In a world where easily accessible technology is part of day to day life, a void has opened, pouring out what seems to be a never ending wave of films classed as ‘found footage’. At this point it’s fair to say that we’ve probably all seen one, whether it be on purpose or an accidental late night flick over to the Horror Channel. The films often exude an infinitely recognisable nausea associated with shaky cameras and a majority argument-led narrative, igniting a strong backlash from horror devotees and film lovers everywhere, many suggesting that film cannot be of quality when the cinematography leaves so much to be desired. The difficulties that arise when attempting a found footage feature film are mostly overlooked by critics who have spent years learning that a film is meant to look anything but amateur. Since everybody carries anything up to a 4k camera around inside their smartphones, how do we differentiate between professional and amateur found footage? After years of filtering through the good, the bad and the ridiculous, in an effort to trace a growing sub-genre of horror, what has finally become of the reality tv horror film?
The majority of found footage films follow a ‘based on true events’ home movie-type structure, the ending of which is obvious from the beginning; everyone is missing or dead, otherwise the footage wouldn’t have been abandoned. An occasional film designed to include survivor or narrator interviews, The Fourth Kind (2009) and The Last Broadcast (1998), enclose the ‘found footage’ within a descriptive analysis of the events, which often attributes a more believable narrative to the film as a whole.
Its origins trace back to storytelling characters in first person narrative literature, within books such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, narrated by Jonathan Harker telling his tale through a journal. In 1947 Dark Passage was one of the first films to be shot from the point of view of the protagonist, so we would not see his post-surgery face. It was used on multiple occasions afterwards including a segment within Tales from the Crypt (1972) entitled Reflection of Death where the protagonist is involved in a car accident. The segment uses the POV camera angle to delay the shock of his facial disfigurements until the last scene.
Michael Powell’s groundbreaking film Peeping Tom, in 1960, sparked the idea that a documenting protagonist is relatable to the audience, attracting the unpopular notion of implicit voyeurism. This pattern was later re-created in the 1992 Belgian black comedy Man Bites Dog, where a camera crew following a murderer, begin to assist him. Putting the audience in the driving seat is an essential part for a horror story, creating an unavoidable comparison for the reader or viewer. Though first person narrative often tells an unreliable tale, warped by the altered memories, mental states and lies told by the narrator, the voyeurism linking the audience is strong enough to act as a moral compass, leaving you asking yourself what’s right and wrong. It is, however, imperative that the protagonist is likable, which is something many found footage films are yet to realise with The Coffin Footage (2014) and Amber Alert (2015) acting as examples of films that heavily include argumentative, annoying and whiny protagonists, the traits of whom are difficult to empathise with. The reliability is the distinguishing factor from slasher movies, which are designed to revolve around brat teens who are just asking to be murdered one by one, which is something the audience actually wants to happen.
Cannibal Holocaust is cited as the first found footage film and it took the world by storm upon its release in 1980. Fear struck a mass of people who truly believed the protagonists of this groundbreaking horror had been slaughtered by the cannibal tribesmen of the Amazon jungle, where the film had taken place. The director, Ruggero Deodato, was accused of making a snuff film due to its realism, but later cleared. Although Cannibal Holocaust is told as a true story and follows a documentary crew into the Amazon jungle, The Blair Witch Project (1999) birthed found footage into mainstream consciousness, almost twenty years after Deodato’s cannibal nightmare and a year following The Last Broadcast. The Blair Witch Project was a hugely successful film about three documentarians going into the woods in search for the Blair Witch, following the town’s folklore tale. The amazing realism brought to the film by the simple mockumentary videotaping technique, was relatively new to the horror genre at this point and it kicked off a brand new style for horror over the coming years. The Blair Witch Project is still in the public consciousness as Adam Wingard is bringing a surprise sequel entitled, Blair Witch (was The Woods) to our screens this year, almost twenty years after the original.
The found footage sub-genre becomes complex during production, the films are often faced with a singular camera angle and no easy way to cut out a problem. A requirement for long takes and meticulously planned camera operations, implemented without fault, is a filming difficulty within any genre. Found footage film will often play out in first person or as a documentary news report, allowing for multiple cameras and any avoidance of the problems associated with creating this sub-genre. There is a strong opinion that the shaky cinematography is not worthy to be considered good filmmaking, however, there is a specific skill set necessary to be able to shoot long takes without cutting away to a second camera, and therefore the messy style of these films is only the surface as to why they are very different to other genres and styles of filmmaking.
