O. Unilateralis is a found footage horror movie written and directed by Michelle Nessk, co-written and directed by Bruce H. Bosley, and starring Michelle Nessk, Danial Fields, and Bruce H. Bosley
Lifelong best friends Keith and Troy head off for a weekend in a cabin, joined by Keith’s classmate, the sheltered and religious Abby. Rowdy and sex-obsessed Troy insists on filming the journey. As they head deeper into the wilderness, the group find the towns and roads disturbingly uninhabited. Troy’s fixation on Abby grows more and more unsettling, and tensions in the group rise until reaching a dramatic and violent breaking point.
As explained by an opening voiceover, the film takes its unusual title from Ophiododyceps unilateralis, a parasitic fungus known for its unique predation on ants. The fungus spreads by taking over the nervous system of infected ants, compelling them to climb up leaves or twigs. Finally, the fungus releases a spore sack that explodes from the ant’s head, violently killing its intended victim. This process (akin to mind control) earned the fungus the nickname “zombie fungus.”
The found footage begins with a masked person explaining in a distorted voice that the footage that is to follow is the only remaining evidence of the disappearance of three young people. The anonymous narrator further explains that the disappearances are the subject of a massive coverup. From here, the film transitions to Troy’s footage covering their trip into the wilderness.
Michelle Nessk’s Feature Film Directorial Debut Delves Into Controversial Subject Matter
O. Unilateralis is Michelle Nessk’s first feature-length directorial effort, having previously written and directed seven short films. Much of her previous film experience has been as an SFX makeup artist and actress.
Viewers should be forewarned that O. Unilateralis includes scenes of sexual intimidation and a brief non-explicit rape scene. Also noteworthy is that the rape is not glamorized or sexualized. In the context of the film, this controversial subject matter is not presented as exploitative – a point lampshaded by the film itself by a character referencing the rape-revenge subgenre, which often uses sexual exploitation for cheap titillation. The non-exploitative treatment of the scene as an assault is credited to the presence of a director. Even so, viewers who personally experienced a sexual assault may be sensitive to this subject matter.
Feminism, Found Footage, and Deconstructing the Male Gaze
O. Unilateralis distinguishes itself from the glut of other found footage movies with similar premises by the film’s strong undercurrent of feminist commentary on both society as a whole, with particular emphasis on the horror and found footage genres. The film’s uniquely female perspective is a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by male voices. This novel approach effectively throws the accepted found footage tropes and cliches into a bold new light.
The horror genre is often targeted by accusations of extensive sexism, often unjustly, but sometimes with genuine cause. Central to these arguments is the concept of the male gaze, wherein women are objectified for the pleasure of a presumably male audience. This unfortunately one-sided and demeaning approach to filmmaking is particularly true in found footage, where viewers are often placed in the role of voyeur, with front row seats to gruesome acts of female exploitation. Through the passive act of watching events unfold on-screen, viewers become accomplices to this morally contemptible behavior and are subconsciously culpable of the violence they are witnessing. While it is true that in many films the victims are both male and female (particularly the early slasher films), it is the female victims that are predominantly sexualized, including the violence against them.
O. Unilateralis differs from these films is in the film’s acknowledgment and indictment of the male gaze, as personified by the main antagonist, Troy. The film uniquely casts the camera as an active participant in the violation of Abby, culminating in the filmed rape. This approach is comparable to other popular found footage films, such as the V/H/S series, which feature frequent scenes of male cameramen (extensions of the overwhelmingly male directors and an audience which is presumed to be male by default) filming topless or nude women, often without their consent.
O. Unilateralis is among the first films to attempt an exploration and critique of the male-centered nature of the found footage genre as a whole. This fresh perspective on the found footage genre is attributed to the contemporary writing and direction of Michelle Nessk, a self-described feminist. With a foundation in a distinctively female and feminist perspective, O. Unilateralis is very much a groundbreaking film which will hold particular meaning for female found footage buffs.
On the surface, the plot of O. Unilateralis appears simple: a group of young people heads into the woods, they encounter creepy sights, they bicker, and things go from bad to worse, leading to a violent conclusion. This is well-trodden ground for horror and found footage in particular. As discussed earlier, however, O. Unilateralis is unique in the way the film uses this setup as a medium for an incisive feminist commentary.
Even beyond its fascinating subtext, the film succeeds in bolstering its basic premise and slow pace through subtle tension building. The interactions and shifting relationships between the characters effectively drive the film and the story forward. The film opens with a deputy who presents the found footage that makes up the rest of the film. This introduction serves well as a framing device, giving the closely-contained plot, as presented through the lens of a single camera and cinematographer, an expanded sense of relevance and an additional element of creeping dread.
