One of horror cinema’s most criticised sub-genres has a lot more value – and perhaps a lot more relevance – than people like to think.
If there is one thing we can guarantee with a certain type of horror movie fan, it is that they will never be satisfied. No matter what is happening in the genre at any one time, it will invariably be wrong. Be it ‘torture porn’ or major studio productions, PG-13 horror or retro gothic retreads, nothing will do unless it somehow recaptures the genre exactly how it was when they first discovered it – hence the recent fixation in reinventing bland, forgettable 1980s productions as beloved classics worthy of special edition Blu-rays (though the generation that loved those movies is increasingly losing ground to a new wave – so expect more people claiming that Scream was the epitome of the horror film). Of all the horror genres to have merged in the 21st century, perhaps none is hated with quite so much venom as the ‘found footage’ film, even though these films are generally connected by technical values rather than content. For many horror fans, a gimmick that was already dubious (because they also love to hate the unexpectedly popular, and so The Blair Witch Project was always viewed with suspicion by many self-styled genre gatekeepers) quickly wore out its welcome and Found Footage became something to avoid or dismiss. But perhaps these films are now being rehabilitated by time, with horror fans who grew up on the films not seeing them as a pushy interloper but rather an integral part of the genre. Sarah Appleton and Phil Escott are, perhaps, part of this generation, and their new documentary The Found Footage Phenomenon (not ‘The Found Footage Project’? For shame!) might well give the films the legitimacy that is long overdue.
Of course, the problem with Found Footage is the mistaken belief that anyone can do it; that it is somehow easier than making a ‘proper’ film. But that’s clearly not the case, and we only have to look at the endless awful examples to see that. The major problem with Found Footage is that when it’s done badly, then it’s perhaps worse than pretty much anything else out there – and a lot of people have done it badly. Look at the unbearable British movie The Tapes and the Irish atrocity The Inside, or any of the endless series of films about paranormal investigators in abandoned asylums – a concept so thoroughly worked into the ground that it almost qualifies as its own sub-genre. In fact, don’t look at those films unless you want to be put off the idea of Found Footage for life. These are movies that would be awful under any circumstances, but the shakycam, night vision and unlikely events caught on cameras with everlasting batteries and inexhaustible tape supplies just add to the misery of sitting through them. So, you know, I get it – Found Footage became the go-to style for lazy and unimaginative filmmakers who figured that shouting into the lens and waving a camcorder about vigorously would cover a multitude of errors.
But do we write off a whole genre (and for the sake of argument, let’s just call it a genre for now, shall we?) based on the worst examples. I can remember when we would all groan at the prospect of another zombie film because zombie films had become the lowest point of the horror film, the genre of choice for talentless hacks who had a few mates that could walk around slowly with their arms stretched out and enough money to get a few gore effects. Zombie movies were almost exclusively dreadful pseudo-home movies for a long time (there are, of course, Found Footage zombie movies for the true masochists to find). But there are also great zombie films out there, some of them – just to keep you on your toes – very low budget productions. You can’t just write off a whole moviemaking style based on its worst examples. It’s a sad fact that (at least) 90% of everything is awful – but with relatively few films in the genre and such a specific style, we notice it with Found Footage more.
And as the documentary reminds us, the concept is nothing new – it goes back to the fake journal entries of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the ‘found audio’ of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and movies like Peeping Tom. More significantly, it plays with the blurring of fiction and reality that the Mondo genre specialised in, where the genuine and the recreated sat side by side, sometimes within the same scene, and where filmmakers happily twisted reality to push a point of view. Not just Mondo movies, either, as we know – serious documentaries would happily reconstruct reality when the actual reality wasn’t photogenic enough, as would news photographers. How much was real, how much was staged – a directed reality, if you like – and how much was fake became an interesting question in documentary cinema and remains one today.
More significantly, fact and fiction are ever more blurred in everything we see today – reality television fudges what is genuine and what is scripted constantly to the point where we can no longer believe anything that we watch. We live in a world of paranormal ‘documentaries’ that tell us we are seeing and hearing things that are just not there, where campaigners tell us fictional snuff movie footage shows real murders and where conspiracy theorists tell us that reality is faked by ‘crisis actors’. Is it any wonder that works of fiction that nevertheless announce themselves as showing ‘real footage’ have found an audience?
Ruggero Deodato knew. In 1979, his film Cannibal Holocaust not only pioneered Found Footage as a format made for horror movies but also screwed with our concepts of what was or wasn’t real. He presented fake death as the real thing, and real death – in the newsreel footage shown early on in the film – as fake. What a mind fuck. His inclusion of real animal death blurred everything further – if that was real, why not everything else? Similarly, the BBC drama Ghostwatch used Found Footage’s evil twin format – the fake documentary – to mess with TV viewers by having household daytime TV presenters investigating a haunted house. Had the show used actors, it wouldn’t have worked – but who, apart from keen-eyed Radio Times readers, would’ve thought that Mike Smith and Sarah Greene were acting? The Found Footage film depends on a cast who we won’t recognise (Deodato, like the Blair Witch directors twenty years later, had his cast sign a contract to disappear after the film was made to maintain the illusion – though in his case it worked too well and he had to get them to come out of hiding to escape charges of actually having killed his cast) but the fake documentary works best when it looks exactly like the real thing.
