Week 8: “Why I Love Found Footage Films”
It is my opinion that the sub genre of found footage films has been given a bad name of late due to the numerous mediocre films bombarding both the theater and the VOD and online streaming platforms. I love the found footage film; I always have ever since I saw The Blair Witch Project (1999) in a full capacity theater at a midnight screening. I had seen other films in this genre before this film but this was the very first one I was able to see with such a large audience. The film really had no effect on me because, unfortunately, I was raised on horror films and its pretty damn near impossible for me to find one that will scare or terrify me but this film terrified the audience. People really got into this film. They really believed what was happening to the characters and believed that what they were watching on the big screen was real. The film affected them in a way that few other horror films ever had. Audience members screamed and laughed and even yelled back at the characters on the screen. Here in lies the real effect that a found footage has on its audience – it feels all too real. If the film doesn’t feel real then the illusion of the found footage film is lost and it fails.
Now, one of my favorite films of this genre is Man Bites Dog (1992). This film was unlike anything I had ever seen before. The closest film to this is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Both films are raw and uncompromising and both stay with you long after the credits roll. Another early found footage film is Cannibal Holocaust (1980) which is not only the best example of an early found footage film but also the crowning achievement of the cannibal films. This film is actually an amalgamation of the found footage and traditional film but it comments on the nature of both in such a way that it leaves the audience polarized after what they just watched. Early films in this genre tended to do this but that is not the case anymore.
I should also mention the little film The Last Broadcast (1998) which pre-dates Blair Witch Project but is not nearly as affective. Although both films touch on some of the same themes Blair Witch is the film most affective in grabbing hold of the audience and never letting go. The Last Broadcast is just a pale imitation (even if it was released first).
The early ‘00s saw a huge list of noteworthy films from REC (2007), Diary of the Dead (2007), Paranormal Activity (200), Cloverfield (2008), The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2008), Quarantine (2008) and Welcome to the Jungle (2007), to name a few. Some of the most effective for audiences were presented as raw one-take films – i.e. Cloverfield, REC, and its American remake Quarantine. This was a time when the genre was at its most effective and audiences were standing in lines for the latest found footage film.
Some of the reasons for this is that these films were produced on very small budgets, didn’t rely on name actors and presented old ideas in a new and entertaining way that seemed more real to the audience.
By the ‘10s the genre was relying on a tired formula despite presenting new ideas. After several Paranormal Activity sequels and a glut of knock-offs like Grave Encounters (2011), Paranormal Entity (2009), Paranormal Asylum: The Revenge of Typhoid Mary (2013), 7 Nights of Darkness (2011), Paranormal Incident (2011), The Amityville Haunting (2011), Apartment 143 (2011) and Greystone Park (2012), to name a few, the genre was never the same and couldn’t recover. It still can’t.
If you haven’t noticed there have been a huge glut of the ghost and paranormal found footage film but there are plenty of other films that decided to tackle other monsters like zombies in The Zombie Diaries (2006), Bigfoot in Willow Creek (2013), exorcism and demons in The Last Exorcism (2010) and The Devil Inside (2012), trolls in Troll Hunter (2010), space in Europa Report (2013) and Apollo 18 (2011), the underground in As Above, So Below (2014), Frankenstein (and his monster) in The Frankenstein Theory (2013) and Frankenstein’s Army (2013), cannibals in Chernobyl Diaries (2012), pregnancy in Devil’s Due (2014), giant creatures in The Bay (2012), Egypt and the pyramids in The Pyramid (2014), and even crazy fanatics in The Sacrament (2013).
When a found footage film is successful it touches upon our primal fear by presenting them in a more realistic manner than the traditional film. This is why audiences adore them. These films appeal to audiences that would not normally go see a horror film. Over the last few years we’ve seen the genre delve more into spectacle and by so doing this lose their sense of realism and once that is gone they are no longer an effective film but just another horror film that just looks cheap. Films like The Pyramid and Frankenstein’s Army and Troll Hunter appeal to the horror fan but not to the casual film goer, whereas Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism appealed to a larger audience. If the genre is to survive it needs to return to the state of realism that it relies upon for its effectiveness.
As horror fan, I love Europa Report just as much as I love The Sacrament. The bad CGI took me out of The Pyramid and The Frankenstein Theory was just atrocious on all levels. Devil’s Due was a cheap-man’s Rosemary’s Baby whereas The Bay was a real-life cautionary tale in the vein of the original Japanese Gojira. To some Apollo 18 was about killer moon rocks and Cloverfield gave people motion sickness but I enjoyed both of these films tremendously for each of their own unique way of telling a story.
Maybe one day I’ll put together my list of all-time favorites but until then just know that like most genres, the found footage film is just in a downward position but it can return to the top at any moment and since I’m looking forward to this year’s Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension I hope this happens sooner rather than later.