Found Footage Horror: Still fresh and inventive, or has the genre become saturated and lost its edge?
The found footage genre of horror is not new, it has been around for more than thirty years, however, recently it seems to be all the rage. Film directors cannot get enough of the simple, easy and often cheap to use format, and more often than not, it’s incredibly effective. These days though, everyone wants in on the act, with talk of Halloween 3D (the long awaited sequel to Rob Zombie’s franchise ‘re-imagining) and Friday the 13th Part 2 (the sequel to yet another remake) having ideas thrown around of how it can work as found footage, with producers actually looking at ways to make both found footage work with 3D for Halloween 3! Is it all getting too much, and are we in danger of saturating the market with so many of these films that people will simply lose interest? And why not, it happens all the time with horror, but that’s horrors catch. It never remains the same, directors, writers and producers are always looking for new and inventive ways to scare us and horror genres come in and out of fashion faster than the seasons change. Found footage is most definitely the genre of choice right now, and personally, I can’t get enough of it, I love it! My only concern is that there really is SO much out and coming out right now that it may lose its edge and it most certainly will run out of ideas. However, until the next radical shake up in horror comes along, I am more than happy for this style of film making to continue and, hopefully, flourish!
As I said before, found footage is nothing new, it has just been perfected since the Blair Witch Project kick started the genre after a twenty year gap between the very first found footage horror, and the release of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’ genre classic. One of the greatest Video Nasty’s of all time, Cannibal Holocaust, was the first to really use the idea of ‘found footage’ in horror. A crew of filmmakers went off into the jungle to film nature and local tribe’s people as they live their daily lives, but what they find are savages, cannibals who decide to have the film crew for dinner! Vile acts of cruelty and survival techniques are caught on film, and so is the fate of the film crew. In a brave and bold move never before seen in horror, director Ruggero Deodato had the world believe that what they were watching was real, and the world took notice, as did our beloved BBFC who banned the movie.Also, in his native Italy, Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity and murder due to the fact the film was seized by the courts, and they believed the actors were actually murdered. Deodato faced life in prison until he managed to get the actors to turn up, alive and well. Shockingly, the film is still not available in the UK uncut, and even more astonishing is if you watch the film now, thirty years later, it still shocks and it STILL looks real. Such is the power of found footage, somehow it is far easier to make events feel like they are actually happening, nothing feels staged and special effects are used perfectly to actually make you look twice. Rumours of Cannibal Holocaust being a real life snuff movie were everywhere, and to this day, the penis chopping scene still baffles me how they did it. The reputation of Cannibal Holocaust speaks for itself, but had this not been a found footage film, would it still have caused so much upset? Quite possibly, but let’s move on to another found footage film that caused such panic, actor Martin Sheen called in the FBI to hunt down the directors believing he had actually watched a snuff movie.
The Guinea Pig series of films from Japan have never been available in the UK for being too violent, and one of those films is an hour long torture scene of three guys horrifically torturing a girl tied to a chair. The film in question is The Devil’s Experiment and the maker’s took the found footage idea to a whole new level. On the back of the DVD (on region 1) it states “Production, year, staff and cast have not been credited because ‘this was secretly filmed by an unknown person” Genius, and people really believed this to be real, and the effects used, even by today’s standards, are astonishing. Bruising appears, the girl bleeds, all simple effects, but created incredibly well considering the camera barely moves away from the girl. People could watch this film now and believe it to be real. Hell, even I struggle at times and ask myself “did they actually do those things, I mean, it is Japanese and the things they do for entertainment” Nah, impossible, it’s not real but blimey it looks it.
The Last Broadcast was the third film of note that made an impact before the Blair Witch reared her creepy head, and many argue that The Last Broadcast is just as good, if not better than the Blair Witch. I would say it is on a par with Blair Witch, the Last Broadcast’s best moments come at the end, as with most found footage horror, and the ending is one of those that shocks and stuns you and leaves you completely frozen and it then lingers in your mind. Much like the Blair Witch, Stevan Afalos and Lance Weiler’s film see’s both the director’s playing themselves and they team up with one more crew member and venture into the woods to hunt the mysterious Jersey Devil. If you have not seen the film I will not spoil it, but let’s just say things get a little scary. While on the subject of The Last Broadcast, the maker’s are planning a reboot of the original at some point, and we will keep you posted of any further developments.
Of course, after the Last Broadcast came the Mother of all found footage horror, the film that really set the wheels in motion so that all other found footage horrors would end up somehow being compared to it. Yes, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’ The Blair Witch Project, like it or not, was a phenomenon and a masterpiece not only in film making, but also in marketing. See, in the days of Cannibal Holocaust, we didn’t have the internet to arouse interest or, even better still, use it to extraordinary lengths to prove your films authenticity. All sorts of stuff was set up way before the film arrived, police reports, missing persons reports, news articles, it was incredible and the two director pulled it off! Word got round that there was a brand new snuff horror, although instead of snuff which used violence, this was three filmmakers lost in the woods and being hunted by unseen forces. We get to see what happened thanks, mostly, to Heather Donahue’s persistent wanting to document everything. Hell, the actor’s even used their real names! When shown at Cannes in 1999, audience members were sickened, shocked and frightened. Everyone had read the stories of how the filmmakers had disappeared, and as no knowledge had yet surfaced as to just how the film was made, and thanks to its impressive realism, people really thought they were watching something real. The actors themselves mainly improvised, simply being given a note each day, left in their tent, with simple instructions as to how to move the story forward and suggestions on conversations, another bold and genius move by the directors. Fans bought into the film, and into the found footage style in a BIG way, the film was, and still is, onle of the most profitable films of all time. See, you don’t need big effects and epic scale to scare the crap out of your audience, and this is where found footage can really work. It plays on the most basic of fears, the human side, the realism side and it is hard not to connect with actors who don’t come across like they’re acting.
This, for me, is where this genre manages to get one over on all other styles. Yes, you can have the best actor in the world in your film, but they are still acting out a scene in front of a dozen cameras and producers etc. Found footage, on the other hand, needs nothing more than one basic camera. The production does not have to be great because it needs to look real, if the camera shakes, to Hell with it, no normal human being would want to keep a camera steady while running away in terror from some supernatural force. Because of the lesser need to make things look professional, the actors themselves are under less pressure, and will have less people stood around telling them what to do, and thanks to this the actors may actually forget they are acting and begin to behave normally. Watch a found footage horror and watch the actors closely, it is rare they play up to the camera or look uncomfortable and edgy, they look natural, they speak naturally and this helps the authenticity of the events. When someone does look nervous, as happened with the janitor in the recent Grave Encounters, it makes the whole thing look more real rather than staged. See, that one of the basic elements of this genre that I find works incredibly well, and that is the feeling that everything is not staged or worked from a script, and that a lot of it IS improvisation and natural responses and this just leads on to a far more realistic experience. Now, the main issue I find most people who aren’t the genre’s biggest fan complain about is the shaky, annoying camera that won’t hold still. Granted I can appreciate the issue, and I shall address that after talking about where the genre has got to since The Blair Witch Project made everyone in the world of horror cry out for more!
Now read part two to have a look at the some more recent films, and to have a further look at the current state of the genre.
By Matt Wavish