“The Gracefield Incident” is found footage horror film and science fiction drama that was written and directed by Mathieu Ratthe. The film follows a group of friends who embark on a weekend getaway in a remote cabin in the woods and are caught in the epicenter of an alien threat.
The Gracefield Incident is Mathieu Rathe’s feature film directorial debut after having directed several horrors-themed shorts. The film is the second found footage movie of the year touching on the alien invasion sub-genre—the first being the Ridley Scott-produced film, Phoenix Forgotten (2017).
The film opens with the apropos line of dialog, “Do you have to film everything?”—the unspoke answer is a resounding “yes” since this is a found footage film. In actuality, the aforementioned conversation is between Matt and Jess, a married couple who are on their way to the doctor for an ultrasound for their unborn child. Matt wants to film everything as a journal for his future son or daughter.
In what amounts to a startling scene, the couple is in a horrific car accident when they are broadsided by an oncoming vehicle. The film jumps ten months later (and into the credit sequence), where we learn that as a result of the accident, Jesse lost her baby to a miscarriage and Matt lost his eye.
Matt is a software engineer by trade and also has a penchant for tinkering. He fabricates a prosthetic eye with a built-in surveillance camera using the micro-camera from his smart phone, a memory card, and watch battery.
With the trauma of the past ten months behind them, Matt and Jess head out with a group of friends to a cabin in the woods for a weekend getaway, and Matt plans on secretly filming the trip through his prosthetic eye. Little do the group know that this long weekend has much more in store than they bargained for. Will they survive to tell the tale?
Found Footage Cinematography
The Gracefield Incident uses a variety of different cameras to capture the footage that makes up the film and a composite of daytime and night vision recording. The plethora of video cameras used in the film includes a prosthetic eye, camcorder, smart phones, and surveillance cameras.
First and foremost, Matt’s prosthetic eye captures the majority of the footage. The Gracefield Incident is not the first film to employ a prosthetic eye camera. In V/H/S/2 (2013), Phase I Clinical Trials, the protagonist also had a prosthetic eye that recorded all video and audio. This segment of V/H/S/2 (2013) was directed by Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the same team that brought Blair Witch (2016) to life.
Each of the video camera types used in The Gracefield Incident has a unique on-screen display, sufficiently differentiating which video camera feed is presented on-screen. Sadly, this approach, while functional, violates one of the precepts of technically correct found footage cinematography. The video camera recording indicator (i.e. “REC•”) is visible when a videographer looks through the camera’s viewfinder, but these on-screen graphics do not record to video as they do in The Gracefield Incident. Surveillance cameras have more leeway since this class of video cameras can be configured to record on-screen information, such as the location, date, and time.
Early in the film when the protagonists are driving out to the country, the footage often includes time jumps, since the trip is a lengthy five hours. To the credit of director Mathieu Rathe, the music coming from the car radio skips (or changes songs) between time jumps rather than playing through continuously, a problem often observed in many early found footage films
One of the core components driving the plausibility of a found footage film is a strong filming reason. The Gracefield Incident utilizes multiple filming reasons to explain why the found footage exists.
Primarily, the main protagonist, Matt, has a penchant for recording everything. Very early in the film, Matt records incessantly to create a video journal for his then unborn child. Later in the film, Matt’s inclination to film carries through to his creation of a prosthetic eye camera. In fact, most of the footage captured in The Gracefield Incident is through this prosthetic eye camera. Similar to V/H/S/2 (2013), Phase I Clinical Trials, the concept of a prosthetic eye camera offers a very strong filming justification. In both films, the video camera records automatically and sees whatever the protagonist sees without human intervention. Even in the face of danger, we never question why Matt is filming since he doesn’t have to think about holding the camera.
In a similar vein to the ever-recording prosthetic eye camera, the cabin in the woods is equipped with a house-wide surveillance system that records 24×7 automatically.
Matt’s friend Joe brings his new high-quality camcorder to record the weekend trip. During the first night at the cabin, the group witnesses what first appears to be a meteor. The unknown object flys over the cabin before impacting in the nearby woods. An enthusiastic Matt and Joe set out to find the impact site. During this scene, an excited Joe records everything with his new video camera, which is to be expected given the nature of their discovery. Additionally, the video camera serves as a light source in the pitch black woods. Later in the film, Joe uses the night vision on his video camera to stealthily navigate without being seen.
Another somewhat odd filming reason comes in the form of a strange signal or interference which causes all of the protagonists’ smart phones to inexplicably record non-stop. This involuntary recording results in additional footage from phones held by the protagonists.
Found Footage Purity
The found footage purity measures the overall found footage conceit of a film, taking into consideration the cinematography, filming reason, sound, story, special effects, acting, and other factors.
The Gracefield Incident strives to achieve the look and feel of actual found footage but falters in some areas. One such deficiency is sound. The Gracefield Incident contains a good deal of non-diegetic sound and music. Under normal circumstances found footage films should not contain audio sources that are not part of the universe of the film. While music originating from a known source such as a car radio are acceptable, background music and sounds that are only meant for an audience to hear are a fundamental transgression from found footage technique.
The popularity of found footage films is largely based on the premise of viewers being drawn into the illusion, even if just for a moment, that what they are watching is actual recovered footage. The infusion of non-diegetic background music and sounds often destroys that illusion.
