One major trend in modern horror cinema is the Found Footage sub-genre. Mimicking the style of documentary or home video style film-making, the sub-genre attempts to put the audience into the shoes of the protagonist, or at the very least try to convince us that what is occurring on screen is something that has happened in our own reality. Many horror fans however have begun to tire of this style and the question must be asked, are we done with Found Footage?
While most people credit The Blair Witch Project (1999) with the creation of this sub-genre, generating a box office success from it’s style and being hailed for it’s ingenuity on a low budget ($22,000), it was Cannibal Holocaust (1980) that got there first (actually there were many Found Footage films before Blair Witch, including The Last Broadcast, Forgotten Silver, and Man Bites Dog.) Cannibal Holocaust was infamous in it’s use of the Found Footage style, leading to director Ruggero Deodato being arrested on Obscenity charges, claiming that he was showing a snuff film and that some of the actors had been killed. The charges were dropped when it was found out that the actors were still alive (they had agreed to lay low while the film was out to fool people into thinking it was real). Sadly few films after that have fooled their audience to that same degree. Personally I will still get on occasion people asking me if certain films are real, or try to convince me of the legitimacy of particular events that films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are based on. However the mass-majority fail to believe such tales these days.
The intimate level of perspective offered by Found Footage films are comparable to horror in a different medium. Horror literature (or literature in general) is often written from the point of view of a narrator protagonist. We get right inside the head of the person who is experiencing all the dread, sharing in all the fear and terror. However unlike Found Footage, the narrator leads us with an internal monologue, their stream of consciousness. The closest thing to that we might experience in a Found Footage film is the occasional rambling of the person behind the camera (usually to the effect of “What was that!?”) The internal monologue also fixes one problem that dogs the sub-genre, that question that takes us out of the story, “Why are they still filming?”.
There’s only so long you can standby and film atrocities. While some Found Footage will focus on the voyeuristic nature of the camera, the majority of them use it as a way to get around paying to make the film look professional. The main reason these films are popular among first time directors is because they are cheap. Sticking to this style for the duration of the film however often damages the plot because it becomes unbelievable that we’re still watching the footage. The [REC] franchise is one that managed to make a bold change of style away from Found Footage. While the first two instalments were notably successful Found Footage films, the third [REC] film moved away from the style (In a joke towards the style, it did start off Found Footage until they beat up the cameraman for not helping). Behind The Mask: Rise of Leslie Vernon, is another that also did this with it’s third act, choosing to drop it’s documentary style when the documentary crew decide they’ve got to stop filming and help. Both of these films fail to make us believe that they are documenting real-life cases and proceed to only entertain the audience, yet most Found Footage films fail to make us believe they’re real anyway so is the style so important?
The Found Footage style doesn’t need to go away all together, it just needs to be thought out better. A well thought out and well written horror film will always be better regardless of style. Films like the VHS franchise make up some of the better Found Footage films out there due to the short film anthology format, the stories don’t out-stay their welcome and we never ask why they’re still filming. We could also utilize the point of view sequence more without having to use the device of characters holding cameras. The 2010 film, La Casa Muda (also known as The Silent House, which was remade in 2011) often went into POV mode for parts of the film. La Casa Muda’s simulated “Shot in one take” style often had the camera drifting around, sometimes into a character’s eye-line and then taking over as that character’s point of view. I think more films could take advantage of this in more intense moments.
Found Footage no longer scares us into thinking that it’s real, but they do put us in the vulnerable position of the protagonist’s shoes. If they can just bring a little more of that intimacy that exists in horror literature, they could be onto something truly terrifying. Until there’s something better than maybe a clunky film-noir style narrator over the top of it, I’m not sure how to get there yet.