perhaps the production crew fell prey to the same fate as the characters in their own film!
Experiment 909 opens with the obligatory title card explaining that the footage about to be presented is police evidence. What follows is an unnecessarily long (7 minute) dialog-free scene of two graduate students driving along a winding road, accompanied by an equally long musical score. Seven minutes into the film, the two protagonists arrive at an alleged haunted house where they will be paid $300 for spending three days and filming anything out of the ordinary. During the first two days of their stay, the two students hear unexplainable sounds and bear witness to unworldly phenomena. As they spend more time in the unwieldy house, the odd occurrences progress from a mere novelty to outright danger. Will the two students find a logical explanation for what they are experiencing or are they falling victim to an actual paranormal entity?
The Rosetta Stone of Found Footage?
As an entertainment device, 909 Experiment is a film fraught with challenges. Despite the film’s shortcomings, the found footage genre owes a great deal of a respect and gratitude for this largely unknown piece of cinematic work. Some of the found footage tropes that are now commonplace to the genre may owe their very existence to 909 Experiment.
To offer some perspective, 909 Experiment was produced in 2000, eleven years after UFO Abduction (1989), one year after The Blair Witch Project (1999), and during the same year as The St. Francisville Experiment (2000). It wasn’t until years later that many of the well-known found footage films were released. In Memorium (2005) was released five years after 909 Experiment; Paranormal Activity (2007) and [REC] (2009) were released seven and nine years later, respectively. Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) was released a full ten years after 909 Experiment.
Some of the found footage tropes included in 909 Experiment include: house-wide surveillance cameras; presenting footage that rotates between fixed surveillance camera POVs; a humming noise preceding each paranormal event; the complete lack of background music and non-diegetic sound; setting the video camera on a tabletop (and other fixed objects) to place the cinematographer in frame; using different aspect ratios for different camera types; filming into a mirror to capture the cinematographer and video camera; and an opening title card indicating that the footage is from police evidence. While a number of these tropes can be traced to prior found footage films, such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), others, like the use of house-wide surveillance cameras and paranormal hum, may have had their debut in 909 Experiment.
Similarities to the Paranormal Activity Franchise
Many of the plot elements of Paranormal Activity (2007) bear a strong resemblance to 909 Experiment. In both films, two main protagonists are alone in a haunted house, one of which becomes possessed by an unseen entity. Further, in both films, the possession first manifests itself through sleepwalking and becomes incrementally worse until the protagonists are completely taken-over. The paranormal entity in both films moves objects and is accompanied by an electromagnetic humming sound which records to video. In Paranormal Activity (2007), one of the protagonists is bitten on the side, while in 909 Experiment, the protagonist is scratched on the abdomen. Most notably, the characters in 909 Experiment uses the phrase “paranormal activity” to describe what they are experiencing—a full seven years prior to the release of Paranormal Activity (2007).
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) follows suit with even more similarities to 909 Experiment, in particular, the use of house-wide surveillance cameras that rotate from room to room. These and the other found footage tropes previously discussed are used throughout the Paranormal Activity franchise.
Found Footage Cinematography
The found footage cinematography in 909 Experiment is generally good. The footage captured in the film has three distinct sources, a handheld video camera used by the protagonists, a series of black and white fixed surveillance cameras mounted in each room of the house, and a higher quality video camera used for recording interviews long after the tragic events of the film unfold.
Director Wayne A. Smith effectively simulates a traditional narrative film look and feel by methodically switching the camera POV between the fixed surveillance cameras and handheld video camera held by the protagonists. Additionally, the handheld video camera is often strategically placed on a tabletop or other locations, offering additional perspective in places where the surveillance cameras may not have access.
With the exception of the opening scene (discussed later), none of the found footage in 909 Experiment contains background music or non-diegetic sound design. 909 Experiment is noteworthy in the film’s inclusion of a low-level hum accompanied by faint whispering whenever a paranormal event occurs. These are techniques subsequently used (and refined) in Paranormal Activity (2007) and the rest of the Paranormal Activity franchise. In fact, readers will be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of recent paranormal-based found footage film that does not include this trope.
