Breathe in. Breathe out. And get ready for a good scream with writers/directors Alex Henes' and Matthew Merenda’s debut feature, Mind Body Spirit, a found footage horror flick that takes a simple premise and tosses it into a vaguely Evil Dead-meets-Hereditary-inspired blender of terror.
Lost in life, wannabe Yoga influencer Anya (Sarah J. Bartholomew) is struggling to find her voice. After she inherits her estranged Grandmother’s California home, she sees it as an opportunity for change. The hidden journal she finds full of ritualistic practices involving the body is just icing on the self-discovery cake as she decides that it will not only be the angle for her videos, but a way to connect to the person she never knew. Little does Anya realize, grandma is closer than she thinks.
Mind Body Spirit is an exercise in dread. The filmmakers use that building uneasiness as effective juxtaposition to Anya, played with a shy sweetness by Bartholomew that sets her apart from other characters in the popular trend of “influencer” horror. Even as she introduces herself, screwing up cut after cut and exposing a lack of blind confidence needed to be successful at such a thing, we can sense the wrongness of the living room she’s set up in, empty besides a yoga mat, and the creaking house beyond.
While family friend Kenzi, aka Kenzifit (KJ Flahive), fills the role of obnoxious influencer—no knock on Flahive, who does a great job in creating an eye-rolling persona—Anya is a damn delight. Bartholomew brings a genuine warmth to the character that brightens the screen. Generally, influencers in horror such as, well, Influencer, or something like Sissy, are portrayed as vapid know-nothings who are fake as hell with a capital F. Our protagonist here, on the other hand, is someone the audience can relate to. Anya’s a lost soul, unaware of her place in life and trying her hand at Yoga videos because why not? She likes to bring people happiness (and means it), and sees it as a way to do just that. But—there’s always a but in these movies—Anya herself isn’t actually happy. Underneath the smiles and uncomfortable laughs is an unsettling darkness. She’s utterly alone and carrying the burden of a strained relationship with her mother, Lenka (Anna Knigge), who absolutely does not want her daughter staying in that house.
Far be it from Anya to be one of the few people in a horror movie that actually listens to reason.
For as likable as she is, Anya is one of those characters that makes you want to pull your hair out and scream, “what are you doing?” It’s bad enough that she decides to read from some moldy, hidden book written in Russian—never read from the strange book—but to then perform the acts described in said book, even after things start to go horribly wrong? To say Mind Body Spirit struggles at times to maintain believability is an understatement. It’s difficult to keep an audience engaged when they feel twelve steps ahead of the character. Yet the filmmakers keep things plenty entertaining.
Henes and Merenda prove themselves experts at creating solid scares. While Mind Body Spirit itself isn’t all that unique in its premise, the filmmakers incorporate plenty of clever uses of the format. One inventive scene has Anya tripping out on the floor as various versions of herself dance in the background, a way of showing the audience the nightmare in her mind. Between various open doors and an effective use of space, the viewer is left constantly searching the frame for the next terrifying specter, more often than not opening us up to something we didn’t expect. The Evil Dead inspiration is strong, not just in the book—which Kenzi references as “lifestyle tips from the book of the dead”—but in Raimi-style camera movements which creep and soar through the house as if pulled by a malevolent spirit.
Also similar to the Evil Dead films is an injection of tongue-in-cheek comedy. Once in a while, an eye-rolling but funny ad will interrupt the film, most of them featuring Kenzi. Just don’t expect the wild insanity of the deadites. Mind Body Spirit is, at best, Evil Dead-lite. Lite on the laughs. Lite on the gore (outside of a couple shocking moments). But much, much heavier on the disturbing side of things.
While the incorporation of Yoga into a ghost story is different, Mind Body Spirit doesn’t offer many surprises. For better or worse, this is your average found footage flick steeped in the supernatural, albeit with some great scares. But there’s also a creeping theme that comes spilling out of the many open doors in the film and Anya’s mantra of opening your body to new experiences…and terror. So, while it may not blow your mind, Henes’ and Merenda’s film strikes the yoga pose from Hell with a journey of self-discovery guaranteed to send chills over your body and deep down into your spirit.
By Matt Konopka