Found Footage: Horrifying or Horrible

In concept, found footage is a brilliant idea that really does a lot to further much of film, especially in the horror genre.  When done properly, it lends a great deal to the believability of the story, making the story feel real in its presentation as well as in the events that happen.  There are many who complain that it has a low-budget feel, or that it is often nauseating to watch, but I can’t help but love much of what I’ve seen.

I love the idea of a story being told in a way that is true-to-life.  This isn’t exactly a new idea– Bram Stoker’s Dracula was told as a series of diary entries and letters, and in that day it makes sense that the events of the story would honestly be recorded in those formats.  My horror novel in the works is written in a similar fashion, using news magazine articles and journals, because I love how the story can come to life in the imperfect hands of multiple narrators with different motivations.  It’s really worked for me thus far.  It likewise makes sense that in the case of some sort of horrifying event or global calamity that people would whip out their cameras and cell phones and start recording.  One only needs to go to a concert to know that often people prefer to record big events rather than spend time experiencing them.  So, in many instances, I can really believe what I am watching when it is through the lens of an amateur cameraman.

My first contact with found footage was actually a film that only had horror elements rather than being a straight-up scary movie: CloverfieldCloverfield_theatrical_poster.  I saw it in theaters, and thankfully I didn’t have the nausea issues that several people had indicated they had.  One friend told me they had to leave the theater because the shaky camera made them quite ill.  Instead of any displeasure, I walked out of the theater feeling quite exhilarated.  I loved how the cameraman was part of the story (though admittedly a quite annoying contributor) and how the action was so chaotic and raw– not what you’d expect from a film where a giant monster attacks a major city.  I had enjoyed other films of that vein– Godzilla, Mothra, King Kong— but Cloverfield just resonated so much more strongly.  I cared about the characters and their survival instead of just the spectacle (which you only catch snippets of) because of the format of the film.  No, it is far from perfect, particularly as the guy filming has little reason to keep the camera rolling in sections where everybody is just running and nothing is visibly happening, and when the camera is on and off seems to be rather haphazardly thrown together.  But, it caught my imagination and my excitement.

My next experience with found footage was… pretty bad.  Horror legend George Romero made a zombie film DiaryofDeadPoster2using the technique and, like most of the other films he directed that I’ve seen, it failed to live up to the epic status of his name.  I actually have never been very impressed by any of his films, though I can at least see why his first three Living Dead films are so iconic.  Instead of reaching anything near the quality of those films, Diary of the Dead felt like the creation of a washed-up director trying to capitalize on his name by making the shoddiest low-budget film he could throw together.  The zombies were pretty uninteresting, the characters were flat, and the reason for the found footage was pretty forced.  The idea of college film students making a movie just as the zombie apocalypse is okay, but the fact that they’re making a bad horror movie just before everything that follows turns into a bad horror movie was just a little bit too much.  I later learned (as you’ll see further down in this post) that it was much too similar in concept to The Blair Witch Project, and definitely not as good as that precursor.  I just felt like the filming was inexcusably poor, especially since it is being done by a character that is allegedly wanting to become a professional cameraman.  The scares were almost nonexistent.  The only positive thing I can really say about it is that it was nowhere near as awful as Land of the Dead.  To my understanding this film garnered a sequel called (laughably) Survival of the Dead that, from everything I’ve heard about it, I have been wise to avoid.

Thankfully, my next experience with horror found footage was much more positive: Quarantine.  I’ve heard many of the same arguments against this film that I heard about Cloverfield— that it was difficult to watch, that it was unbelievable that the camera would still be rolling. Quarantineposter  I can’t help but laugh at these claims, because I thought the film was simply brilliant, easily one of the scariest films I had ever seen– most because of the camera being part of the action.  I love that the cameraman character was a professional, which excused how good much of the film work is.  There are, of course, intense moments where the camera shakes, but as a whole it is much more watchable without taking a dramamine than other found footage films.  I loved that the main characters were reporters, because it made their continual, persistent filming of the hellish events very real to me.  Plus, the film brought some great moments as the camera was used in some very refreshing ways, particularly as it is actually used to bash in the head of a zombie (yes, I’ve heard the argument for the people in this not being zombies, but I’m in the camp that this is, in fact, a zombie film).  It doesn’t get much moreRec_poster intense than that.  I also loved the intensity of the situation for the film– basically, to be quarantined in a building by the government while dealing with a crazy zombie virus outbreak inside an apartment building.  The how of the story was told much more subtly than most horror films, presenting the back story as a series of clues that the audience actually had to pay attention to fully put together.  There were no “Ah, so this thing that was said ties into this thing we found and thus means this” moments in the dialogue, which was more true to life than most stories told in any format.

