‘The Gracefield Incident’ Is Pure Low-Budget SciFi, Says Director Mathieu Ratthe

Somewhere in Quebec, an alien encounter is shrouded under the cover of a Bigfoot controversy. Injuries went unreported; Power outages were unconfirmed; no one talked, wrote or broadcast about it. But Mathieu Ratthe’s found footage horror science film “The Gracefield Incident” documented the events as they happened. Lesser filmmakers might have lost or damaged their equipment catching the chaotic events, but video game editor Matthew Donovan, played by director Ratthe, could never drop his iPhone camera. It’s embedded in his gaping hole of an eye socket.

The opening sequence is a shocker that dives right into oncoming traffic. Jessica Donovan (Kimberly Laferriere), pregnant and giddy, rides shotgun as her husband chattily films her every bump on a hand-held camera with one hand on the wheel. He takes his eyes off the city traffic for one second and loses control in a moment of instant karma.

“It was important for me, right off the bat, to establish something else,” Ratthe told Entertainment Voice. “More than fear, but emotion. I think a lot of people can relate to this, to lose your baby in a car crash. Of course you have to scare the crowd when you do this kind of genre, but in that first minute to shock the audience and set up the mood.”

Ratthe did triple duty in the opening shot, directing, acting and taking the fall.

“I do my own stunts. It was interesting. I was driving. I was onscreen, but I was also running the camera,” Ratthe said. “We were going pretty fast. We added a car after. There was no car at all. I just faked it and we added the effects. I was just driving around. We knew the spot I liked, but they never knew when I was going to do it.”

“They” are the director’s longtime crew: cinematographer Yan Savard. “I didn’t need to direct it,” Ratthe explained. “I’d just shoot it. Savard has been with me since I shot my first film ten years ago, so I don’t have to tell him much. He just knows. It was a fun shoot, though, a really fun shoot. The eye we did separately.”

The fun didn’t end when the director called cut.

“I was staying nearby,” Ratthe said. “I had a little bit of water to clean myself up. But I put a hood on to go clean up at the hotel. I was thinking hopefully nobody was going to be able to see me. But I get in the elevator, I’m full of blood. My hands are full of blood. My face is full of blood, and a whole family gets on and I’m thinking ‘they’re not going to see me.’ I look at my feet and there’s blood on it. The people start to scream. They asked if I wanted to go to the hospital.”

The opening effect has that gross-out quotient that Stephen King prescribes in his horror how-to book “Danse Macabre,” but “The Gracefield Incident” outdoes the extensive effect with subtle subversion. Driving with his idiot friends — Jonathan Mendez (Victor Andres Turgeon-Trelles), Julia Gilbert (Juliette Gosselin), Trey (Alex C. Nachi) and Elizabeth Blackburn (Laurence Dauphinais) – to a luxurious cabin on a mountain top, Donovan takes out his mechanical eye and passes it to the back seat. Liz screams, knocks it from his hand and the eye winds up in the mouth of his faithful, slobbering dog. Even knowing the ocular stand-in is fake, it is still a queasier moment than the initial set up. The audience subliminally worries about infection, while realizing Donovan learned nothing from the tragic car accident, as he is still recording every moment on the road. His friends are morons who talk too much, and, of course, they let the guy with one eye traverse the narrow mountain roads leading to the cabin.

The suspense builds steadily with little details like clocks and watches running fast adding to the momentum. Some of the effects don’t produce the intended reaction. The hasty skyward disappearance of Liz and Joe is unintentionally funny. The scene where the meteorite crashes is vaguely reminiscent of the 1958 science fiction classic “The Blob,” which starred Steve McQueen. The first person to encounter the jello-like visitor is an old man who digs it out of the burning rock, only to have it slide up the stick and onto his arm, devouring him. In “The Gracefield Incident,” the impromptu paranormal investigators stick their hands down the crater to pull up the icy rock from space.

This is Ratthe’s first found-footage film. His other films, “Lovefield” and “The Talisman,” were more traditional horror. The director noted the differences.

“For the past few years I’ve been doing short films,” he explained. “I prepare every shot, every angle: ‘Here we’re going to use a crane. Here we’re going to do that. We’re going to build up suspense this way or that way.’ And we cut from there to there. This one was linear, a lot of long shots. It was a rollercoaster ride as you go. It was definitely different. We didn’t use a crane. We didn’t use any of that, any toys. I shot the film in 13 days with a camera on my shoulder as I was acting. I don’t think I’ll be able to do this again ever in my life. It was definitely a challenge.”

The rushed energy of acting while he shot helped the performance because it gave the actor more of a sense of the immediacy of the scene.

“We shot this thing so fast,” Ratthe said. “That’s why I look like a director on screen. I didn’t have the chance to prep very much. I was trying to keep it as natural as possible. I was also editing myself, so that was tough.”

There are two incredible special effects in the low-budget “The Gracefield Incident.” The first we encounter is the alien, which Ratthe developed with concept designer Brian Cunningham.

“First, we drew it,” Ratthe explained. “We had the fish eye. We didn’t want to go too far. The first drawing of it took a couple months. Then we sat down with Video Effects in Montreal and went over the texture, and how to make it move. It was really a team effort. About 125 guys worked on the alien over a three year period. A lot of thought and work went into it. I think it worked. For a low budget film, it was most important to make sure the quality was there.”

The other effect that defies budgetary logic is the space ship, which is where patience paid off.

“When I came in to Special Effects in Montreal, I showed them the spaceship and asked what would be the budget on it,” Ratthe said. “And it was going to be the same as the entire film. They said ‘I don’t think we’re going to be able to do this.’ I said ‘hold on, what I want is quality. What you don’t have is the time.’ So I gave them the time as well. They did a huge favor and spent three years working on the film. They didn’t shoot full time on it, but in between “Batman” and other big films, they were jumping in and working on mine. They really got into the story and believed in me.”

But a cynical audience, raised on conspiracy theories, may also believe that the film is based on a real-life incident.

“It’s not,” Ratthe admitted. “It’s a pure movie. Look, if people want to believe in it, great, but it’s not. I should probably not say this. No, it’s based on a true story and I do abduct a guy. I feel foolish saying this, but no it’s not. It’s pure fiction. Pure sci fi.”

The Gracefield Incident” opens in select theaters and is available on demand and on digital HD July 21.