Like most film festivals, Fantastic Fest is about finding original, exciting voices and Afflicted proves that first-time feature filmmakers Derek Lee and Clif Prowse are a duo to watch for. To take the handheld genre and some creature mythology and push it forward is fun to witness, especially for a work that simply doesn’t feel like a freshman effort. Showing a surprising understanding of what makes a film like this work, the duo gets us to care for our characters before dragging them through hell and back. Additionally, the use of practical effects helps sell the chaos even more, particularly with a low budget.

All of this wouldn’t be worth mentioning though if the duo didn’t pull it off, but more remarkable is the fact that Lee and Prowse aren’t just directing, they’re also our main characters. The set-up is actually quite clever for the found footage genre: keeping their real names, Clif and Derek are best friends that want to take off and travel the world. As budding amateur filmmakers, Clif wants to use his skills to document the entire adventure online through a travel blog. From here it feels like the start of a Travel Channel series, but Derek, shortly before traveling, has found out that he suffers from a rare disorder called AVM, one that could leave him having a seizure and dead if they aren’t careful.

It’s a good thing Clif is with him, but they won’t always be near immediate care nor in an area they are familiar. When the very single Derek is challenged early into journey to hook up with a French chick, he, much to the surprise of his friends, actually pulls it off. But that hookup leaves him a physical wreck later that night and it sets him on a path that he never recovers from. It’s a testament to the character-building that the initial act works so well I wouldn’t mind if the film just stayed with these two as they travel the world. But misery does find them, and Derek ends up going on one hell of a ride.

While the use of the cameras in the found footage genre often feels tacked on, here it’s not only integral to the way it is shot, but the story itself. Every action and shot is so painstakingly planned out that it becomes fascinating to think about how they possibly created the effects they did without the use of heavy CGI sequences. As we witness Clif’s filming of Derek’s downfall we learn about the side effects of his new condition little by little. At first, things seem bleak, with Derek not eating at all and sleeping for days. But once he recovers we find he has some positive benefits, including super-strength. Bit by bit, we learn more and more, but we always have this feeling that it’s not quite right — the mood of this film never falters.

The longer we watch, the more dangerous the changes become and soon Derek is a threat to himself and those around him. It’s sad to see his condition devolve — we like these two and we fear for them both. But the film also takes familiar scary stories, legends and twists and bends them to their own benefit. Despite thinking you may know where the story is headed, it continually subverts expectations and in places it doesn’t, there’s at least quality entertainment. More than just a showcase of expert camerawork, Afflicted gives me hope that fresh voices are out there in the genre.

Afflicted screened at Fantastic Fest and will be released next year by CBS Films.

Grade: B+

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