Camcordered To Death: A Defence of Found Footage
Another year and another Paranormal Activity has been a box office smash hit. The remarkable success of this film series, which began as an ultra-low budget project, has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. This year also saw Apollo 18 released, a film very much aping Paranormal Activity (in space!), but which lacked the nuance and tension those movies have been successful in drawing out. In fact, it is likely the worst film of 2011.
However, irrespective of the individual qualities of each film, there is a growing feeling that the “Found Footage” film has run its course.
But who can blame low budget directors for embracing the concept? You have minimal cameras, lighting, and any mistakes are in fact an advantage as it gives the film an amateur feel. The reigning king of the subgenre until Paranormal Activity, was of course The Blair Witch Project. A film which drew in huge box office, and an even bigger backlash once it had been released on home video and DVD.
Since then there have been yearly attempts at recapturing the zeitgeist of that film. In the decade since the success of The Blair Witch Project, its template has been melded onto everything, from action blockbusters (District 9, Cloverfield), to character pieces about real life horrors (Zero Day).
There are a couple of reasons why the Found Footage film has gone into disfavour, and result in eye rolling as often as tickets being sold at the box office.
Audiences have cottoned onto the clichés of the genre. Going into a found footage film I know the eventual outcome of the movie before it even starts screening. Usually someone is either a) killed or b) dragged out of frame. I can’t count the number of times this has happened. And audiences know it as well.
The central problem with Found Footage is that re-watches inevitably lead to disappointment. No heck you aren’t scared by The Blair Witch Project the second or third time you watch it. But in the cinema, not knowing anything about what was going to happen, it was super effective. With the internet still in its early days, and the media playing along with the debate as to whether was real or not, it made for a fun spook ride.
But then you went out and bought the home video, or DVD, and knowing what happens in the film, you were more likely to feel bored more than anything. No scary monster was going to be appearing. Not every noise meant something. What you were left with is characters shouting at each other. And then you nit-pick about why they don’t follow the river when they are lost, etc.
But that is to miss the point. The fear people had in their first screening is what was important. But the backlash was in place, and when it was time for the inevitable sequel, it tanked big time.
Same goes for Paranormal Activity. It has become quite cool to deride that film, but it works in the style of old horror movies. You are as much listening to every little sound as you are watching what is on screen. So many modern horror movies try and shove as much blood and guts as possible onto the screen. PA went in the other direction and proved the horror isn’t just about gore. Of course they have watered the film down with two sequels (and a Japanese spin off movie).
Sadly at the same time we have had too many Diary of the Dead’s and Apollo 18s. Movies which simply have failed to understand why Found Footage can be compelling and leaving audiences jaded.
But poor found footage films do not equal the concept being redundant. There have been creative films which have pushed the idea, and make for compelling view. I present three key examples of this below;
It is Halloween 1992. I am eight years old. Filled with chocolate I am hyper at my grandparents. My parents tell me there is a programme on about ghosts. I am excited, and sit down to watch it. Forty minutes later I am in another room, terrified out of my wits, looking at every shadow and wishing for daylight to come.
Ghostwatch was a drama which screened on BBC1 as part of its on-going drama season. The concept was of a proto Most Haunted before Most Haunted existed. Michael Parkinson was the host of a “live” broadcast of a ghost investigation at a small council house, where a spook, by the name of Mr. Pipes, had been terrifying a mother and her daughters.
On location at the house, was Sarah Greene, actually in the property, and Craig Charles as the roving reporter interviewing people in the neighbourhood.
For the first thirty minutes or so, things seem rather boring. Nothing much is happening. Parkinson gets agitated with the paranormal expert in the studio with him. It is clear he thinks it is all flim-flam.
And then things start to happen. Quick images of something in the shadows, objects are thrown across the room. Scratches appear on the faces of the daughters, one of whom starts speaking in possessed voices. All this builds up to a conclusion that is bizarre, funny, and just plain weird.
Ghostwatch terrified people, so much so that the BBC kept it in its vault for over a decade. The reaction to the film was similar to that of the Ross/Brand scandal. Even though the film had been trailed as fiction, and even as there were credits at the start, many people were caught unawares.
Thankfully the film was re-released on DVD, firstly by the BFI, and this year by the BBC. Having rewatched the film in the cold hard light of day, you can see the bad acting of some of the cast. But what you also appreciate is just how good Parkinson, Greene and Charles are in their roles. It is not hard to see why people were fooled when they managed to play it so straight.
And the film still has genuine creepy moments. A cupboard under the stairs of the house holds a terrible secret, and when the crew finally approach it, you really do feel on the edge of your seat.
Ghostwatch was really ahead of its time, and likely could never be repeated now. Audiences are too clued in. But at the time it was magnificent and even by today’s standards well worth a watch.
Alien Abduction: Incident In Lake County
Another made for TV movie, this time broadcast on UPN in 1998. Alien Abduction purported to footage of a family terrorised by aliens at a remote farm during Thanksgiving. Intercut with this were interviews with real life experts, including monster maker, Rick Baker, who gave their commentary on the footage, and the likelihood of its legitimacy. This helped to add a level of believability to proceedings. Most found footage films simply show the footage. Alien Abduction provided wider context as well.
For a low budget TV movie, Alien Abduction is really effective by keeping everything in the shadows. But unlike other movies of a similar nature, sometimes there really are things looking back at you in the dark corners.
Little grey aliens freak me out more than ghosts or vampires ever will. Just something about the little guys that puts the shivers up me. Which means this was ideal horror fodder for yours truly.
There is some family strife in the film, but most of it is limited to the first act. The acting is variable, with the grandmother of the family perhaps being the worst offender. That being said, this was a really surprising little film – one to watch alone and with all the lights off. If you dare.
Sadly the film isn’t on DVD, but is easily found in the usual places on the internet.
Joel Anderson’s 2008 film is one of the finest ghost stories of the last decade. It is also a mediation on grief, loss and the shadows that surround doomed people. Set in Australia, the film follows the lives of the Palmer family, following the death of their teenage daughter, Alice, who drowned while swimming.
Although her death is declared an accident, strange and inexplicable images start to be recorded on cameras, and secrets thought long buried are brought to the surface.
Told in the style of a documentary you might see on BBC 4 – Lake Mungo is based entirely on interviews given by the family, friends and colleagues.
This isn’t really a film which tries to scare you. It wants you to think about life and death and witness a family rebuilding, but being prevented from doing so by the ghosts of the past. It is no co-incidence that Anderson calls the family Palmer – it has a number of links to Twin Peaks, not least the idea of outwardly domestic bliss and the darkness which lurks within it.
This is not a typical horror film, but it leaves a lasting impression. Not least when we finally get to Lake Mungo itself, and the revelation’s contained at the site. It still sends a genuine chill up my spine.
It is a relaxed film, but it is a worthwhile endeavour and contains one of the scariest moments in modern horror. Think of it as a Victorian ghost story, updated for the modern age.
These are just three examples of Found Footage, each of which takes the concept and plays with it in a unique way. There is still life in the concept; it just needs, like any other film, the right mind behind it.
You don’t see people wishing that mockumentaries would stop being made. Sure there are plenty of bad ones. But there are also This is Spinal Tap, Forgotten Silver and even the more recent Catfish.
So dear horror fans, I hope that you won’t write off Found Footage films full stop. They can work, they have worked, and I believe they will work again. Bad films are bad films. It doesn’t matter what techniques are used.
Found Footage has amazing potential, it just needs to break the cycle of predictability which it has become stricken with.
Rob can be found on Twitter.