It’s worth noting that viewers who do not pick up on the feminist subtext could easily be put off by the by-the-book setup, which is redeemed through the film’s deeper meaning. Horror fans looking for a more viscerally entertaining movie-watching experience will likely find O. Unilateralis less engaging than they would a film with a more varied surface plot.
Found Footage Filming Reason
For the majority of O. Unilateralis, the main antagonist Troy has no specific reason for filming other than to make a record of his group’s journey, and a few brief scenes where he goads the others in a half-hearted attempt to make an indie horror film – which we soon learn is a transparent ploy to facilitate other nefarious motives. His filming is justified by his characterization, as he uses the filming to constantly violate Abby and Keith’s boundaries.
Troy’s continued filming is fueled by the discomfort and anger towards the people in front of the video camera. His mindset is not only consistent with the story and his character, but bolsters the film’s underlying theme of deconstructing the male gaze (discussed above). Only towards the climactic end of the film, does the filming justification falter. In these final moments, Troy for the first time finds himself in immediate peril, running through the woods yet failing to drop the camera.
Found Footage Purity
O. Unilateralis does a very good job at maintaining found footage purity. The vast majority of the footage is recorded with a single handheld video camera. The only other sources of footage are from a second video camera with which an anonymous character records himself and “found” audio from news reports. Admittedly, the level found footage purity could have been elevated further by moving the film’s title card to the end of the film, rather than placed at the beginning. However, the opening titles sequence is not enough of a distraction to significantly affect the credibility of O. Unilateralis’ found footage conceit.
O. Unilateralis sets up a realistic world with a plausible backdrop and familiar characters – though Abby’s over-the-top innocence and naivety does at times edge into the realm of disbelief. As the story moves forward, the trio of characters encounters increasingly unusual sights, from an abandoned car to empty houses to an empty town. These plot elements are introduced slowly and gradually, creating a sense of unease, without pressing plausibility. The main story arc saves the promised action for the film’s climactic finale. While the punctuated conclusion produces a contrast in tone, the steadily increasing build-up of dread as the story evolves keeps O. Unilateralis from being overly jarring.
The film cleverly draws upon actual scientific principles to lend a sense of realism to some of the more extreme plot elements. O. Unliateralis closes with a montage of news announcements which enables the film to expand the scope of the plot and do so in an unsettlingly plausible manner. For those viewers expecting an action packed, science fiction horror thrill-ride, O Unilateralis falls more in the realm of a character driven story which explores sub-plots of morality and human behavior.
The gore effects in O. Unilateralis realistic and effective, likely due writer/director Michelle Nessk’s experience as an SFX makeup artist.
Found Footage Cinematography
For the most part, the found footage cinematography is believable for the camera and filming conditions. The filmmakers make good use of the eerily depopulated setting of rural Oregon. One particular scene stands out where the characters find themselves in a completely empty town. The stripped-down, unadorned camerawork to adds to the creepy atmosphere.
Realistic lighting and shaking of the camera add a layer of grittiness and immediacy to the film. In one scene, the camera tumbles to the ground in the midst of a scuffle. The ensuing shots are realistically skewed (as would be expected amidst the chaos) and not perfectly framed. Adding to the gritty realism, Cameraman Troy is unable to capture every important scene. This realistic camerawork ratchets the tension by leaving some moments to the imagination.
Bruce H. Bosley as Troy is frighteningly realistic as a villain reflective of real-life predators that many women routinely encounter. As menacing and disturbing as his actions are, Bruce H. Bosley succeeds in playing Troy as a multifaceted human being, who genuinely believes that he is in the right. It’s this complexity in character which makes Troy much more than a cardboard villain. Michelle Nessk’s portrayal as Abby also could have come off as a stereotype of a sheltered religious girl. However, Michelle Nessk’s acting renders the character believable and sympathetic as more than just a potential victim. The film makes clear that there is more to the character than her apparent innocence. Michelle Nessk effectively uses body gestures and facial expressions to convey Abby’s inner turmoil. The character Abby is conflicted between her strict upbringing and desire to be her own adult woman.
Danial Fields (Keith) plays a character defined by an inner conflict. Keith is torn between his loyalty for his friend Troy and his increasing disgust with Troy’s behavior. First-time actor Brian Lee as the Sheriff’s deputy has barely any screen-time, and even less with his own voice and face. Despite this constraint, Brian Lee still turns an engaging performance.