Altar is a found footage horror film from 2016 that is written and directed by Matt Sconce. The film follows a group of friends who head out on a weekend getaway to attend a school reunion at a lodge out in the wilderness. During their drive, the group takes a wrong turn only to find themselves lost with someone or something evil lurking in the darkness.
The film opens with a 6 minute teaser that precedes the title credits and main story. Altar starts with two newlyweds on the first night of their honeymoon at a secluded lodge. During the couple’s first evening, they plan on attending a “night hike,” but a creepy and intimidating man warns the couple not to go. Following a trope found in just about every horror film before it, the couple fail to heed the man’s warning and head out on their own despite the fact that the hike is presumably cancelled. The newlyweds trudge out into the snowy forest in pitch blackness with only a head mounted camera and flashlight to lead their way, and soon happen upon eerie glowing blue lights in the distance. In what’s clearly another homage to the horror genre, the newlywed wife says “Did you ever see a scary movie, ever? We are not walking up to a blue light in the woods.” True to form, the couple find themselves wishing that they never left the comforts of their honeymoon suite. From here, the situation quickly goes from bad to worse for the two newlyweds.
Following the opening title credits, the film shifts six months into the future, where we are introduced to Bo (Jesse Par), a socially awkward and reclusive teenager with a penchant for cinematography and his older sister Maisy (Stefanie Estes). Maisy is planning to attend a school reunion, presumably at the same lodge as in the teaser, and invites her younger brother. Maisy treats Bo very delicately, as he clearly has a social fragility later revealed to be due to his affliction with Asperger’s Syndrome. She decides to bring Bo to the reunion to film everything, which will presumably help with his illness.
Maisy and Bo meet up with the caravan of vehicles that’s heading out to the lodge. From the manner in which Maisy’s friends treat Bo with kid gloves, Maisy clearly informed everyone ahead of time about the nature of Bo’s condition. The two siblings ride with Maisy’s college friend Ravi (Deep Rai). Also in the vehicle are Asher (Tim Parrish) and his girlfriend Pamela (Anceilla deValmont), and friend Chelsea (Brittany Falardeau).
The group of six friends head out with the rest of the caravan, but are later forced to pull off to the side of the road when Ravi’s engine overheats. Ravi assures the rest of the Caravan that his car just needs to cool for a few minutes and urges the rest of the caravan to continue on their way. While waiting for the vehicle to cool down, the group has an encounter with Ripper (Michael Wainwright), the same man seen in the teaser. Ripper warns the group and urges them to turn around go home. In a similar fashion to the newlyweds in the teaser, the group fails to heed Ripper’s warning and continue to the lodge.
With no cell service and poorly marked roads, the group quickly finds themselves lost in the woods. With seemingly no means of getting their bearings and finding a way out, the group camps for the night only to encounter the same mysterious blue lights briefly seen in the teaser. As the night presses on, the group’s planned fun filled weekend reunion quickly transforms into a struggle for survival.
Altar puts a unique spin on a story that’s already played out in infinite variations in both found footage and traditional narrative horror films. Without giving away any spoilers, the film starts off with the stereotypical group getting lost in the backwoods of America and running into something nefarious, but culminates with a decidedly unique supernatural element and some great effects that promise to deliver scares. Altar sets itself apart with its great cinematography and acting, strong character development, and high production value. Learning about who these characters are, what drives them, and how they react to various circumstances makes their journey just as entertaining as the climactic ending.
A fun nod in Altar is the film’s every so slight self-awareness, referring specifically to the quote (mentioned above) in the opening teaser “Did you ever see a scary movie, ever? We are not walking up to a blue light in the woods,” and later in the core story, where Maisy says, “We’re smarter than the people in the scary movies,” referring specifically to the unwitting victims that walk open-eyed into obvious traps. It’s small additions like these that add depth to the film.
A plausible filming reason is an essential component to every found footage film, as this serves as the basis for why the found footage exists in the first place. The filming reason used in Altar is nothing short of perfect. The main protagonist, Bo, has Asperger’s Syndrome and has taken up filming as a means of focusing his energy and coping with his illness. This filming reason is flawless as the protagonist is compelled to film everything, and even more so when placed under stress, of which there is no shortage of during this film. This particular filming reason was first used in Alien Abduction (2014), where the protagonist uses filming as a means of coping with Autism, which is similar to Asperger’s Syndrome in many respects. Considering the flawlessness of this filming reason, we were surprised how long it took for another filmmaker to use this approach.
The main protagonist, Bo, performs the vast majority of the filming during the core story. However, there are times where Bo briefly hands off his camera to other members of the group who continue filming. This approach enables Bo himself to have some screen time. The teaser preceding the opening title credits is filmed by the couple on their honeymoon, which in and of itself is a good filming reason, and works perfectly well, although walking around in a hotel wearing a head mounted camera seems a bit odd.
The cinematography in Altar is beautifully done, as this film clearly has the fingerprints of a seasoned director who knows how to use a camera. The cinematography alone sets this film apart from the vast majority of found footage films this reviewer has had the privilege to watch and critique.
In the context of a found footage film, the cinematography is a work of perfection. Backed by a flawless filming reason and with director and cinematographer Matthew Sconce’s at the helm, there’s are only positive things to say about the way Atlar is shot.
One of the symptoms of Bo’s illness (Asperger’s Syndrome) that plays into this film is the tendency to obsess on one particular interest and develop an unusually high aptitude and expertise in that interest in a very short time. In Altar, Bo’s interest is cinematography, and although Bo is not an experienced cinematographer, his obsessive compulsive nature has enabled him to hone professional level skills very quickly.
Also of note is the crisp audio throughout the film. Of particular interest, when the actors stray from the proximity of the camera, their voices fade, but the audio is still crystal clear. Found Footage Critic caught up with director Matthew Sonce who explained how audio was captured in Altar, “I used three on-camera shotgun mics pointed forward at different levels and a Zoom H6N pointed backwards. Only two or three times was a boom and blimp used.” All too often, found footage films place personal microphones on each of the actors, which comes across as artificial, especially for outdoor scenes. – Altar does it right by using on-camera mics.
Found Footage Purity
The one factor that’s keeping the found footage purity from a perfect score is the inclusion of sound design and music during key tense scenes in the latter part of the film. While it is understood that director Matthew Sconce added this trope to ratchet up the tension during these scenes, the inclusion of incidental music during an otherwise pure found footage film comes across as too overt. If the film had shown more restraint and limited itself to sound design that blended with the unearthly ambient sounds emanating during those scenes (we can’t say more without entering spoiler territory), the film could have achieved the desired tension without breaking the illusion of found footage.
Enough can’t be said about the acting in Altar which is great all around. Jesse Par (Bo Marks) performs exceptionally well as the socially awkward Asperger’s stricken cinematographer. Stefanie Estes (Maisy Marks) performs wonderfully as Bo’s older sister who tirelessly looks out for the well being of her younger brother. Her sincerity and concern for her brother comes through in her acting, which is punctuated when she lashes out at others in his defense.
Tim Parrish (Asher James), as the jock and prankster, adds levity to the story and much needed contrast among the somewhat similar personalities in the group which keeps the dialog fresh. Deep Rai (Ravi Dara), Brittany Falardeau (Chelsea Rich), and Anceilla deValmont (Pamela Kensington) all do a great job rounding out the group.
Also of note is Master Dave Johnson (Dave Phillips) who does a great job as the likable Dave, further elevating the acting in an already great cast. And last but not least is Michael Wainwright (Ripper) who plays the convincingly creepy and intimidating Ripper.