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’388 Arletta Avenue’

'Found footage' from the hidden lens of a stalker

by Kaori Shoji

Stalker movies are a subgenre in themselves — a good chunk of horror movies feature stalkers and stalkees and the really watchable ones (see 2005′s “Dark Water”) are heavily psychological, delving into the minds of certain people who get their kicks out of watching and harassing certain other people, 24/7.

“388 Arletta Avenue,” however, isn’t heavy on the psychology, or anything else for that matter. It seems to strive for a nice balance of terror, gore, some humor and healing. As far as stalker movies go this one is almost inoffensive, backpedaling from the brink of the truly horrible at every opportunity. If screaming at the screen at the top of the lungs is your thing, “388″ may not be worth the visit.

The picture uses a found-footage format. This style of filmmaking, using video that is presented as incidental and amateur to make a story more believable and scary, broke through with 1999′s “The Blair Witch Project,” was put to outrageously imaginative use in 2008′s “Cloverfield” and raked in box-office coin for the ongoing “Paranormal Activity” series.

Directed by Canada’s Randall Cole and picked up for Japanese distribution at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, “388″ is Stalker 101. It has very little of the merciless, tear-through-the-jugular attitude that defines other found-footage films. It relies a lot on small gadgetry (in this case hidden cameras) and much of the story is seen through their lenses, a device that was blindingly new in the early days of the millennium maybe but is now as familiar as a linty old sweater.

But then this stalker definitely has a penchant for retro, as he likes to play scratchy golden oldies songs over the phone to his chosen victim, Toronto advertising agent James Deakin (Nick Stahl). What is this stalker’s fascination with James? It’s really hard to tell. James and his wife, Amy (Mia Kirshner), are reasonably attractive, reasonably well off, and reasonably locked into a so-so marriage. Their normalcy is not a facade hiding some dirty secret: They really are a nice couple living in a leafy Toronto neighborhood.

This setup provides the perfect opportunity to deploy the very ordinariness of the Deakins to the film’s advantage (after all, few things are scarier than watching a character cross the line from perfect sanity to full-throttle, blood-drenched craziness in a split second). But “388″ doesn’t go that route, being pretty much content to zoom in on James’ panicked face as he discovers hidden cameras stashed everywhere in the house and even in his office.

James’ recurring line, by the way, is “Where’s Amy?” He spends most of the film swinging between open-mouthed bewilderment and open-mouthed anger, all the while sporting an arty two-day stubble.

Yes, Amy is kidnapped by the stalker, and James is at his wits end trying to locate her whereabouts on his Mac, but he’s hindered by the facts that a) the apathetic police do not believe Amy is missing at all, and b) the stalker is a lot smarter than James, one-upping his every move and taunting him by throwing a baseball through the window or sending video feeds of an unconscious Amy, her mouth covered in duct tape. How old is that? Clearly this stalker guy with the deep phone voice has watched one too many late-20th-century horror movies for his own good.

Speaking of old, “388″ has a Hitchcockian hangup, but these actually yield the best moments. A personal favorite part is when James calls the police and tries to explain how someone has broken into the house and substituted his pet cat for an identical one. He gets zilch response or aid. Later, when the cops finally come around to see what’s going on, one of them says, “We take the disappearance of your wife very, very seriously” — and the scene just drips with the sort of conspiracy and cynicism of which Alfred Hitchcock was a master.

Strangely (or not strangely at all), Stahl himself was reported missing by his real-life wife shortly before “388″ was released in Canada. When found, he was drying out from alcohol abuse at a rehab center. It’s a mild case of fact mirroring fiction, but like the movie itself, mildness does no favors.