Up to Snuff: Why ‘Found Footage’ is Good for Horror
There’s an undeniable stigma that accompanies the term “found footage.” After effectively phasing out the reign of “torture porn,” these first person frighteners redefined the face of studio horror, thanks to consistently low budgets and easy-to-market visuals. Yet, as with any in-vogue subgenre, the sheer amount of found footage films has left many horror fans jaded, a sentiment only increased by the questionable quality of several offerings.
Within the waves of criticism focused on deriding found footage however, horror fans overlook the significant amount of good that’s come by way of the subgenre/medium. In fact, one might wager that the “found footage” subgenre, for better or for worse, has given second winds to horror, both conceptually and in terms of talent.
Since its boom, found footage has reinvigorated tired or predictable genre concepts, allowing the restraints of the genre to challenge filmmakers and change the audience’s perspective on the subject matter. For example, the kaiju subgenre was one that had become limited to anime and camp parody before 2007’s CLOVERFIELD skyrocketed the concept back into the zeitgeist. The same can be said about Daniel Stamm’s THE LAST EXORCISM, which utilized documentary techniques and the incredibly flexible Ashley Bell to show audiences a cinematic exorcism like none before it. And both the slasher and vampire film were turned on their head thanks to AFFLICTED and the first half of BEHIND THE MASK.
“I think the original way we pictured [AFFLICTED] was as a ‘vampire documentary,’” says AFFLICTED co-director Clif Prowse. “The genesis of the idea came from vampire movies being stylized in a sexy or romantic way, and we wanted to do a faux-documentary trying to reinterpret the creature and its mythology as to how it would look in real life. We wanted to show what it would do to you if you had to consume human blood, whether it be psychologically or emotionally.”
It’s that same creativity which also has attracted experienced filmmakers to found footage, allowing old dogs to learn new tricks in the process. Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson approached the format for his second ever horror film, THE BAY, acknowledging the technological freedom that found footage would give him. Furthermore, Bobcat Goldthwait uses the aesthetic for his first transition from dark comedy to horror to great effect in his buzzworthy Bigfoot film WILLOW CREEK. Even established newcomers such as Ti West, Adam Wingard and Gareth Evans made truly creepy exercises within the confines of found footage.
The inverse can be said for brand new filmmakers who debut in the genre, as the limitations of storytelling and perspective offer a challenge and test each director’s resourcefulness. When Eduardo Sanchez made his debut with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the novelty of the shooting style set up expectations that quickly withered into one of the most intense minimalist climaxes to date. Both GRAVE ENCOUNTERS and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY explored the talents of young filmmakers who could expertly use visual trickery to scare the hell out of carefully attentive audiences. And Christopher Denham’s HOME MOVIE used found footage to pace the film’s narrative structure in a way conducive to both shock and suspense, therefore altering all preconceptions from the well-mined “demonic children” subgenre.
“There’s a unique challenge when you use [found footage] to tell a feature length story, because it’s easy for people to be fatigued by the idea of just living in one character’s perspective,” says Tyler Gillett of Radio Silence (V/H/S, DEVIL’S DUE). “It’s hard for the story to grow if you’re just living in one character’s perspective. One of the things we wanted to bring to DEVIL’S DUE was a sense of the camera and style evolving as the character evolves. There are moments in the movie where the point-of-view changes fairly dramatically, and it visually represents a change of movement in the structure of the movie. It’s a really fun and interesting challenge to keep the style fresh as the story progresses.”
To some horror fans, the evolution of found footage has been particularly strange because of how normative it’s become over the last five years and how different it is from earlier iterations. Prior to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST had defined the “found footage” aesthetic as faux documentary footage that allowed for extremely realistic depictions of depraved violence. Twelve years later, MAN BITES DOG introduced dark humor and more biting social commentary into found footage, chronicling a personable serial killer to hilarious and horrifying results. And even before PARANORMAL ACTIVITY brought found footage back into the mainstream, Fred Vogel had forever scarred the gorehound scene with the undeniably brutal AUGUST UNDERGROUND series by using found footage as a weapon of disgusting realism.
It’s exactly that kind of grim extremity that perhaps opened viewers to the return of found footage in the first place, as casual horror audiences had become alienated by the so-called “torture porn” of the ‘00s. As a result, these audiences began seeking horror that was imaginative and fun once again. Around the same time PARANORMAL ACTIVITY began to pick up steam on the festival circuit, [REC] added fun to the dreary outbreak genre, placing the audience into the eyes of those up against mindless ravagers. [REC] also paved the way for other fun, foreign found footage horrors, including the exceptionally witty TROLLHUNTER and the practical SFX bonanza FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY.
Even the most vocal critic of found footage should recognize it for producing original output, as opposed to the remake and sequel-driven studio system. APOLLO 18, despite weak characterizations and lapses in logic, melded found footage aesthetics and the cameras aboard space shuttles to present its own unique vision of horror. THE DEVIL INSIDE used mechanisms from both possession and body horror, but still attempted to provide an original story about closure in the face of supernatural horror. Even THE CHERNOBYL DIARIES made horror from a real life hot button issue rather than conceptually lift from classic monster films of its ilk.
As of this writing, the light on found footage is beginning to fade, with many of the subgenre offerings becoming limited to franchise or direct-to-VOD films. Yet as with the slasher film before it, history repeats itself far too often in the film business, and one can assume we haven’t seen the last of it. And if found footage comes back with a vengeance in the future, you may want to consider approaching it with curiosity rather than condemnation, as it just may bring inspiration to a genre that desperately needs it once more.