With the internet acting as a gateway for anyone and everyone to present their talents to the world, it has become more difficult than ever to distinguish between amateur found footage film and professional. Found footage became popular at the turn of the century partially due to the rise in easily accessible commercial camera equipment combined with the internet, allowing low budget movies to have a trendy output. In 2007 Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity changed the film industry forever when the low budget film attracted the attention of Hollywood, and went on to become a major hit at the box office, spawning as many as six sequels. Paranormal Activity relies on the fear of the unknown, presenting a poltergeist that moves household objects and the occupants, without taking any kind of physical form itself. The film was a major success due to its intense scenes of extended suspense where the CCTV cameras set up to capture a ghost, play out for minutes at a time, expecting something horrific to occur. It doesn’t and the films are suddenly accessible to people who are easily scared, as nothing actually happens.
There is something terrifying about the idea that a paranormal entity could be sitting right next to you but you can’t see it. This has been played upon many times in the past with films that capture the entity on camera only. Even children are being exposed to this idea from a young age with one of the most popular Goosebumps books/episodes called Say Cheese and Die!, featuring a very young Ryan Gosling with a camera that captures your spirit leading to inevitable death. The Japanese film Shutter in 2004 (then remade in 2008) covered a similar tale, showing a photographer capturing a dead spirit on film, gifting it a door back into reality. Found footage films often incorporate the characters having to look back at their own footage to be able to see the paranormal entity they were searching for. Grave Encounters was well received in 2011, with a sequel the following year. The film depicts a tv documentary ghost hunting crew as they spend the night in an abandoned mental hospital. Many films of this nature constitute mostly screaming and not much monster, but Grave Encounters has so many scares it’s enough to shatter anyone’s nerves.
The home of found footage is ordinarily the horror genre, squaring them face to face with all types of human fears. Reality TV dominates our home screens, invading us with drama masquerading as reality, convincing us that this style of filming is real life. The lines between real and fantasy are ever more blurred with the internet allowing snuff videos, live executions and spooky chain mail videos to be available to the public. Found footage films are directed towards an audience who has the capacity to believe a film claiming to be based on true events.
Typical monster movies have been re-invented somewhat by the influx of found footage. Cloverfield was a box office success in 2008, springing found footage films even more into the mainstream and introducing us to a more terrifying glimpse of the apocalypse, a year after Paranormal Activity infiltrated Hollywood. Films of this sub-genre have often tackled monsters in which we are already familiar with. Frankenstein’s Army (2013), The Troll Hunter (2010) and Bobcat Gothwait’s Willow Creek (2013) are examples of found footage working extremely well by giving the protagonist a reason for documenting a discovery into fantasy and the stuff of legend. The Troll Hunter in particular presents stunning graphics with the final reveal of the somewhat laughable gigantic trolls, which apparently aren’t known about by the population. The time had come where some hugely popular films were appearing under the previously disregarded banner, as REC hit our screens in 2008 and has since spawned two sequels. The Spanish found footage takes the form of a news item documentary about the fire service as they come across strange happenings inside a tower block of flats. As the film progresses it becomes apparent that a strange quarantine is suddenly incorporated into a new style of zombie film. REC, among others, helped found footage to merge with different genres, producing some great high end films including, End of Watch and Chronicle in 2012, helping to bring the found footage sub-genre further into public consciousness.
The days of found footage in Hollywood were soon dwindling as the following year took the sub-genre down a different path, towards night dwellers and far from a wide cinema release. Afflicted (2013) and The Black Water Vampire (2014) are two examples of the found footage film taking on the eternal monster, the vampire. Vampire films are wholly worn thin, with many attempting to change the typical portrayal of a vampire and ending up with little more than a Dracula reboot; dare the word Twilight be mentioned. Afflicted, however, is a refreshing take on the drawn out character flaws of the traditional vampire. The film follows two friends on a round the world trip when one of them is bitten and turned into a creature of the night. As his new powers are being documented and uploaded to a video blog online, the pair get into increasingly more trouble until everything in their world turns upside down. The Black Water Vampire takes on a more traditional found footage approach, showing a couples’ camping weekend in the woods as it is destroyed by the title creature. This straight to dvd film was extremely effective with its scares and didn’t rely solely on suspense.
