In response to Angus’ recent slating of the found footage fad, I feel inclined to leap to this much-maligned sub-genres’ defense. Now I know this trend has created many haters and I’m not going to pretend that the format isn’t getting tired. But to say that this is the fault of found footage itself is what I take issue with.
Paranormal Activity is gearing up for a third sequel as we speak but it is not the fact that this is another found footage horror that bothers me most. It’s that the filmmakers only had enough of a story to just barely fill one film, let alone four, that is the cause of my dismay. The second film is a re-tread. Found-footage or not, it would be boring and pointless. Much the same is true of Paranormal Activity 3. Same story, different characters, a few new gimmicks (camera on revolving fan) but nothing new or interesting!
However this has been a problem and constant criticism of many other horror franchises long before the found footage technique reared its ugly, shaky camera lens. Look at the Saw franchise. By the third entry, it had completely lost any originality and was destined to repeat itself endlessly. Or at least until someone decapitated the franchise with some kind of sick torture device. Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers are all guilty too. At least Jason went to space for his tenth machete adventure and Freddy leapt from the script and the screen for his New Nightmare. But essentially they repeated the same film umpteen times. Isn’t it pointless sequels we should focus our venom at?
Ok so there are some awful found footage horror films out there. I won’t deny that. The Devil Inside was poor and Apollo 18 tried the usual ‘take it to space’ routine of a dying franchise. But look back to the classics of the genre; The Blair Witch Project, or even further back to the grisly and flawed but absolutely unforgettable forebear Cannibal Holocaust, a film so sick it could even turn this horror fan’s stomach. These films started it all with their promise of authenticity. The marketing had people confused by the blurring of fact and fiction and in an age of reality TV, CCTV and terrorists turning cities into the amateur camcorder captured spectacle of Hollywood disaster films, what could possibly be scarier?
Many found-footage horror films offer nothing new but many others do. For the sake of this argument I will ignore the countless Blair Witch clones that litter the sub-genre. But look at the ones that have offered something fresh with the gimmick. Cloverfield took the monster movie to new levels of greatness. Forget Godzilla, this attack on New York was instantly more intriguing and immediate with its amateur-cam aesthetic and street- level protagonists. Like so much of the YouTube and TV news footage of 9/11, there was confusion, panic and a palpable sense of fear all amplified by the cinematography.
REC took the zombie film into heightened claustrophobic terror. The reality TV crew that get stuck in a monster infested apartment use their camera as weapon and as their only method of seeing once the lights go out. Many of these movies use night vision and camera lights to make the use of the camera an essential tool in telling the story and even more essential to the character’s continuing survival. The limited point of view of a camera operator’s vision is taking the traditional use of point of view shots and restricted frames in the horror movie to new terrifying extremes. Even Romero, King of the Zombies had a go with Diary of the Dead, throwing in web-cams, MySpace and a range of other contemporary sources of found footage to play with.
Most recently though, found footage has broken free of its horror restraints with Chronicle, the tale of three teen friends who gain superpowers after contact with a strange object. This film introduced the device of having the camera being controlled by telekinesis, allowing for more visually interesting and arguably more traditional cinematography in parts. But it was the epic climax of the film that made the found- footage technique so exciting once more. With camera phones, police car dashboard-cams, CCTV and the footage of numerous other cameras being cobbled together to create the final smack down, it was a fast, ferocious and visually stunning sequence that belied the relatively modest budget.
With Eduardo Sanchez co-director of The Blair Witch Project returning to the genre that made his name with Lovely Molly and Exists, and sequels Paranormal Activity 4, REC 3 and The Last Exorcism 2 on the way as well as Oren Peli’s (director of Paranormal Activity) Area 51, the found footage fad doesn’t look like its going to run out of batteries or tape anytime soon. But are these sequels really the way to keep the found footage trend from getting tiresome or should films like Chronicle and Cloverfield be held up as the way forward?
The growing prominence of amateur-cam footage on the internet, reality TV and the news and the increasing popularity of first-person video games suggest that these found footage films are an irresistible convergence of traditional filmmaking with modern media forms that is likely to remain fashionable with contemporary audiences for a long time to come.
What do you think of the found footage technique? Are you sick and tired of wobbly footage or craving even more handy-cam action?