A Brief History of the Found Footage Style
Hate them or love them, found footage films seem to be here to stay. It seems to be a main staple of horror films these days and every time I go through my Netflix queue I feel a sense of apprehension as I select the night’s film. Am I going to have to down a couple of Dramamine to get through all the shaky cam and re-live the nauseating flashback of trying to watch my uncle Charlie’s home videos of his vacation as he swings the frame around like a chimp on LSD? Every once in a while I am pleasantly surprised by one of these films, but it usually has very little to do with the gimmicky technique of using found footage to make the film seem more realistic and scary. A couple of good examples would be 2013’s Frankenstein’s Army, and Oculus. They are both amazing films; it was the settings, costumes, and overall creativity of the films made them awesome, not the unsteadiness of the camera or documentary style. Films like these are rare for me and I usually find myself cheated of an experience as the rotations and gyrations pull me out of the atmosphere and all the fear and terror that I am supposed to feel get torn way from me. So, why is found footage still a thing and not just a passing fad? Perhaps we should start with cannibals…
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Cannibal Holocaust is a film that you can only get through once unless you have some serious issues. In fact, number of views should be on all the sperm donation questionnaires as a part of psychological disorder screening. Most of the people who were lucky enough to see it in the theater had run out to the lobby and vomited their guts out hopelessly trying to reach a toilet. Looking back, the worst sin of this film was pioneering a new way of cinematography that convinced people that they were watching real life people eating real live people. Documentaries were a legitimate way to bring far away realities home to viewers. Cannibal Holocaust was filmed like a documentary and the people watching it swallowed the bloody lie. Hell, even the actors were so scared while filming it that they actually feared that they would never escape the jungle and after it was released the Italian courts led an investigation to confirm that Cannibal Holocaust was not a genuine snuff film.
The reaction of the public and authorities was so severe that documentary style horror films would not be widely accepted until a group of kids got lost in the woods looking for a witch.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
I saw the Blair Witch Project for the first time a few years after it came out, because my friend Angela swore it would be the scariest thing ever. It was my first exposure to the found footage style and to be honest I thought it was pretty cool. I suppose it was still novel to me but I wasn’t aware of the films impact on the state of horror. The found footage style was catapulted into pop culture and there were a ton of copycats, jokes and parodies about the film that seemed to chip away at the integrity of the film.
Over the next ten years, a slew of found footage films flooded the scene and most of them garnered some critical acclaim and moved to solidify the style in the mainstream.
The Golden Age of Found Footage Horror
The found footage style had reached it’s peak by 2007. This year started off with the first Paranormal Activity film. A quasi new angle had been tried by making all the found footage come from strategically placed security cameras. I was relieved when I could actually watch (for the first time) a found footage film without feeling queezy! Oren Peli had done a great job building suspense as we all analyzed every square inch of the screen trying to predict what would happen next. He did not have to jostle the frame about or resort to cheap tricks. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole film until the very end. I did not think it could get much better… and then there was REC.
I really believe REC represents the pinnacle of this style of horror. It was so successful that Hollywood made an exact copy and somehow managed to totally screw the whole thing up. Maybe some things were lost in translation. The big wigs up in the Hollywood industrial complex finally had to sit up and take notice of the potential of found footage films and decided to throw some money at it. They must have seen these up and coming directors and companies with small budgets getting millions of dollars in ticket sales and decided to jump on the bandwagon. What comes next is the blockbuster Cloverfield in 2008 which earned 140 million at the box office. Even horror legend George A. Romero chose to continue his ‘of the Dead‘ series with shaky camcorder in Diary of the Dead in 2008. The idea had become an institution.
The fall of the found footage cinematography style
Four REC‘s, six Paranormal Activities, and quite a few exorcisms later, it has become harder and harder to sift through the rubbish in order to find a decent found footage horror film. The market has become saturated so much that even the shittiest of films that use this style will, a few years later, get a sequel or two. It has gotten to the point where I kind of cringe when I hit play on something that sounded good in the description only to find the same intro; a film crew doing some kind of documentary or a crazy boyfriend who decides to film everything he sees (even continues recording when the ghost, demon or zombie turns his girlfriend’s head into a scene from a Yoshiaki Kawajiri film).
Maybe the deeper concept of found footage seems to be the reason they have become a staple of horror and won’t go away any time soon. For example; I would drop my useless mobile phone the moment the zombie outbreak started and raid the nearest hardware shop to fashion melee weapons, not try to figure out how to turn on the flash and take a selfie before Instagram succumbs to the apocalypse. Maybe that is exactly the kind of social commentary these films are trying to make; they appeal to a generation that has never been without mobile phones or the internet. We live in a world where every gadget we own feeds our raging narcissistic hunger. Even when the world is burning down around our disemboweled loved ones, we will still take the time to stand there like dumb asses to push the record button on our iPhones.
Born and raised in San Diego California, I grew up loving the action horror and sci-fi genres. The first R rated film I saw was Predator back when I was 8 years old. Aliens blew me away as a youngster and I made a M41-A pulse rifle out of paper towel rolls and rubber bands. I ran around for hours avoiding face huggers and blasting xenomorphs in my back yard and I am bringing that big imagination to Nevermore Horror.