Is Found Footage dead? For the uninitiated, it’s a sub-genre in which a film appears to be assembled from actual camera footage recovered from an event. More broadly speaking, I suppose you could slot it in as a type of fake documentary (mockumentary) as well. While its origins run deep (the ur example usually cited is the 1980 Italian schlock-fest Cannibal Holocaust), the genre didn’t hit the big time until The Blair Witch Project became a sensation around the turn of the century.
Since then, the sub-genre has waxed and waned a few times, at least in the mainstream, as low-budget contenders come and go, with the occasional revitalizing effort keeping the concept alive. The J.J. Abrams produced Cloverfield hit a solid 8 years after Blair Witch, but it was Paranormal Activity that really kept this approach on the radar. All through that time, though, Found Footage has remained a constant in the horror niche. The reasons of this are varied, but they aren’t going away. The unending march of technology, social media, and our compulsion to document everything we do goes a long way towards answering one of the frequently begged questions of the sub-genre: why the hell were they filming this crap? The approach can lend a sense of verisimilitude to an otherwise hoaky concept (though let’s be honest, that’s still easier said than done). It’s a low budget aesthetic that will continue to be a mainstay of horror cinema.
The approach doesn’t come without its challenges. The aforementioned issue of motivation still remains a key question (why would you keep filming!?) For the most part, you have to be willing to cut the filmmakers a little slack when it comes to this sort of thing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it emphatically does not. The handheld aesthetic, while imparting a sense of realism, is also easy to overdo. I can’t think of anyone who really likes shaky cam, even if you can occasionally justify its use. Funnily enough, I think a big part of the Paranormal Activity series’ success is its innovation of using a tripod through the majority of the films. Another thing this approach tends to rely on is improvised dialog, which often turns out abysmally. I think it was fine in the original Blair Witch Project (though I get that a lot of people hate it for that), but they walked a fine line in that movie, one that most found footage can’t pull off.
Found Footage may not be making current waves at the box office, but it continues to be common amongst indie horror offerings and is here to stay. For this installment of the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, I caught up with three lesser known examples of the sub-genre, so let’s dive in:
- Willow Creek (trailer)
- The Bay (trailer)
- The Last Broadcast (trailer)
- The Poughkeepsie Tapes – The FBI discovers hundreds of video tapes in an abandoned house in Poughkeepsie, NY. The tapes depict decades of a serial killer’s exploits, especially focusing on one victim. Last year, whilst revisiting The Blair Witch Project, I mentioned that it was odd that most found footage movies simply consisted of the footage itself and no context, no interviews with experts, etc… Well this movie is exactly what I was talking about. It’s a mock documentary that is roughly split evenly between the eponymous tapes and talking head interviews with investigators, experts, victims’ family members, etc… For the most part it’s an effective approach, and the film is genuinely unnerving.
It does come off a bit disjointed, but that’s to be expected given the conceit and actually serves to reinforce the feeling that what we’re watching is real (I mean, it’s not, but still). Some of the individual episodes are very well done. At one point, the killer approaches the mother of one of his victims and tells her to “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help” and at first, the woman just politely responds, but then you see something dawning on her face and the killer runs away, giggling. Some of the stalking and torture sequences got under my skin as well. There’s one segment in which 9/11 plays a part that is surprising and effective. One bit with a victim that was recovered after years of being the killer’s slave is very disturbing and sticks with you. There’s no real jump scares or gore, just a general tone of dismay that serves the film well. There’s lots to like here, but some flaws drag it down a few pegs. The actual video footage is very poor quality. I realize this is supposed to be VHS from the 90s, so the quality isn’t going to be great, but I think they overdid the wavy VHS distortions. Also, every clip is preceded by an annoying audio buzzing click noise that is distracting. I get what they’re going for here, but it’s just weird. For one thing, the video is presented at 1.85:1 (just like the rest of the movie), while most video cameras of the era would be 4:3. Why do that, but keep the quality so crappy? Some of the acting in the interviews is a bit off as well, but nothing too jarring. Sometimes it feels like we’re being told to be scared than we’re actually seeing something scary, but on balance, the film works. It’s a genuinely unnerving film, even if it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying in the end. **1/2
- Paranormal Activity (trailer)
- Paranormal Pactivity (Robot Chicken)
- The Last Exorcism (trailer)
- Lake Mungo – A young woman disappears and her grief-stricken family begins to think she’s haunting their house. Another faux documentary comprised mostly of talking head interviews and various other recordings. The proportion is more focused on the interviews than the actual footage that was found, and since all of this has clearly happened in the past, there’s not much tension (and some of the footage turns out to be less reliable than originally thought, which also puts a damper on things). The video footage is mostly better here, though it’s still quite unclear at times (but at least that has to do with zooming in on an image rather than the whole thing being manipulated to look poor quality).
Unfortunately, most of this doesn’t add up. The film is well made, but lacks a bit of focus on what it really wants to get at. It does a reasonable job exploring the grief the family is going through, but there’s a lot of tangents that open more questions than they answer. In fact, the titular Lake Mungo doesn’t even show up until pretty late in the movie, and while we do get a couple of interesting developments there, it still feels anticlimactic. The movie never really coalesces beyond the grief plot, despite trying for some supernatural angles (that can get mildly creepy at times, but are almost always undercut by some other development, with the notable exception of the ending which attempts something kinda weird). On the other hand, I suspect that this will stick with me more than originally thought. Only time will tell on that front though, for now I’ll just stick with this is a decent exploration of grief with some neat supernatural speculation. **1/2
- The Blair Witch Project (trailer)
- How the Blair Witch Project Should Have Ended (short)
- Troll Hunter (trailer)
- WNUF Halloween Special – Imagine discovering a long lost video tape of one night’s local TV station’s Halloween broadcast, complete with a full news program (with the anchors in costume and everything), commercials, and a “special” where a film crew enters the infamous Webber house, the site of a gruesome local legend. This is a fascinating format for a movie and a novel approach to the sub-genre. It captures the 80s-style local broadcast shockingly well. I doubt it’d really convince anyone it was real (too much of a focus on the local environs and businesses with no mention of anything else), but on the other hand, they did an astonishing job imitating the period and its tropes and excesses.
A certain type of viewer will definitely appreciate this nostalgic tone; the types that go hunting for cheesy old commercials on YouTube will also get a kick out of it. Some of the news segments are great (the one with the dentist is pitch perfect), the commercials are dead on, and the trumped-up exploration of a supposed haunted house is a good idea. Unlike the previous two films, this one takes a more comedic tone. Local television personality Frank Stewart is fantastic and mostly hilarious, all while playing it straight. The husband and wife paranormal team and priest are a little less successful, but Stewart keeps this all on track, even as unexpected things start happening. There are, perhaps, a few too many commercial breaks, the video quality ain’t great (still better than The Poughkeepsie Tapes though), and the finale goes a bit off the rails, but everything fits together in the end. This is a unique, nostalgic take on the Found Footage genre and worth checking out. **1/2
Maybe I was being too hard on these movies, but I had a lot of fun with this weekend. These weren’t perfect, but they were certainly interesting… Up next is another book/film adaptation combo on Wednesday, followed by, hmmm, I don’t have a theme for next weekend yet (and frankly, I haven’t done a “no discernible theme” week in a while…)