‘Why are they videotaping themselves? It’s the thing that every found footage movie fights with, I mean, if somebody is chasing you why don’t you throw down the camera and run the fuck away?’
So said the director Eduardo Sanchez in a recent Starburst interview - decrying the rash of bad found footage movies that have appeared since the runaway success of the Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007). Sanchez should know - after all he directed Blair Witch, as well as the recent part-found footage Lovely Molly (2011) and the upcoming Bigfoot yarn, Exists (2012). It seems that almost every wannabe horror director looking for a sure thing is drawn to the genre for the simple reason that it is cheap ‘n’ cheerful. But very few have the skill to pull it off like Sanchez or Paranormal Activity director, Oren Peli. As any Starburst reviewer will tell you, for every film that makes the found footage approach plausible, like Cloverfield (2008), there are plenty (like this year’s Tape 407) that fail miserably to make us believe the conceit. Over seventy found footage movies have been released since the heady days of Blair Witch, and with only a few worth a damn, that makes for a lot of tedious camcorder, kids-lost-in-the-woods-type dross (this year's A Night in the Woods anyone?).
Of course a successful franchise like Paranormal Activity will keep churning ‘em out, and parts two, three and four still managed to be quite scary. When done well the found footage approach really can draw us into the horror and make us believe what we see is real (or at least partially forget what we are watching is a movie). But the found footage movie is also rife with clichés, and easily spoofed, as the atrocious Scary Movie-type send-up Supernatural Activity (2012) shows. Supernatural Activity shamelessly lampoons everything from Blair Witch to Grave Encounters (2011) to The Last Exorcism (2010) showing how dumb the average found footage movie actually is. The question therefore has to be asked: where can the genre go from here? Is there anywhere it can go? Or is it already lost?
Most critics claim that the found footage horror movie began with Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Ruggero Deodato’s infamous nasty about a documentary film crew who travel to the Amazon to film a tribe of cannibals and then mysteriously disappear, leaving only their filmed footage behind. But the roots of the genre can be traced back further still to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), the much-maligned shocker about a psycho-killer who likes to film his victims with his trusty 16mm Bolex. The fact that the killer in the film is also a photographer introduced two key themes into the horror genre that have become staples of the found footage horror film ever since: namely voyeurism and the nature of filmed fear. Many subsequent films feature characters that just love to film, and seem to love to film fear. This is, of course, primarily a way to get around the main problem that Sanchez so eloquently identifies: why keep filming, why not throw down the camera and run? Often screenwriters throw in a neat bit of dialogue to smooth over the plausibility problem: “Jesus, Thad, how can you keep filming at a time like this?” “I dunno. I guess I need to. It kinda helps me to get through it.” And although Peeping Tom wasn’t solely found footage, it featured plenty of through the lens shots to get its point across.
Blair Witch Project appropriated the mock-doc conceit of Cannibal Holocaust (“three filmmakers went missing… a year later their footage was found”) cleverly combining 16mm and Hi 8 footage to present not a film-within-a-film as Cannibal Holocaust was but a combination of professional documentary and home movie. It also got around another major plausibility problem thrown up by the found footage approach: that of editing. For a movie to work for an audience it has to be edited, but found footage by nature is raw unedited material. All of which presents a dilemma for the filmmaker: how to explain that the footage has been put together for an audience. The best found footage movies manage to give the impression that what we are seeing is raw material (perhaps edited ‘in camera’) and therefore more real. Cloverfield does this very well. Moc-docs attempt to get around the problem by presenting the film as a documentary edited afterwards but this approach presents another problem. How can the filmmakers edit the film together if they are killed in the course of its making? A plausibility problem that Diary of the Dead (2007), The Last Exorcism and The Devil Inside (2012) almost but not quite managed to pull off.
Blair Witch, of course, featured that famous shot of Heather Donoghue crying and drizzling snot into the camera lens (“I’m so fuckin’ scared.”) and many found footage movies have attempted (and usually failed) to capture the same sense of unseen horror. This has mostly resulted in a lot of obnoxious youths filming each other’s hysteria in night-vision (2009’s Evil Things), but occasionally yielded some effective results in the classic Val Lewton ‘suggested’ horror style. Evidence (2011) is one that makes the most of its found footage conventions in presenting a group of campers set upon by unseen attackers that wreck their RV and pick them off one by one. We are left guessing as to the true nature of the threat until the end of the movie and the hysterical attempt of the survivors to capture the beasts on video actually adds to the suspense rather than detracts from it.
Another found footage movie that managed to add something new as well as take us into the unknown was Apollo 18. Unfortunately it wasn’t very good. But it did, at least, have an intriguing premise: claiming to be classified footage from a secret 1970s moon landing that resulted in the mysterious disappearance of three astronauts. During the course of the film the astronauts are attacked by unseen forces that… you get the gist. Despite its initial promise Apollo 18 takes the lazy route to become another Blair Witch clone (just substitute the moon for the woods), and one which breaks the rules of plausibility to boot. Why would NASA edit the footage tighter and then add a movie score? It makes zero sense.
Mind you, to see a found footage that really makes a hash of it, check out Evil Things, made by someone who has no understanding of plausibility whatsoever. As usual we are informed at the start that the film we are about to see is ‘evidence’ from the files of the authorities (in this case the FBI). Cue the usual inanities of a group of friends on vacation in the wilderness – handicam in tow - stalked by an unseen attacker. The director Dominic Perez throws away any logic in his found footage approach. Not only is the footage edited and given a music soundtrack (presumably by some budding Spielberg at the FBI) but POV footage from the killer’s perspective is added for good measure. If the rest of the film was any good we might suspend our disbelief but everything about Evil Things is so inept that it simply insults the intelligence.
If Evil Things marks the low point of the found footage genre, thankfully V/H/S (2012) offers some hope. Ok, a found footage movie that is also an anthology movie might seem less than promising at first but V/H/S gets inside the skin deeper than any film of its ilk since Paranormal Activity.
In the wrap-around story (Tape 56) a gang of thugs are paid to break into an old man’s house and steal some videocassettes. Things turn nasty as the depravities that the gang visit on others are visited on them. Meanwhile each of the tales presents a variation on found footage scenarios: in The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger a Skype-chat becomes the setting for ghostly goings on in a woman’s apartment; a couple’s holiday video turns into a document of murder in Second Honeymoon; in Amateur Night a man dons a hidden webcam in his spectacles hoping to film a sexual encounter, but the tables are turned on him and his two friends in bloody ways.
V/H/S explores and updates the themes of voyeurism and filmed horror that Peeping Tom introduced more than fifty years ago. And while the technology may have changed, the twisted psychology remains the same…