Friday Feature: Found Footage Horror- Part Two

Found Footage Horror: Still fresh and inventive, or has the genre become saturated and lost its edge?

One of the most controversial of all the found footage horrors of the last ten years is the August Underground films, and if you have never seen these and you are thinking that maybe you should, then be warned, they are banned in the UK for a reason. Not that I agree at all with censorship, in fact I despise it, but the August Underground series is savage, brutal stuff that harks back to the days of Cannibal Holocaust and the Guinea Pig films, they are sick for the sake of being sick, and if thats your thing, you will find much to enjoy. However, if you are easily offended and don’t see the point to all this violence and brutality, do not watch them. They are cheaply made, the production values, even for this particular genre, is pretty bad, it stinks of vile, white trash America, and the story is simply some rather disturbed individuals filming themselves hurting and killing people. It can be uncomfortable to watch, but thats the point, and once again the handheld camera angle really adds to the impact. Proof, once again, that it works!

For the next seven years after Blair Witch, horror toyed with found footage, with films like the St Francisville Experiment, The Last Horror Movie and even Diary of the Dead making some sort of impact on the horror world. It was clear this was a genre and style of film making that was here to stay, and after a bit of a lull in BIG releases since The Blair Witch Project, three films came along at two complete opposite ends of the spectrum to deliver something utterly unique and incredibly powerful. These three films took everything the Blair Witch Project and everything before had done, and mastered the art of found footage and handheld camera filming. Arriving in the UK 1st February 2008 came the JJ Abrams produced and Matt Reeves directed Cloverfield, followed in April by Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero’s (Rec) and then over a year later, on November 29th 2009 came Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity. Each of these three films took their particular genre to new levels of brilliance by delivering them as actual found footage. Cloverfield was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had at the cinema, finally a monster film that did everything right, and the shaky, messy and frantic camera meant that the monster was never fully revealed in all its glory so it left you satisfied, but not spoilt, glad that you felt you were actually in the thick of the mayhem. The characters were real and lovable, and their reactions to an impossible situation felt astonishingly real. Abrams and Reeves left nothing to chance and delivered quite possibly the best monster film of the decade. Cloverfield was a masterpiece and even though I have banged on about the simplicity and lack of epic scale to make these sorts of films work, Cloverfield turned that on its head and made full use of big special effects, epic scale and an enormous creature. It worked, it really really worked, and can work again if done right.

The Spanish zombie horror (Rec) got released under a massive reputation of one of the scariest films original film, a TV crew follow the fire service for one night to document them on call, and they get called to a block of flats. Once inside, news breaks of a virus and they end up locked in, with the residents and the infected, and this leads to brutal violence and scary as fuck moments of pure terror. Once again, the ‘actor’s’ deliver inch perfect performances in a situation which required them to act terrified, and it worked. The special effects during the ‘zombie’ attacks were spot on, like seeing a crew member have his throat ripped out by a rabid old woman. The film was remade into an English language version called Quarantine, and that too was produced as found footage. Part of (Rec)’s brilliance was the deaths, watching someone fall down a flight of stairs with the camera on them all the time was pure genius film making. (Rec) was littered with moments that begged you to rewind and watch  again to figure out how the Hell they did it, and Quarantine added one or two of its own ideas also. (Rec) 2 came out shorty after as part of a proposed trilogy which has now grown into four films, and the direct follow up the the first film took things up a notch, with even more fantastic deaths and moments of terror. This time there were two different groups of people filming, and to witness a scene like a ‘zombie’ literally being blown apart by fireworks is one of those rare moments in film where you just can’t get your head round how they did it.

And finally, Oren Peli’s ultimate, stripped down to the bare bones, no nonsense scare the shit out of you chiller Paranormal Activity, which has spawned three sequels (or prequels to go with the proper time lines) and also a Japanese version called Paranormal Activity: Tokyo Night. It has spawned numerous imitators all wanting their moment in the glory of this genre, but it is the original basic, honest scares that wins the day. A couple film their daily lives in order to figure out if they are being visited by supernatural forces, and it is the filming at night while they sleep where things get really, truly terrifying. The camera in the bedroom is fixed, it doesn’t move and you find yourself watching, waiting to see a shadow, something move or worse still, hear something. The tension becomes almost unbearable, and when something does finally happen, you are so on edge that it absolutely terrifies you. Again, done any other way, this may not have worked as effectively, but it is that one little camera, with the words ‘rec’ and the little timer in the bottom of the screen, the makes the whole premise far more frightening. So far then, the genre has barely put a foot wrong so let’s take a look at why people sometimes struggle with it.