Also adding to the film’s authenticity, but at the same time distracting, is the quantity of redacted content throughout the film. Specific character names are blacked out of on-screen messaging and bleeped from spoken dialog. Additionally, specific product labels are blacked out, presumably to avoid copyright violations. While these types of redactions are sometimes necessary, a subtle blurring rather than opaque black boxes would have proven more palatable to viewer sensibilities.
The filming reasons used throughout 909 Experiment are very good. Director Wayne A. Smith effectively uses the house-wide surveillance cameras to justify the continued filming of the characters, even in the face of danger. Since the surveillance cameras film automatically, the question is never raised as to why the protagonists film in the face of danger. 909 Experiment was produced in the infancy of found footage, making this particular technique all the more novel and innovative. This film is certainly one of the earliest found footage films (if not the first) to employ house-wide surveillance cameras in this manner.
Found Footage Purity
The found footage purity is a measure of how accurately a film is portrayed as actual found footage. While the cinematography generally presents as realistic, the prolonged opening driving sequence is likely to distract viewers and prevent them from being fully immersed in what is supposed to be real found footage.
909 Experiment contains music during the opening sequence, which marginally fits within the context of the mockumentary format of the film. Although the background music is technically justified in the opening of the film, the duration and selection of music feel out of place for the tone and cadence of 909 Experiment. Successful found footage films use the opening scenes to set the tone and expectation for viewers. For a film that is designed as a scary ghost story, the seven-minute musical driving montage is likely to have the opposite effect and diffuse any sense of tension and anticipation
909 Experiment features only two characters. Director Wayne A. Smith plays the male lead, Alex, and Denise Devlin plays the female lead, Jamie. 909 Experiment is Wayne A. Smith’s only acting role, while Denise Devlin had several small roles prior to 909 Experiment, but hasn’t acted since.
In short, the acting in 909 Experiment is often challenged, which is unfortunate given the strength of the subject matter and interesting plot. Given that this film centers on two people who are alone in a house for three days, strong acting and chemistry are required to carry the story and maintain interest.
While the premise of 909 Experiment is quite interesting, the film makes several key missteps that detract from the effectiveness of the final product.
The prolonged opening driving scene and accompanying music (discussed earlier) takes away from the tone of the film right from the onset of the film. Whether this sequence was added for artistic design or to simply lengthen the film is a question that may never know the answer to.
A second detractor from 909 Experiment is the use of the mockumentary format. While the mockumentary approach is innovative and can add variety to a found footage film, the device does a disservice to the storytelling in 909 Experiment. Very early in the film, one of the two protagonists is interviewed, which immediately informs viewers that this person will survive. In contrast, the absence of the second protagonist suggests at the onset that he will not survive the ordeal. This information removes much of the tension, anticipation, and mystery from the film.
Despite these challenges, the premise of 909 Experiment is interesting and still fairly unique to this day. Two graduate students are paid to participate in a research study requiring them to stay in a presumably haunted house for 3 days. They also agree to have their every move recorded via house-wide surveillance cameras.
When the two students first arrive at the house they are provided with instructions to follow during their stay. Included in the instructions is a description of the scientific research. According to the documentation left at the house, the house was built on a seismically active area, subjecting it to abnormally high levels of electromagnetic radiation. The research study posits that the electromagnetic radiation may cause hallucinations which can be mistaken for paranormal activity.
The goal of the research study was to see if the two graduate students perceive any abnormal activity in the house and have them note their observations. All the while, the house-wide surveillance cameras will objectively record what actually takes place, either proving or disproving that the house is actually haunted.
With the film’s interesting plot and groundbreaking cinematic tropes, 909 Experiment has the bones for an innovative found footage film, but unfortunately, the film’s potential is never fully realized due to specific editing and creative decisions.