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 human characters along with mystical giants. I won't dive into the story, but the title pretty much sums up what you're in for. I can't recommend this one enough.
2. As Above, So Below (2014)
Sometimes what a good horror film needs to stand out among the others is a good setting. John Erick Dowdle was onto this when he made this flick which feels like a mix of horror and Indiana Jones discovery in the heart of the catacombs of France. While this setting is already frightening, the elements of fear are ramped up with moments of extreme claustrophobia (I hate tunnel scenes) and some creepy cult figures even before the ghosties show up. Why on Earth this film sits at 26% on Rotten Tomatoes is beyond me. I was lucky enough to see this in theatres and without listening to the reviews too closely. And while the film does get a little hammy in the final act, its one hell of a dig until then and a good example of critics' misreading horror films.
3. Creep (2014)
What's stranger than a low-budget found footage film that presents itself as a mystery to the protagonist and the audience both? Mark Duplass stars in and wrote Creep which is about as puzzling and ambiguous as its title. It certainly owns up to its creepiness; this film is based on a father's dying request for a documentarian to film his life as a post-humos present to his unborn son. What actually comes of its twists and turns I won't say, because the less you know the better for a ride this weird. It even inspired a sequel, which surprisingly, I have yet to see.
4. V/H/S 2 (2013)
Skip one, go directly to two. The first one sets up the premise of haunted videotapes creating a horror anthology film, but it's all shock and boobs and blood over effective horror. (A few scenes are actually quite problematic). The sequel, with efforts from Adam Wingard and Gareth Evans, is way cooler, much more inventive and most importantly: actually scary.
5. The Conspiracy (2012)
Here's a movie that builds upon a solid premise to mostly good effect. The premise is a small-scale documentary that focuses on a local conspiracy theorist, mostly taken as a joke. Even the two young male filmmakers seem to think it nothing too serious, until the theorist goes missing. Was he on to something he got too close to? Well the boys get to work on picking up the research where he left off, and further down the rabbit hole that either are prepared for. It's clever and creepy, made for fans of late-night Youtube conspiracy videos. However it kind of derails into ridiculousness. Don't take it seriously, and you'll have fun.
6. Lake Mungo (2008)
I'm going to give this film credit of being one of the scariest films I've ever seen, one that required more than one attempt to get through, and the need to watch it in the day-time. Holy cow is this movie scary. While it flirts with supernatural without going full on ghost story, the movie covers the hidden life of the lead teenager, a young woman who drowned in the titled lake. Most of the film is portrayed through video footage from the news, and documentary style coverage on the discovery of the girl. When the movie decides to flip that and turn into a voyeuristic journey into the girl's hidden life, well, you're in for a ride.