I found out later that Quarantine was the American version of the Spanish film [REC].  Because I loved Quarantine so much, I made a point to seek out the original, which I loved even more.  The acting was more realistic to me, though beside that it was almost frame-for-frame the same.  If you haven’t seen either, I’d recommend just watching [REC].  It also has a sequel that picks up immediately after the intense conclusion that I haven’t watched yet, but have heard good things about.

Remembering the buzz it garnered in my youth, I next watched one of the most famousBlair_Witch_Project examples of found footage horror: The Blair Witch Project.  This film came out when I was in elementary school, and some of the other kids whose parents apparently were much more lax than mine in terms of allowing their children to watch mature films (my parents wouldn’t let me watch The Sixth Sense) took turns telling the other kids about how it was a true story, that the movie was found and that the people who made it were probably dead.  Having no idea what the film was other than the awkward poster, these claims of my classmates were filed away in the “I Have No Idea What These People Are Talking About” section of my brain.  It wasn’t until I watched the film that I realized that the marketing campaign had so successfully suckered a bunch of nine-year-olds.

Other than the laughable snotty nose scene, I really enjoyed the film.  I actually liked that it didn’t show the monster (what I assume is the titular Blair Witch).  I liked its use of two cameras.  I felt like it was quite successfully scary while doing only minimalistic things to achieve those scares.  I felt like I would be just as terrified in that situation.  I liked that they didn’t make tons of obvious mistakes, and that the mistakes they made were things that many people would have done.

Finally, a few years later I watched the first three installments of the Paranormal Activity series, all of which I thought were  excellent found footage filmsParanormal-Activity-3.  Since my next horror post is going to actually break down my feelings for the series, film-by-film, I’m not going to go into too many details about how I feel about the plot and the like.  I’ll primarily stick to my thoughts on how it works with found footage.

I feel that it is reasonable that somebody would set up cameras to see what is going on when there are unusual happenings in the house.  This works for the first three films very well, though the later installments are admittedly forcing the idea a little too much to achieve what I feel is key to the genre– realism and believability.  By Paranormal Activity 4 I stop believing that the cameras are rolling relative to the continuing story.  The first film worked on its own merits and by centering the action on only a few rooms in the house was very effective in using the filming for the storytelling.  The second film was almost as effective as it primarily used security cameras to tell the story, which after early events looking like a break-in, I also had very little difficulty in believing.  Finally, the third film, though seeming a little forced in the mother’s boyfriend editing film for a living, was superb.  The film quality and style was very true to (high quality) home movies, and the fresh film techniques really made the story pop.  I loved every scene that made use of the camera mounted on a fan swivel system.  The filming made the movie very intense, easily the most frightening for me in the series.  However, Paranormal 4‘s use of webcams and the Xbox Kinect just didn’t work.  The technology was believable, sure, but I just had a hard time being drawn into the story because much of it is told beside a teenage girl flirting via Skype.  The Marked Ones thankfully abandoned the constant use of new technology, but we have very little reason for the characters to be filming all of this, which I’ve stated is the original argument for most of the naysayers, which I couldn’t help but agree with for this particular instance.

Finally, I’m Apollo_18_Postergoing to touch on two more found footage films, one a flop, the other a surprising gem (and it’s not even horror!).  The former is Apollo 18, which used extremely grainy footage that is deliberately reminiscent of the Apollo moon landing.  This footage simply did not work.  It’s fine to have something grainy like that when seeing the historical moment, but for a feature-length film it is extremely dull and exploits the fact that the audience can’t tell what is really happening at pretty much any given moment, particularly in the “scary” parts.  I was badly bored because, well, it’s hard to  be drawn in by bad acting that, in near-cue card fashion, indicated when I was supposed to be frightened by unintelligible shouting.  Simply, I had no idea who the characters were, why I should care about them, or what was actually happening.  I managed to get halfway through before muttering “screw it,” and telling Netflix to give me something better to watch.

Speaking of something on Netflix that is TrollHuntermuch more worthwhile, we have Troll Hunter.  Yes, I was skeptical when I was first told about it, but I assure you that it is simply a wonderful film.

Let me be clear on one thing– the trolls are kind of mediocre by most Hollywood special effect standards, but this isn’t a Hollywood film.  It’s Norwegian!

The film is pretty much exactly what it sounds like– a group of people who are hunting for footage of trolls.  However, this isn’t a bad idea– it’s very compelling, with good acting, interesting characters, and good action.  The mythology surrounding the trolls is very unconventional for American audiences, which lends to its authenticity.  I felt like I was having an adventure while learning about northeastern European legends.  See it!

Published in: on January 20, 2014 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

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