This is where the bad Found Footage films fall apart. Frankenstein’s Army, for instance, purports to feature footage shot during WW2 but which is technically too modern and so becomes a lazy contrivance. The pioneering and otherwise excellent film The Last Broadcast rather lets itself down by slipping into regular narrative style in the final moments. Some movies haven’t been able to resist the lure of including a recognisable actor in the cast. Perhaps the belief is now that Found Footage is simply a filmmaking style these days and no longer needs to – indeed, no longer can – fool the viewer. I think that’s a mistake. Of course, a lot of these films fail because they have actors who are furiously trying to act while not being very good (either at acting or improvising dialogue) and so don’t seem remotely realistic – stilted and awkward characters delivering clumsy dialogue badly is what brings most Found Footage films crashing down, because nothing quite jolts the viewer back into reality than these stiffly staged moments. You can’t always blame the actors – they’re being asked to do something far outside their comfort zone and what they’ve been trained to do. It’s where the best films of the genre stand out because they manage to make their characters seem real.
Early in The Found Footage Phenomenon, Rob Savage – director of Host – talks about Found Footage making people forget that they are in a cinema. But I’m going to disagree somewhat because Found Footage doesn’t belong in the cinema to begin with. This is the genre and the filmmaking style of the home video age. Not simply home video, in fact, but the YouTube and social media age, even if some of the best examples precede both. These are films that demand a suspension of disbelief, even if we are no longer necessarily taken in by media campaigns – the Blair Witch viral advertising was a remarkable way of fudging the truth and you wonder what they could have done with Twitter and Facebook had those platforms been around. Nothing will break the belief that a film could be real faster than a high-profile theatrical release, frankly. Often, these films become visually painful and all too clearly works of fiction on the big screen – and at that point, you have to wonder what the point of using the Found Footage format is. We should note that Megan Is Missing belatedly found its audience on Tik Tok, where it could spread virally and maintain the illusion that it might be real, traumatising teenage audiences and quickly moving from being a narrative fiction to something that many believed to be authentic. Obviously, to do that makes monetising a film rather more difficult – but creatively, I think that the cinema is the absolute worst place to see a Found Footage movie. In a perfect world, people would simply stumble upon them without even seeing the credits.
That’s the fascinating aspect of Found Footage movies and why, perhaps, they don’t work for a lot of older, more cynical horror fans. If you are immersed in the tropes of the genre, your suspension of disbelief is a lot harder to maintain. The prime audience for the Found Footage film is probably not the hardened horror crowd but teenagers who want to believe or the people who are watching the endless paranormal reality shows and are fully immersed in the world of online video where it doesn’t seem odd to film everything or for that footage to be shaky, blurry and messy. For them, the further a film is taken from being recognisably fiction, the more effective it will be. Just as back in the 1980s, it was easy to convince people that a worn-out, copy of a copy of a copy VHS tape might feature all sorts of genuine horrors, so the viral nature of online distribution makes Found Footage seem as though it might be very real.
The interesting thing about Found Footage now is where it might go. Both Host and In the Shadow It Waits explored the possibility of the ‘Zoom Found Footage’ film and perhaps video calling, with its dropped connections, frozen screens and poor lighting offers more possibilities – though how many stories can be told this way before they all become repetitive remains to be seen. For the standard Found Footage story, the fact that people are now walking around with 4K cameras in their pockets is certainly a problem; these are, after all, movies that – even if they are supposedly shot by professionals – depend on a certain degraded quality to hide their monsters and provide ambiguity, and the better the picture quality, the less authentic they will seem. But the huge success of Host shows that there is still a huge audience for this sort of thing out there – every time someone tries to write it off, a Paranormal Activity comes along to prove them wrong.
For those who have questioned the validity of this genre – and there will be a lot of you out there, assuming that the mere subject matter has not put you off reading this article – then The Found Footage Phenomenon is a good starting point for further exploration. The film includes the good, the bad and the ugly of the genre’s creators (I’ll be polite and let you decide who fits into which category) and makes a strong argument for the format being more than a flash in the pan. It’s probably worth, too, taking another look at some of the iconic titles of the genre that it is no longer fashionable to like – The Blair Witch Project, certainly, Paranormal Activity probably – and some of those films that play with the format in interesting ways like Capture Kill Release, Delivery, [REC] or Lake Mungo, just as a reminder that every kind of filmmaking can come up with little moments of genius… and that the best Found Footage films have images and moments that will get under your skin in ways that no other movies can.
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