by Paul Deeter
The found footage medium and approach to horror films, is older than you may think, but surprisingly slim pre 2000. Found footage is a film subgenre in which all or a substantial part of the work is presented as if it were discovered film or video recordings. The events on screen are typically seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, often accompanied by their real-time, off-camera commentary. When found footage meant nothing more than investigative horror, Cannibal Holocaust took advantage of the found-footage approach to horror by telling an immersive but controversial story about travelers who prey victim to the natives they're filming. Influenced by the documentaries of Mondo director Gualtiero Jacopetti, Cannibal Holocaust was inspired by Italian media coverage of Red Brigades terrorism. The mix of Western invasion of native privacy was upped by the use of film cameras to expose the lifestyle of those undiscovered in the film. This allegory works as an exposure to the "ugly-American" tourist ideology, while also giving the viewers a sense of involvement that they can't control. This immersion has been attempted films before it, and some would argue Cannibal Holocaust is not the first film to adopt this tech. It certainly was the most successful, and it lead to multiple inspired adaptations including Eli Roth's The Green Inferno similarly met with critical division for its use of non-English speaking and completely amateur locals as the villains. Again, a controversial decision, but none so famously as Cannibal Holocaust which was such a horror, it led to lots of criticism and legal backlash. You'd probably expect the main area of disapproval came from censoring this film to the public, charging it with obscenity and banning it from multiple countries. It may however, come to a surprise that the violence and depictions of mutilated corpses were so realistic, that after it's release in Milan, all copies of the film were seized and the director Ruggero Deodato was indicted with counts of murder. The filmmaker actually had to prove that the lives of the cast had not ended to the court, to prove the film wasn't a snuff film: a movie that depicted actual murder and violence.
If that wasn't good promotion enough, the film was wildly successful and to this day has quite a following, despite multiple envelope-pushing features like Roth's attempting to out-do its shock value. So with the benefit of shock and technique through the found footage format, it wasn't until 1999 when an independent feature titled The Blair Witch Project fooled audiences globally (again) that the three filmmakers and stars of the film were missing. This film was again very successful and due to its discretion of violence and on-screen horror was not controversial but instead almost universally acclaimed. The film focused more on marketing the fear into its audiences pre-screenings, before leaving them to linger with the unknown of the film's authenticity. For example...some of the footage was screened during the Florida Film Festival in June. During screenings, the filmmakers made advertising efforts to promulgate the events in the film as factual, including the distribution of flyers at festivals such as Sundance, asking viewers to come forward with any information about the "missing" students. Because of this approach, the film with it's amateur actors and shaky style of camerawork was effective enough that to this day people ask whether The Blair Witch Project was real. I couldn't find any research on this particular note, but my parents swear they hung up little stick figure idols like the ones in the film around the theatres projecting it. (Spooky).
So with the here and there of two phenomenal and groundbreaking found-footage features, I should note that a large percentage of horror movies to this day use the found-footage technique. My theory on why is based upon a few things. One: found footage films are conceptually simple and low-budgeted, with the lack of real special effects or high-billed actors. Therefore, anyone from almost any budget or experience can pull these films off. I've seen so many of them listed on Amazon Prime or rental-only releases, because a lot of them are low budget and under the radar. And two: found footage is still an immersive film technique, no matter how gimmicky some of the Paranormal Activity films made the genre. So I compiled a list of 6 of my favorite found-footage films, and possibly 6 you may have heard of and not seen or don't know at all. Here are 6 films that also give the genre a fresh take, where so many of the films may seem old hat to others.
Troll Hunter (2010)
Here's a Norwegian release from 2010 that surprised audiences with its use of shaky cam to cover for low budget special effects and also really well-balanced humor. This feature, starring the late, great Anton Yelchin, still holds up for its exciting action and monster sequences. I'd argue this film is more of an action film that a horror film in general, with well-fleshed out hu