The one main complaint I hear again and again is simply the shaky camera, that is the one and only thing that seems to put people off, and it is one of the main reasons I love it. There have been films which take the shaky, cutting out camera to the extreme and eventually it spoils things, the recent Grave Encounters cut off after almost every scare as the camera crew ran off down the dark hallways. It worked on the first scare, but after the tenth time it really started to grate. So, it can be annoying if it is not done well, but thankfully the majority of the films I have seen do it just right. Apollo 18 took things to the extreme with the actual presentation of the film in general, with not only picture, but sound badly effected by the fact the footage had been hidden away for decades. In fact, one of the main reasons audiences were being sick during the Blair Witch Project was down to the fact they were suffering from motion sickness. Proof then, that the shaky, frantic camera is not to everyone’s taste, but as I said earlier, this is supposed to look authentic and real, and if the camera were kept still, then this may as well be your bog standard movie. These films aren’t, they are something special, inventive and unique and if you want realism, then you have to deal with exactly what realism offers. The shaky camera is also a bonus for the filmmakers themselves as they can get away with not showing you everything, hence the less is more approach to terror can be used to much better effect. You can spend an entire film never quite seeing what it is your supposed to be afraid of, and that is far more frightening than seeing the big reveal early on and taking away the element of surprise.

The other aspect of this genre which, for me, works wonders, is the lack of music. Often music is used as a heap gimmick in horror to try and make something far more scary than it actually is. Music can often give you a jolt, not because you are scared, but because you were simply caught off guard. Found footage mostly relies on the actual sounds of what you are supposed to be scared of, banging on the walls, heavy breathing, the sound of someone running, again it is the most basic of elements used for maximum effect. It makes you feel like you are there with them, enduring the horrors yourself, with no music to take you away from the atmosphere. See, music is great in films, but it also reminds you that you are watching a film, so without it, it allows you to get sucked in even more!

So, what does the future hold for found footage and handheld camera horrors? Lots that’s for sure, and here lies a potential problem. There have still been some superb film, The Last Exorcism being one of my favourite films of last year, but the quality of some others is starting to falter slightly. Films like Evil Things, Welcome to the Jungle and Paranormal Entity have shown the genre possibly running out of ideas as each of those films have ripped off much better films of the genre. But then we are blessed with further classics that breath new life into the formula. Anyone who has seen Troll Hunter will know that the use of handheld cameras mixed with Norwegian folklore has created one of the standout films of this year, utterly original and utterly brilliant, Troll Hunter has, after three decades of films, given something completely new to the genre. This is proof that new and refreshing ideas can still arrive, but there is also proof that the well know ideas can still be used and improved on. Atrocious, the new Spanish found footage horror about a family staying in a large country house for the Summer, offers up what we are supposed to believe is found footage of what happened when the kids went investigating some murders which happened around the house. Apollo 18 cleverly made us believe that NASA kept a secret mission to the moon from us, and for good reason too if you have seen it, again, utterly brilliant. And there is more to come, Area 51, Amityville: The Lost Tapes, (Rec); Genesis and (Rec)Apocalypse, Area 51: Confidential, Report 51, the fantastic Grave Encounters is also due very soon. Three of these new films are alien based, so again, moving away from giant trolls or monsters, paranormal events, zombies, cannibals and supernatural forces, we are now moving into alien territory, so even more proof that the genre has far from finished with us.

I for one love it, I can’t wait for the next big film with the next big idea. Eventually it will run itself into the ground, but come on, three decades of the genre, I think it deserves a little respect?

By Matt Wavish

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About Matt Wavish 598 Articles
A keen enthusiast and collector of all horror and extreme films. I can be picky as i like quality in my horror. This doesn't necessarily mean it has to be a classic, but as long as it has something to impress me then i'm a fan. I watch films by the rule that if it doesn't bring out some kind of emotive response then it aint worth watching.

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