Butterfly kisses are an affectionate little gesture that involves fluttering your eyelashes against someone else’s skin, the idea being to mimic the quick, gentle movements of a butterfly’s wings. I always thought the phrase referred to a series of tiny little actual kisses, so I learned something from the movie Butterfly Kisses. Of course, I have now also learned to associate the phrase with ghostly stalking, torture, and gruesome death, so it will never again make me think of anything even remotely affectionate, but hey, at least I know the dictionary definition. I guess that counts as a win, right?
Back in 2004, film student Sophia Crane (Rachel Armiger) is working on her senior project with cameraman Feldman (Reed Delisle), who seems to have no first name. They’ve chosen to do a documentary on local urban legend Peeping Tom, aka Mr. Blink. As with any good supernatural antagonist, there’s a ritual to summon him, and it’s a doozy: you have to go to the old Ilchester Railway bridge and stare down through the neighboring tunnel for exactly one hour, from midnight to one am. And they mean stare, without blinking. There are a couple of people out there who hold records for not blinking for an hour or so (though none of these are Guinness records), but you have to be some sort of staring prodigy to pull this off. Considering this feat is almost certainly most often attempted by teenagers with nothing to do on a Friday night, you would think that just not getting bored and wandering off would be enough of a challenge, but apparently not.
Our intrepid filmmakers can’t find anyone who can manage the staring, but they’re determined to tempt fate for the sake of their art. Reasoning that a camera lens is analogous to the human eye, they set up Feldman’s camera on the bridge at midnight and let it do the staring for them. But it’s only when they review the footage later that they realize they’ve caught something eerie.
Meanwhile, in 2015, struggling filmmaker Gavin York (Seth Adam Kallick) is supporting his family as a wedding videographer until his mother-in-law (Janise Whelan) finds a shoebox full of Sophia and Feldman’s old tapes and gives them to Gavin. The box is clearly labeled “Don’t Watch”, and whoever wrote that clearly knows nothing of human psychology because that’s the surest way to get anyone to watch, and Gavin is no exception. In fact, he quickly becomes compelled to edit them and show them to the world, and prove that everything on the tapes is absolutely real while he’s at it. But no one else seems nearly as fascinated with the discovery, and Gavin becomes increasingly frustrated and angry. He’s spent almost his last dime on a film crew (led by writer/director Erik Kristopher Myers as himself) to track his progress on the editing as well as his attempts to discover the fate of the student filmmakers, and he can’t fathom why the world isn’t falling at his feet over the project.
So this is a film within a film about the making of a film, though despite this potentially confusing premise it’s not hard to keep the storylines straight. Where it really turns meta and strange is when you try to work out whether or not Feldman and Sophia were making a documentary or a narrative film disguised as a documentary. Further complicating this issue is the inclusion of various paranormal experts as themselves, like Matt Lake, author of several books in the Weird U.S. series, Andy Wardlaw of Finding Bigfoot, and Eduardo Sanchez of Blair Witch Project fame.
Then there’s Gavin himself — he’s clearly fixated, but is he truly delusional or just desperate to make a name for himself? Kallick is thoroughly convincing as a man who’s barely holding himself together for much of the movie, though in many ways it’s also his performance that holds the movie itself together. There are strong hints of a overarching conspiracy to cover up any proof of Peeping Tom’s existence, though it seems far more vast than it needs to be considering that all the photographic proof was lost in some random basement for a decade. And at one point, Peeping Tom seems to break his own rules to keep the plot going. But overall the film expertly manages its sometimes convoluted premise and keeps the viewer riveted. From jump scares to expert debunking of the tapes, Butterfly Kisses weaves a delicate, teasing web of creepy suspense that would do Mr. Blink proud. Watch it, and you just might be afraid to close your eyes again.