Found Footage Horror Films
– Morgan Kraljevich
Let’s run through a few found footage horror movies released as of late; there’s the Paranormal Activity franchise, the V/H/S and REC series; there are films about hauntings, and exorcisms, and aliens, and even Big Foot because big-budget movies simply don’t have the space necessary for the expansive imaginations of handycam producers, I guess. History began with The Blair Witch Project really, where the revolutionary lack-of-monster and abundance-of-boogers won over audiences and sparked a trend.
“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. – Dr. Carl Sagan
Image from Buy Costumes
Historically speaking (actual history, no up-nose shots included), the idea of “found” stories has been around since the epistolary novels in literature; the classics that unfolded from the perspective of recovered diary entries, or relayed from an omniscient third-person’s narrative retellings.
If it worked for Dracula, why not Cannibal Holocaust?
“Today people want sensationalism; the more you rape their senses the happier they are.”
Image from The Movie Network
In film, it’s a style that dates back to the 1980s with, er, Cannibal Holocaust, but it wasn’t recognized until the late 1990s with The Blair Witch Project, and even then didn’t quite gain its viral popularity until the late 2000s.
What might have started off as a clever way to circumvent the general full coin purses required for movie production, has evolved into a full outbreak of films made to look informal and personal, rather than the blockbuster norm. In fact, even films with Hollywood-sized pocketbooks and high-name production companies are utilizing the style (Project Almanac had a budget of 12 million, for instance), which indicates that there’s more going on that simply tight budgets.
Screen Rant recently interviewed John Swetnam, the screen writer for Evidence and Category 6, about the phenomenon, and his answer was that people like “to experience those scares in a more visceral and direct way.”
If you explore the psychology of association, you see that according to our memories: concepts, words, and ideas are interlinked, and things that come across as familiar are believed to be somehow closer to home – regardless of whether we’ve ever actually experienced them. So the relation of ourselves to the style – that certain familiarity that comes from the raw and shaky footage (the same kid on our own home movies) – communicates a sense of relationship to the films, and a distinct appreciation.
There’s something about that direct association that draws us in. It’s the need to fit in that garners the appreciation of found footage horror film, meaning that they speak to us on an inherently human level. The films seem personal – like we as the viewer are in the action – since the perspective is so close to that of our own. It makes stories more believable because the context is believable – the cameras are cheap, hell we could own one! – therefore it could be us in those situations, capturing the images.
Let’s just hope for the sake of our safety and sanity that we never are. Unless you’re into that. In that case please just remember to release the footage.
With the handycam film numbers approaching the upward double digits, the success of the genre isn’t a question. What is curious to contemplate, though, is the style’s longevity. For instance, when I saw the FIFTH Paranormal Activity movie, I couldn’t help but feel that the approach was a bit worn out.
It doesn’t demand paramount effects, and often circumvents top-dollar CGI with good stories and basic scenarios that don’t call for it in such a caliber. But, much like the popular indie dark comedy films obtaining popularity, the tactic starts to feel tired, and gives a sense of “you’ve seen one you’ve seen ‘em all” – which robs the stories of their deserved creative appreciation.
To be able to sift through the found-footage of paranormal activities or of young adults suddenly obtaining superhuman abilities; to filter through zombies, and monsters, and aliens – oh my! Is taxing, and kills the very unique essence of the industry. The stories are supposed to be mysterious – and extraordinary, considering they’re live accounts of preternatural happenings – so to release them in batches is to remove a level of their enigmatic power.
So what does the genre look like moving forward? Fair warning, there will most certainly be some more Paranormal Activity (yes, there’s going to be another one).
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…
Image from YouTube
Whether or not the style will hold its popularity is debatable, but the fact that there are still a number of titles slated to release in 2015 alone suggests that it’s here to stay – for now at least. There’s Area 51 coming out later in the year (aliens again, and the director of Paranormal Activity – does he even have another type?), might as well mention Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (as if I haven’t complained enough), The X-Species and The Vatican Tapes were a few more, and I didn’t even make it through the entire list of upcoming horror films!
So the style is hot, obviously. And if it sticks around it’s ok – at least by me. If done right, it’s a technique that draws the viewer beyond the screen and into the story. It builds tension naturally, rather than having to create its own. It feels casual enough to let our guard down around, just enough to be set up for the perfect scare and surprise – the ones that really last.
Handycam filming opens up a world of media to a larger crowd of creators, setting up an environment in which visions of all types can find a muse, can harness a platform. Sure it garners in some questionable titles (I’m sure you have a few that fit this category), but there are also some extremely unique movies that might not have held the same feel if they had used an over-produced technique.
One of my personal favorite movies (who am I kidding, my absolute favorite) is As Above, So Below; a very poorly received horror film about history, exploration, freaking alchemy, and recognized topics like Nicolas Flamel and the Philosopher’s Stone and how could you not like this movie??! Sorry, my inner Harry Potter nerd is showing. The point is, the movie wouldn’t have been the same without its grittiness, and the fact that a handheld camera in the catacombs is believable; how else could someone possibly navigate such confined quarters while also documenting this groundbreaking discovery of immortality! Whatever, that movie is awesome.
“The only way out is down.”
Image from Harry Potter Wikia
Call it belongingness (it’s a word, Google it if you don’t believe me), call it some masochistic desire to be even closer to the action during a horror film; whatever you call it, there’s an obvious reason why handycam, found footage films enjoy such popularity. We’re Pavlov’s dogs now, it seems. We see found footage and automatically associate it with the films we’ve enjoyed in the past. They’re umbrella-ed in our systematic minds, categorized as familiar, as believable; as something worth watching because dangit The Blair Witch Project was so unique the rest of them must be great, too!