“Children of Sorrow” is a found footage horror film directed by Jourdan McClure and written by Ryan Finnerty. The film follows a woman who joins a cult to secretly investigate the whereabouts of her missing sister.
The film opens with the charismatic cult leader, Simon Leach (Bill Oberst, Jr.), walking with his assistant Mary around the desert compound he intends to use as the headquarters of his own personal cult. Simon instructs Mary to film everything. From the opening moments of the film, Simon’s actions demonstrate that he (and the cult) are a fraud, however, his motives for establishing the cult are left vague.
Meanwhile, Ellen, a young woman from London joins the cult to investigate the death of her sister, who was a member of Simon’s cult. She soon finds herself in the company of other troubled men and women drawn-in by Simon’s promises of support and belonging. At first, life on the compound seems happy, if tightly controlled. As time wears on, cracks start to appear, and Simon’s cruelty rises to the surface, culminating in a horrific conclusion.
Children of Sorrow was produced by After Dark Films and released as part of its After Dark Originals series. Ryan Finnerty is best known as the writer and production manager for the wildly popular Smosh (2005) YouTube channel, working on the sketch comedy series from 2011 to present day. He has written for other web series: the Smosh-created comedy Part-Timers (2016) and the sci-fi series The Fourth Door (2015). He moved into feature films with The Last Day on Earth (2012) and the horror film Rogue River (2012), also in collaboration with Jourdan McClure. Children of Sorrow is only McClure’s (who is also credited with creating the story) second film, the first being Rogue River (2012). Both men are listed among the producers. Neither have previously attempted found footage.
Found Footage Cinematography
Children of Sorrow is filmed with three types of video cameras, a professional-grade video camera primarily used by Mary and Simon, a small handheld camcorder secretly used by Ellen, and surveillance cameras set up around the compound. The footage is a combination of handheld and fixed location camerawork. While Children of Sorrow is Dmitry Koshutin’s first feature film as cinematographer, it is conceivable that his prior role as the camera operator on a documentary contributed to his skills working with the found footage genre.
The handheld camerawork is often distractingly shaky, including scenes where the characters should be able to hold the cameras more or less steady. While overly smooth footage is typically out-of-place in found footage films, excessively shaky footage can be just as distracting. In the case of Children of Sorrow, the shaky footage is not severe enough to interfere with the enjoyment of the film.
Ellen’s reason for filming is patently obvious—she is attempting to gather evidence about her sister’s death. The presence of surveillance cameras on the compound is also plausible. Simon maintains tight control over the denizens of the compound. He uses the surveillance cameras to monitor their behavior and any escape attempts. The reasoning for Simon and Mary’s filming using a handheld video camera is less clear, however.
Simon indicates to Ellen that he is filming everything to establish evidence of the benign nature of the cult, in case the police investigate. However, contrary to this filming reason, many of the violent and torturous acts in the compound are also captured on camera. Children of Sorrow maintains a duality of filming reasons—on one hand, Simon wants to present his cult as a benign, if not beneficial, organization, but at the same time is documenting memories of the horrific events that take place, perhaps, for his unspoken pleasure.
Children of Sorrow maintains some modicum of truth to these filming reasons—the footage includes several staged scenes where Simon captures a reactionary shot of himself behind a desk, looking thoughtful and pensive. A plausible assumption would be that Simon’s intended to distil the raw footage to a clean-benign narrative for public consumption while saving the explicit footage for his private collection. Despite the shreds of evidence substantiating these filming reasons, Simon openly films himself proclaiming the cult is a sham, casting doubt and uncertainty into the true nature of the footage.
Children of Sorrow contains several scenes of action and peril, in which the justification for filming strains believability, but never outright overwhelms the suspension of disbelief. Again, more clarity on Simon’s reason for filming would make these scenes more believable.
Found Footage Purity
Children of Sorrow film opens with explanatory text that has become near-obligatory in found footage. Somewhat frustratingly, the text does not provide much information that could not independently be gleaned from the film itself, making the title card an unnecessary deviation from the found footage purity. The film also uses Paranormal Activity-style numbered-day title cards. The film presents as though the footage were recovered and edited by a third party and is presented as a boiled-down version of the original raw footage. This approach is supported by the previously mentioned title cards and artistic license with the audio—the film includes dialog that spans across multiple scenes, a technique often used in documentaries.
