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TBTS Reviews: Marble Hornets

August 10, 2011

A couple of college students are in the front seats of a car, working with a camera. It’s almost like playing – they’re playing at being filmmakers, they’re playing at being artists, but there is disappointment in the director’s voice as he helps the actor through the lines. The character he’s created fails to come to life. Maybe it’s the dialogue, maybe it’s the actor, maybe it’s – and this thought puts ants up the back of his neck – that his own talent is insufficient. The only thing to do is keep trying until he finds out. It’s going to be a long day.

The actor finishes his lines, again sounding too self-conscious. He’s not getting it, and he might never. The director knows he’s tired of practicing. He tries to sympathize, even as his own patience frays. His friend’s head sinks back against the headrest of the car, and in the distance behind him, squarely in line with the camera –

A tall man in a black suit, just standing there, watching. He is too slim, and his arms are longer than seems possible. He is completely still. It’s too far to see his face, but the director knows what his face looks like. It doesn’t look like anything. It looks like nothing.

Oh, no, the director thinks. Not again.

“Are we going to do it again?” the actor asks.

He gets no answer.

“Are we?”

“No. We’re done.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah. We’re done.”

The director throws the camera into the car and they drive off. He refuses to say why.

That’s my description of an early scene from Marble Hornets, a web-original horror series with thousands of followers watching on YouTube, waiting for in-character updates on Twitter, theorizing on message boards. It’s difficult to classify Marble Hornets. It isn’t just a show, as its characters sometimes respond to audience questions asked through Twitter. It isn’t exactly an alternate reality game, as the audience is otherwise a passive participant. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a surprisingly creative and effective story.

Its episodes, presented in two to ten minute installments, are ostensibly a video journal kept by a young man named Jay, who found himself entrusted with a large cache of videotapes filmed by his friend Alex in the course of his student film project, called, of course, Marble Hornets. Alex abandoned his project, left the tapes with Jay with instructions to destroy them. Jay convinced Alex to let him keep the tapes instead, and, three years after Alex moved away and dropped out of Jay’s life, Jay rediscovered the tapes and started looking through them, only to discover something horrific. Someone – the tall, faceless man in the above-described scene – had had begun to stalk Alex, appearing on his film sets, around town, and outside his home. Alex, sinking into paranoia, began living with a camera on him at all times. As Jay shows us his discoveries, he includes his conclusions about what he might be seeing.

Then a mysterious third party, a YouTube user calling himself totheark, leaves a cryptic response to one of Jay’s posts, which he discovers contains a message in Morse code: LOOK CLOSELY. When the same user responds with the missing audio from the next entry Jay posts, a clip of Alex fleeing through an outdoor area, catching glimpses of his stalker in his flashlight’s beam, Jay realizes he has stumbled into something stranger and more dangerous than he bargained for.

It has essentially no budget. It’s made by a couple of college kids in Alabama in their spare time. The actors are just friends of theirs who agreed to appear on camera. It should, by all rights, be terrible – and yet, its makers seem to have been born with the one thing no budget can buy: touch. Marble Hornets has its roots in the cerebral, atmospheric weirdness of H. P. Lovecraft and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but it could not exist without the Internet. Its clever use of new media – YouTube and Twitter – provide a dimension beyond either print or film, and though they’re using the web as their medium, they avoid using Internet-debased language. Marble Hornets is a new media creation through and through, but its sensibilities reach back to an age before television. There is almost no blood in Marble Hornets. There’s no cursing or screaming. There are few jump scares. They exercise remarkable restraint, and because of that, they keep the audience interested and guessing. There is a real a sense of mystery and rising dread, and whenever the villain – derived from the Internet-created “legend” of the Slender Man, which first appeared on the Something Awful forums – appears, whether in the distance or as an up-close surprise, it’s genuinely startling. (The creators, not lacking a sense of humor, call it the “Where’s Waldo?” effect.) For two years, Marble Hornets has built its reputation, at one point even attracting favorable notice from Roger Ebert. I don’t know where it’s going, and with something like this there is always the risk that the payoff will not be worth the build-up. Unfortunately, the first names that come to mind when tracing Marble Hornets’ televised ancestors – The X-Files, Lost – are proof of that. But perhaps without Hollywood’s pressure, something like Marble Hornets might succeed where others have failed. We’ll see.

If your idea of horror is something like Saw, with its screams and splatters and ever-more-improbable ways to die, Marble Hornets is probably not for you. But if you’re after a creepy and original story and don’t mind waiting for updates on the kind of irregular schedule college students keep, then click the link and start the journey.


One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink
    August 29, 2011 2:02 am

    I really liked the first season…but it looks like it’s starting to crawl up it’s own ass. Definitely pulling a Lost, with the mysteries upon mysteries and a neverending series of clues. Lost is the worst thing that’s happened to tv in a looooong time. How many “mystery” shows are there now, that set up a ton of questions that nobody cares about?

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