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Found footage films – have we seen enough?

cloverfieldVoyeurism is an intrinsic part of the human condition – you only have to witness what happens on a motorway when an accident has occurred on the other side of the central reservation to see that. Perhaps there is a perverse sense of schadenfreude within us all, the ability to take pleasure in the suffering of others albeit subconsciously most of the time. The recent boom in reality television is testament to this, how else can you explain the popularity of shows such as Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity?

A history of watching others suffer

Even before this recent trend, most forms of entertainment have involved us watching on from our sofas as our societal peers sit in front of cameras on game shows, chat shows and lowbrow ‘talk’ shows such as Jerry Springer and their ilk. We can trace our interest and morbid fascination with this as far back as World War 2 and The Diary of Anne Frank. The fact is, we revel in the abject misery of others – and not always so secretly. So obviously, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood realised what a simple plot device it was missing out on.

However, the first real found footage film ever released was way ahead of its time and it didn’t come from America. Instead, it came from Italy and the mind of Ruggero Deodato. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was released to a wave of controversy, even before the video nasty debate that would follow later that decade, and rightly so. The movie depicted a film crew travelling into the Amazon to capture indigenous tribes on camera, only they never return. When a rescue party is sent, they discover the lost cans of celluloid and it is only when viewing it back that the shocking truth of what has happened becomes clear. The director was actually arrested and charged with making a real snuff movie, the authorities misunderstanding the first found footage film and believing that some of the actors had actually been murdered on camera. Obviously, Deodato was cleared when the very much still alive cast and crew came forward, but the film still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Even coming at the end of a decade that taste sometimes forgot, Cannibal Holocaust is a torturous experience. There were seven animals killed on set, six of which can be seen on screen, which is deplorable, regardless of if it is in the name of art. The only positives that can be realistically taken from this production are the fact that it was so far ahead of its time and one particular effect that is so cleverly done that it is one of the reasons that Deodato was cited for murder. An actress appears to be impaled on a pole, but the shot was achieved by her sitting on a bicycle seat and holding the top of the spike in her mouth.

The idea didn’t catch on, maybe because of the backlash suffered by this European production, and it would be nearly twenty years before mainstream cinema would pick up on found footage as a viable sub-genre. In between this, there were a handful of films made using this new and un-mined technique, the most notable of which was the 1992 release of Man Bites Dog. Of course, the movie that started the landslide of found footage films we have been presented with over the last decade or so was released in the last year of the last millennium.

The Blair Witch Project paved the way for a new breed of horror

Just as the internet was really starting to catch on globally, a little independent horror film with next to no budget called The Blair Witch Project was unleashed in 1999. Preceded by a viral and web based marketing campaign that was so original and clever it got a high percentage of people who looked into it asking if it was all real, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez gave us a film in which not a lot actually happens, but still kept viewers glued to their seats and set the cash registers into meltdown. Compared to the budget for the production, which dependent on where you get your information from can range from $20,000 to $750,000, the gross for the film was an astronomical $248,639,099.

That is an almost unheard of budget to profit ratio and it was impossible for the studios to not sit up and take notice. All film studios are businesses of course and so any potential for a return ratio similar to that is gold, especially for the shareholders. So, the deluge began, although it has really picked up since 2007, with nearly seventy films released utilising the idea of found footage as their main plot point. We can’t go into every one of course, but we can give you a quick potted history.

George A Romero used the idea in Diary of the Dead (2007), which sadly didn’t have any zombies using a camcorder; horror used the device spectacularly well with both [REC] and Paranormal Activity, which were also made in 2007, from Spain and a US independent respectively; there were rip-offs – Paranormal Entity, Abnormal Activity anyone? – and numerous attempts to repeat the success of the 1999 trend setter. However, apart from a few – [REC], Paranormal Activity and their sequels and one-offs like The Troll Hunter and the recent super powered Chronicle – found footage films have belied their own shortcomings on too many occasions. Almost zero budgets and scripts, and storylines behind them have created a monster that refuses to die. With the internet and sites like YouTube in particular, nearly everybody can try to be the next Myrick, Sanchez, Peli, Balaguero or Plaza – and unfortunately they do.

The only problem is that the audience have been saturated with weak ideas and even weaker production values for far too long already. Someone running with a camera in the dark with night-vision on is not creating tension – it’s creating nausea! As with nearly everything horror related, it is down to budget and the easiest way to create a horror film is to cobble some dialogue together and film some friends running around a wood or abandoned house, adding noises and hinting at scares off screen.

Along with the aforementioned Chronicle, there have been a couple of attempts to use found footage in other genres, Cloverfield being one and the frankly gripping Megan Is Missing being another, but for the most part, it appears to be a sub-genre that is an eternal bedfellow of the horror film. All we can ask is that filmmakers just stop and look at other ways of maximising your budget.

According to the Academy, we hear that silent movies are en vogue again…


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  1. I love found footage films, always eager to see the next one out. I think it’s the lack of special effects, dodgy music & vast manipulated sets, the viewer seems ‘closer’ to the tale being revealed.
    While there are some truly terrible ones out there, I will always enjoy the good ones. REC (the original version) was great, I enjoyed Blair Witch when it came out…the sequels seem to let them down a little though. They’re better as stand-alone pieces.

    Great piece 🙂

    • John F on June 20, 2012 at 8:55 pm
    • Reply

    I don’t think we’ve seen enough found footage films, but we have seen enough crap ones! I still think it’s a valid and effective way of telling a story, and can work really well, as Troll Hunter showed.

    Chronicle is an interesting example, mind you. All through it I kept thinking “this would work far better without the found-footage conceit.”

  2. I think there’s more to be done with the genre but unfortunately it needs someone to be clever. I liked how CLOVERFIELD made use (albeit minimal) of that fact that you may well be taping over something else. A lot of fun could be had with a fractured narrative made up of gaps in ‘current time’ being filled in by ‘past time’. Or even have the image beneath start to bleed through into the currently recorded image – a truly ‘haunted film’!

  3. When they’re good, they’re great, but as has been noted above, there can be some real shockers (and not in a good way). One thing that bugs me, though, is when filming continues when, really, it wouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed ‘Cloverfield’ a great deal, but I couldn’t help thinking he’d have dropped that camera a long time ago – especially as he seemed so reluctant to film the party when he wasn’t running for his life from monsters. Give me a film like ‘Rec’ or ‘The Last Exorcism’ where the camera use is entirely justified.

    I also like it when such ‘found footage’ is embedded within a film – that news broadcast in ‘Signs’ for example, with the kids party when the alien simply crosses the screen – brilliant!

    I’ve loved these sorts of things ever since being terrified by Stephen Volk’s ‘Ghostwatch’ as a kid. As long as people keep getting creative with how it’s done, I’m all for more of this kind of thing.

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