The Houses October Built (2014) is an example of a found footage film at its best. It has all the features of a road trip going wrong, yet differs when it becomes apparent that the characters are specifically going in search for the scariest Halloween attraction in America. Rather than something horrific happening to them, they go in search for it. This underrated film doesn’t fail to deliver on all angles, succeeding at making a terrifying subject entirely more frightening.
Frankenstein’s Army was created by Richard Raaphorst, a graphic artist from the Netherlands and is proof that found footage is not limited to contemporary settings. The film is set in World War II and follows a group of Russian soldiers as they stumble upon Dr Frankenstein’s Warbot factory. The film is documented by a careful man with what we are led to believe to be a Soviet super camera, explaining the quality footage for the 1940s and his careful placement of the camera when danger approaches. Raaphorst’s artistic talent is proven in with the terrifying creatures built especially for the film, avoiding the use of too much CGI and heightening the sense of realism within the plot.
Unfortunately found footage films fall down in much the same way each time. Aside from Frankenstein’s Army, usually when something scary happens to the cameraman, they drop the camera, which has to conveniently balance in the direction of the action occurring around it. This is sadly entirely necessary, as it is unlikely that the cameraman would be able to fight off the incoming threat, while also maintaining the camera angle towards the action. Not only that, but if the camera stays in situ on the operator, the action would be too close up to be comprehensible. Another found footage trope is the often over-utilised white noise glitch used to cover edits, despite it being something not regularly seen during camera recording. The avoidance of these common found footage mistakes would be possible with a larger budget to lengthen takes, otherwise these particular tropes are what set apart the professional from the amateur.
Sometimes particular subjects are only worthwhile tackling through a certain type of film and at a specific time. Paedophiles constitute a substantial amount of the fear within today’s society, it was only a matter of time before it became the subject of horror movies. Megan is Missing (2011) is a found footage horror with the first half of the film following a girl’s video diary about her friend going missing. The latter half of the film is from the kidnapper’s point of view as he steals the girl’s camera when he kidnaps her as well. There is a deep dark psychological tone to the film, replacing an often slightly more comical slapstick that appears within many a found footage. Amber Alert (2012) is another example of shocking subject matter used in an attempt to create something scary, made more real by the found footage element, mimicking a documentary by appearing as an amateur one.
Currently films such as Unfriended (2014) and The Den (2013) show found footage films moving towards an internet based direction, showing a more modernised threat to society. Webcam based films have taken the nature of found footage from wobbly cameras to even worse pixelated images that drop out with their internet connection every minute. The Paranormal Activity franchise even dipped a toe in, with the fourth film consisting of a vast amount of webcam activity. This type of found footage is far more distressing due to the idea that your computer could be taken over by another entity, worse than a hacker – a hacker from beyond the grave. When a computer is your lifeline, the terrifying idea that it could be hijacked and your home invaded through the internet is uncomfortable, especially as the films will often be presented from the point of view of the webcam, doing its best to invade your personal environment and asking the audience to question their own webcam safety. However, even this is already becoming redundant, as webcam use is dropping in favour of further new technologies.
The future of found footage is entirely dependent on technological advancement and original ideas, as a huge number of different horror subjects have already been tackled by this sub-genre. From vampires, werewolves (Wer – 2013) and cannibals all the way to science experiments (The Dyatlov Pass Incident – 2013), Japanese ghosts (Apartment 143 aka Emergo – 2011) and even the slenderman urban legend (Slender – 2016), a sub-genre boomed into the mainstream in 1999 and sped through every single monster imaginable in less than 20 years, with moderate success and occasional vain. April brought us the release of Hardcore Henry, a POV video-game film similar to that of found footage, while August brought us Found Footage 3D where the monster escapes into a filmmaker’s backstage footage, so what’s to come now? Only time and technology will tell, but sadly it seems there is little life left in a once potentially revolutionary sub-genre.
Words: Sarah Appleton