The found footage sub-genre is undoubtedly a misnomer as audiences will know that any footage found that depicts a horrendous series of events won’t be cut together to form a narrative and released into multiplexes, despite what any opening title cards might suggest. But when done right with an innovative marketing campaign as proven by The Blair Witch Project its storytelling tool can greatly enhance the fear in the film.
The Blair Witch Project is without question the film that really ignited the found footage sub-genre but it certainly wasn’t the first to utilise this format. Cannibal Holocaust, a film notable for its association with the video nasties era, was made in 1980 using the premise of found footage. Though innovative for its time, the film was swept up in the furore of Mary Whitehouse so never had chance to be successful enough to inspire the same style of filmmaking.
A few found footage films appeared during the 80’s and early 90’s but none really impressed or stood out to audiences as particularly engaging. It wasn’t until two unknown filmmakers cast three unknown actors in a found footage film about three friends in search of a local legend did this genre stake its feet firmly in the annals of horror. The Blair Witch Project divides people with its storytelling but for me it’s an ingenious piece of filmmaking. The Blair Witch had the added advantage of reaching a generation still finding its feet with the internet, so its clever marketing campaign was successful in sending audiences into the multiplex with a pre-determined idea of what it was they were watching. Three student filmmakers went missing in the woods of Burkitsville, Maryland in search of the eponymous Blair Witch. Their film footage was found, but they were not.
Their successful advertising campaign came complete with a website dedicated to finding the three filmmakers. Though by no means a new technique, this under-the-radar film and its story sent people – including myself – trawling the then Wikipedia-less web in search of the legend of the Blair Witch. In having the lines between fact and fiction blurred, I was tense and on the edge of my seat watching that film. Its a truly incredible piece of filmmaking that utilises the first person narrative perfectly – it explains the reason they are filming and why they continue to film despite what is happening to them; it leads to personal confessionals from the characters as they go deeper into the woods and best of all it maintains a single shot in key scenes where any cut would diffuse the tension the filmmakers are trying to create.
Despite The Blair With Project’s phenomenal critical and financial success, this storytelling platform did not take off as expected. As with any sub-genre that hints at success, it is usually met with a slew of copycats and half-arsed attempts but with the found footage genre, that never happened. It wasn’t until 2007 that the genre became more prominent and filmmakers started to use this technique to tell their stories. There were actually seven films released in 2007 under this genre before the two most popular hit the multiplexes. In October 2007, a first time filmmaker who shot his film entirely in his own house (and actually used the found footage genre as it was cheaper to tell his story) released a film called Paranormal Activity. The film received distribution after catching the attention of Steven Spielberg who had an influence over the alternative ending seen in cinemas, and the film had the Blair Witch effect of smashing the percentage barrier as it grossed $193m on a $15k budget. One month later, a Spanish zombie horror film called REC showed the advantage of shooting with a handheld found-footage style as this claustrophobic roller coaster also exceeded its budget. Since then there have been a slew of found footage style films and not just in the horror genre: sci-fi (Cloverfield), superhero (Chronicle), police procedural (End of Watch), comedy (Project X) and disaster (Into the Storm) have also utilised the unique aspect of filming through the eyes of a character as opposed to pointing the camera at them.
Found footage horror films have a unique way of telling a story, and as Devin Faraci states in his article about the rules for found footage films, the main thing filmmakers need to do is establish a reason to film. With any standard horror movie that is told in the third person, there’s no justification for telling the story whereas with found footage the filmmaker has to give a reason for the characters filming their everyday life. This has enabled filmmakers to expand on this and create unique ways of capturing this footage. V/H/S is a perfect example of this as the short films that make up the anthology feature films shot through spy glasses, web cam interactions and nanny cam embedded in a bear costume. The style is found footage but this does not mean that it has to be someone filming with their DV camera as often films evolve to such an extent that its hard to believe someone would carry on filming.
For me, found footage is one of the most genuinely scary types of horror film there is – when done right of course. The gore still doesn’t have an effect on me as I don’t find that kind of thing scary. But think of it this way: when a standard horror film shows a character walking through a dark corridor in search of an unusual sound, the only scares they can generate are quick jump cuts (usually involving a cat jumping out of nowhere). The anticipation isn’t as high as we can see this character in front of us so its almost like they are creating a barrier between us and the evil lurking in the shadows. Yet with the first person view, we are seeing exactly what the character sees: there are no cuts, no distance between us and the unknown. The nail biting, pillow hiding tension that can manifest from these kind of shots is what horror is all about. All of the best scares in found footage films come from the anticipation of what will happen next, as the shot – particularly in Paranormal Activity with its static bedroom shots – is unmoving, its focus trained in one place. We know there is going to be no cut without something happening first, and its these scares that make this sub-genre work when it comes to horror.
An added advantage of using this format to tell the story is that there’s a lot more personal stuff you can justify showing – films like Devil’s Due about a lady pregnant with something not quite of this world – allow the audience a glimpse into the characters interactions that would feel out of place in a standard movie. Characters react in a different way when they know they’re being filmed, but when they put the camera down to talk and its still rolling, we see a side to them that is more human and more relatable.
Since the phenomenal success of Paranormal Activity – which has quickly evolved into a franchise with five entries so far, another on the way and a spin-off in Japan – the found footage sub-genre has become a leading format for telling a story. There have been over 70 films released across all genres utilising this format with plenty more on the way. Filmmakers are now turning to this format almost as much as 3D was capitalised on after the success of Avatar. But are audiences boring of this storytelling trope? Well the box office is the main indicator of success for studios versus the critical acclaim, and the box office would appear to be saying that audiences want more. Though it might be fair to say that viewers are becoming ‘desensitised’ to the format by anticipating the jumps and being conscious of the fact that the footage is not ‘real’, the films being released today endeavour to adapt this format with new ways of establishing a reason to film. We are the camera phone and Youtube generation so as long as there is an obsession to document our everyday lives through a lens and share it with the world, there will always be a storytelling format that exploits our technology as a way of updating horror and making it accessible for upcoming audiences.
TOMORROW: Horror Masterpiece: Halloween