While we understand that background music is added to films to increase tension, the inclusion of these audio elements in found footage films often has the opposite effect. Short of the aliens planting hidden speakers in the trees that pump out tense music for the protagonists to hear, background music has no rightful place in The Gracefield Incident.
Cinematically, The Gracefield Incident does a good job of presenting footage that visually looks like found footage. The camerawork by the various characters is good for the vision the film sets out to achieve. If there’s one visual element that visually detracts from the found footage approach to the film, it would be some of the CGI. While the CGI is artfully produced, some of the effects clearly look like CGI, which takes something away from the perceived reality of the footage. We have a similar critique of Cloverfield (2008). While the nature of alien found footage films usually mandates some degree of CGI, filmmakers should always make an effort to leverage practical effects wherever possible.
Another smaller inconsistency that merits discussion falls in the category of suspension of disbelief. Matt’s prosthetic eye camera records high definition video for over 48 hours without stopping. Here, the battery life and onboard memory card come into question. Then there’s the matter of the high-quality audio captured by Matt’s prosthetic eye camera. Where is the microphone? These complications make the capture of that much footage (with audio) highly unlikely. However, this is a fictional film and at some point, viewers must put aside the realities of life and run with the story.
The Gracefield Incident is a Canadian film. Most of the cast members have a wealth of Canadian TV experience, with some feature films and shorts. At the head of the pack, we applaud Kimberly Laferriere for her wonderful portrayal of Jess—she delivers the standout performance amongst the ensemble cast, demonstrating a broad acting range and natural performance.
Mathieu Ratthe wears multiple hats in The Gracefield Incident. He not only wrote and directed the film but also stars as the main protagonist Matt (Jessica’s Husband). The Gracefield Incident is Mattieu Ratthe’s first professional acting role. Rounding out the cast are Alex C. Nachi as Trey (Jess’s brother) and Juliette Gosselin as Julia (Trey’s girlfriend), Victor Andres Turgeon-Trelles as Joe (Matt’s friend) and Laurence Dauphinais as Elizabeth (Joe’s wife).
In general, the performances of the ensemble cast, while adequate, often rely too much on physical acting and responding to situations in lieu of deep rooted character development and chemistry building.
The found footage genre has a long history of alien invasion films. UFO Abduction (1989) by director Dean Alioto is arguably the first (and most realistic) alien siege film. In more recent years, Alien Abduction (2014) by director Matty Beckerman is now considered by many as the gold standard for alien invasion found footage films. Other noteworthy efforts include the Danish film Encounters (2014) by director Anders Bukh and the Italian film Report 51 (2013) by director Alessio Liguori. The Gracefield Incident has some big shoes to fill if the film is to stand the scrutiny of discerning found footage fans.
The Gracefield Incident borrows (intentionally or through happenstance) from many films that preceded it, which is to be expected given the sheer number of found footage and traditional narrative alien invasion and visitation films. The film contains many visual elements indicative of Signs (2002), particularly the use of crop circles and spindly aliens walking among the corn fields (as seen in the trailer). The main arc of the story taking place in the woods bears a strong resemblance to Alien Abduction (2014). The climactic ending of the film contains visual and plot elements similar to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—we refrain from discussing this further to avoid spoilers.
There is nothing inherently wrong with drawing from prior cinematic works, after all, it’s near impossible to shoot a film that is entirely unique. The key question is whether Mathieu Ratthe created something new and interesting using this combination of alien body parts.
We scrutinize films from the lens of found footage, a genre that is heavily based on technique. Every found footage film (good or bad) has something new to contribute to the genre—whether it’s a new technique for filmmakers to put in their found footage toolbox or a plot element that makes a film come across as more realistic.
The Gracefield Incident’s primary contribution to the genre is the execution of a somewhat scientifically plausible incarnation of a prosthetic eye camera. The “eye-cam” here is grounded in reality and is built in a way that viewers can potentially buy into. In contrast, the eye-cam in V/H/S/2 (2013) is presented more as black box existing in a future world our society has yet to catch up to. Another plot element unique to The Gracefield Incident is the introduction of the filming reason where an external force causes the protagonists’ smart phones to involuntarily record. While these contributions may seem trivial in the grand scheme of the genre, writer/director Matthew Ratthe will always be in a position to say, “I did that first.”
From a technical point of view (and as discussed earlier), the non-diegetic sounds and music added to The Gracefield Incident are likely to detract from the entertainment value of the film to some degree, as this genre hinges on the illusion of realism. Perhaps a future director’s cut of the film will release the film without the music.
From a storytelling perspective, die-hard horror fans may not embrace the ending of the film, which comes wholly unexpected, and doesn’t quite fit into the horror motif the film painstakingly sets up. [Light Spoiler] Without delving deep into spoilers, the film delivers a clear message about the preciousness of life and addresses heavy burden Matt has been carrying on his shoulders for the past year since his tragic car accident.
As a found footage film, The Gracefield Incident falls in the middle of the pack. Perhaps slightly lower than average when compared to the many alien siege found footage titles. Even so, The Gracefield Incident has many interesting visual elements and plot devices and is worth checking out.