Ever since The Blair Witch Project became one of the biggest horror successes of the last century, filmmakers have been trying to recapture lightning in a bottle when it comes to found footage horror. The Curse of Professor Zardonicus is a damn good attempt with a lot of local charm.
Written, directed, and starring Houston’s own Gabriel Theis, the movie follows a student filmmaker, Greg, who gets drawn into the delusions of another student he is making a documentary on. Darren (Alec White, also a Houston-based actor) is convinced that he was attacked by a cryptid that haunts the University of Houston campus. Supposedly, Professor Zardonicus was a former teacher who was burned alive in a lab fire, only to emerge as a monstrous mutant craving co-ed blood.
First thing to get out of the way is that Zardonicus is an almost carbon copy of director Patrick Brice’s 2004 film Creep. Both movies are essentially two-handers about a man with a video camera being slowly drawn into another person’s violent insanity. Both films have family members reveal that the deluded person is not who he seems, and rubber wolf masks are part of both disturbing finales. The similarities are so striking its actually a little infuriating to watch Zardonicus.
Which is a shame because Zardonicus is really, really good in its own right. While it lacks the scares that Creep does due to Darren being far less of a monster than Creep’s Josef, it makes up for it in a more nuanced performance of a man under severe mental distress. Darren is the ultimate true believer, even if he knows for a fact that what he believes in is bullshit.
His anxious propheteering to the students on campus up to and including crashing an LGBT poetry showcase to proselytize about the beast, is in a way more unsettling than mere stalking. There are uncomfortable echoes of the collective descent into fascist conspiracy thinking we’ve all witnessed over the last five years. Darren is obsessed with a cryptid, but he could just as easily be any radicalized young white man slowly being drawn into dark theories about Jews or vaccines having microchips.
Another compelling aspect is the mutual parasitism. Greg begins his documentary hoping to use Darren as a freak show for a grade. He never believes the monster exists, even as he encourages Darren to do so. His charade enables and amplifies Darren beyond harmlessness into full on psychotic break. Greg, in a very real way, is midwifing the monster that Darren becomes through his indulgence. None of us should need the parallels to social media pointed out to us at this stage.
Zardonicus could very well have just aped one of the best fauxcumentary horror films of the last two decades and called it a day. It would have been enjoyable, but forgettable. However, the movie shines through thanks to the talent of Theis as a filmmaker and the performance of White. Theis understands what even some big Hollywood movie talents don’t. Found footage is an illusion outside of Blair Witch. A movie should appear to be random home movies but actually show proper sense of framing and dramatic build. The Curse of Professor Zardonicus is a perfect example of the horror fauxcumentary done right.
The Curse of Professor Zardonicus is now available on Amazon Prime.