Johannes Duyster was the city of Antwerp’s executioner from 1606 to 1613. On February 5th, 2020 three college students were given a video production assignment, they chose him as their subject. None of them have been seen since February 27th of that year.
The text crawl at the start of the Belgian found footage film Duyster fills us in on the basics.Then we join the trio, Nora Danso (Maïmouna Badjie), Milan Avonds (Charles De Meester, Memento Mori) and Bas Lauwer (Tristan Feyten) at a museum in front of a mediaval illustration of Duyster and his crew at work. Much of the film’s first half consists of scenes like this, shots of locations associated with Duyster or interviews with historians and folklorists that fill in the story of his career as an executioner. And the alleged disappearance of not just him but his entire family after his daughter was accused of witchcraft.
It’s all following the usual format for a film like this, but writer Thomas Vanbrabant and co-director Jordi Ostir have given Johannes Duyster an interesting backstory and wrapped it in a neat mystery. Did something supernatural happen? Or did the new council replace him and he faded from the official record?
Vanbrabant and Ostir change Duyster’s tone fairly abruptly when an interview with a deranged former policeman Corneel Smolarek played by Stefaan Degand (The Claus Family, High Heels, Low Tide). He and Sven De Ridder (Torpedo: U-235, Red Sandra), two well-known Belgian actors with small roles in the film prove that stunt casting is a universal phenomenon.
In and amongst his ranting and showing off “souvenirs” he acquired during his time on the force, Smolarek suggests a connection between Johannes and an ongoing string of murders. For some reason, they take him seriously and start investigating the modern killings and Duyster goes into full horror territory. And, like the film’s first half it does it in a convincing, if familiar, manner.
Among the films Vanbrabant and Ostir cite as inspirations on Duyster some are fairly well known and obvious such as The Blair Witch Project and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Some of it is a bit overfamiliar, like the meeting with Jacqueline Verbist (Margaux Vandecasteele) the only survivor of the modern attacks. She’s institutionalized and hasn’t spoken in years until they arrive. Unfortunately, like the squabbling film crew, it’s become almost a requirement for films like these. Others such as Suspiria and Martyrs and, on the part of cinematographer Michiel Lateur, As Above So Below are a bit more subtle, but still noticeable, in their influences.
The biggest issue I have with Duyster, as frequent readers will know, is the opening text which gives away the ending. It’s always been one of my major problems with the found footage genre because few of them can overcome that kind of self spoilering. And while it comes fairly close, this isn’t quite on the level of The Fear Footage trilogy or The Poughkeepsie Tapes. There’s also the usual who shot that and why did they keep filming issues, but by now found footage fans and filmmakers seem to have stopped caring about those details.
Overall Duyster is a solid example of the found footage genre with some good moments and a fairly intense last act that would have been even better if the ending was in doubt. Those on the fence about seeing it may be relieved to know there isn’t a lot of headache-inducing shaky cam footage to deal with. it’s one found footage devotees should love and others should enjoy as well.
Duyster will make its US Premiere on Friday, April 1st as part of this year’s Buried Alive Film Festival. You can see the festival’s full schedule here, ticket information can be found here. More information on Duyster can be found on the film’s Facebook page. And if you want to find more found footage, try FilmTagger.