Where many found footage movies elect to have minimalist ending credits–with some films leaving them off altogether–Children of Sorrow ends with an elaborate ending credits sequence, matching each actor with footage of their character. The closing credits are a jarring reminder that the film is a pure work of fiction.
Children of Sorrow goes through great pains to show the difference in video and audio quality between Simon’s high-quality video camera and Ellen’s micro-camcorder. Most of the gore is left offscreen, but what is presented is realistic. If this film is taken as a documentary created by a third party who subsequently edited the raw found footage, then the tactful censorship of some of the more graphic scenes is plausible. Veteran special effects makeup artist James Ojala worked on over sixty productions, including Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), Firefly (2002), and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). The effects shots are minimal and all practical. Director Finnerty and cinematography Koshutin effectively obscure the more graphic shots in a very natural and organic way, masking the practicals, while maintaining a sense of realism. While some plot holes, particularly a weak development of the background leading up to the main events, strain credibility, on a technical level, the film is realistic throughout.
The acting is the strongest facet of Children of Sorrow. The plot holes and pacing issues fade in comparison to the performances. The large ensemble cast each make the most of their scenes when they could have faded into the background. The actors are each afforded the chance to shine in several monologs directly to the camera. Liesel Hanson (Robin) and Jefferson Rogers (Brian) stand out in particular. Setting everything else aside, the film is worth seeing for the performances alone.
Bill Oberst, Jr. (Simon Leach) is the highest-profile actor in the film, and certainly the most prolific. He is credited with 160 roles, mostly in horror and cult films, including the found footage movie The Black Water Vampire (2014). His performance as Simon, however, for the most part, doesn’t go beyond the now-stock character of the slimy cult leader. There are a few scenes, though, in which he’s given the chance to call up some shocking intensity.
Hannah Levien (Ellen) also turns in an excellent performance. In particular, she features in a scene in which Simon reveals to Ellen what happened to her sister. Levien (who, while playing a British woman, is in fact Australian) has starred in a variety of shorts and small films, as well as scoring small roles in popular TV series such as Supernatural (2005) and Bates Motel (2013).
Children of Sorrow makes the odd choice of revealing at the very opening of the film that Simon is crooked and the cult is much darker than it appears, rather than allowing viewers to make this determination along with the characters. While most viewers are likely to have known from the beginning that a film centering around a cult is likely to culminate with a horrific ending, the film could have increased tension and intrigue by taking more time to reveal Simon’s motivations. Ellen, who from the plot summary seems as if she would be a natural protagonist, ends up as more of a secondary character. Her character arc, as she is drawn further into the cult, concludes with less focus than it should. The subplot is strengthened, however, and made more believable by Hannah Levien’s exceptional performance.
Plot Analysis [Spoilers]
By the end of Children of Sorrow, Simon’s motivation for starting the cult and filming his cruelty is still vague. He talks about wanting his “film” to have atmosphere and having an interesting cast of characters, indicating that perhaps he set out to make a snuff film. This motivation seems unlikely, however, as there is no way Simon could distribute a snuff film without implicating himself in a high-profile crime. An alternative motive is that he is killing people and filming it for his own personal satisfaction. However, Simon’s characterization throughout the film fits more with a huckster obsessed with personal gain, not a psychotic serial killer.
Children of Sorrow contains that immense rarity in found footage (and horror in general): positively gay characters. Characters Evan and especially Alan are shown to be sweet and innocent. Midway through the film, they are caught sharing a kiss. In the most horrifying scene of the movie, Simon berates Evan, forcing him to have sex with a similarly unwilling female member of the cult. The film will ultimately have LGBT horror fans rolling their eyes when both characters fall prey to the “bury your gays” trope, dying with rest of the cult members.
Children of Sorrow has some pacing issues—beginning relatively slowly, developing characters, illustrating day-to-day life on the compound, and allowing for lengthy scenes of Simon pontificating to the camera. Tension is created by the question as to whether Ellen will be revealed as a mole. Once Ellen’s true intent is exposed, however, she decides to stay in the cult, leaving viewers waiting for a succession of horrible things to happen. After the first of the cult members is killed, the pace grinds to a slow crawl. Each of the characters is knocked-off one after the other, without much resistance on their part. This approach would have been less of a problem if Children of Sorrow were an exploitation film, openly embracing an aura of camp and insane excess. However, the movie chooses to remain serious and dramatic throughout, causing a sense of dissonance in tone.