Found footage is a subgenre that employs vérité cinematic techniques to create films that seem to depict “real” events. This includes shaky handheld camerawork, first-person POV shots, and naturalistic performances and dialogue from actors. Above all though, one of the biggest pluses is that it is cheap.
Understandably, your mind might go first to the rather derivative way many more mainstream horrors deploy found footage. After all, Paranormal Inactivity built an entire franchise on people standing still for long periods of time in dark rooms, following in the footsteps of films like The Blair Witch Project – featuring people in cost-effective settings (a dark bedroom, a deserted patch of forest, etc) without any real pay-off regarding the nightmares afflicting them. In contrast, a different kind of laziness might come to mind, with the sensationalist, excessively violent, and ultimately racist cinema of Cannibal Holocaust being deployed to get everybody talking about, and watching, a contrived, and cliched central story.
It would be wrong to write found footage off based purely on its least imaginative jump-scare properties, though. The format also lends itself to supporting extremely bizarre and disturbing stories.
Without the need for the kind of polish and artifice of studio films, found footage film can free up filmmakers to tell a story that would be much more complicated and costly to pull off via conventional means. As the audience suspends its disbelief, and buys into the idea that what they are seeing is raw footage of an unsuspecting amateur, they become more forgiving of the usual comforts they expect in the cinema – while the apparent realism of what unfolds in the film means they are more susceptible to strange and outlandish suggestions of the filmmaker; ones they would usually require advanced visual trickery to go along with.
As the nights close in, and we begin to approach Halloween, here are four great examples of the medium.
Incident at Loch Ness (2004)
Amid his own insane exploits during the making of Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog is probably lucky not to have become the star of his own found-footage horror sooner than 2004. Those interested might want to look up Burden of Dreams to see his crew’s various brushes with disaster in the Amazon.
Flashing forward though, one year before Grizzly Man presented a disurbing, highly constructed, yet strangely moving narrative in the form of a real found footage film, Werner Herzog was already playing about with the genre in a theatrical sense. Written by Herzog and director Zak Penn, Incident at Loch Ness is a fictional documentary within a fictional documentary, with both playing themselves amid the ensuing weirdness.
Herzog intends to film a documentary named Enigma of Loch Ness, while Penn is atttached to the project as a producer. Penn’s determination to sensationalise the documentary sees tensions rapidly escalate between the pair. Attempting to make the production into some kind of blockbuster Hollywood film, Penn employs attractive actors to fulfil what should be skilled roles like sonar operator – undermining whatever integrity the project might have had – before sneakily commissioning a fake Nessie to be used.
When the real thing shows up, and apparently kills a crew memeber, things somehow take a stranger turn. After the carnage, the documentary film we have been watching and the documentary film we were watching Herzog make both seem as though they could always have been fictitious – but as this never gets confirmed one way or the other; who is duping whom remains wonderfully (or infuriatingly) ambiguous.
After the success of The Blair Witch Project there was a glut of found footage films, while the post-2000 reanimation of the zombie sub-genre meant it was inevitable there would be some hybridisation of the two sub-genres. Rec. is easily the most successful of these outings as, far from being another outing of either tired grouping, it found a way to breathe new life into both.
Contrary to so many found footage films, the scares in Rec. were regularly substantiated. Because the zombie genre essentially bases itself on monsters that are scarcely discernible from normal people, we could routinely be provided first-hand footage of terrifying encounters with the infected. At the same time, from a zombie perspective, we were offered a ground-zero view of a fledgling pandemic – and how the actions of an intervening government might help or hinder its spread. It received a shot-for-shot remake one year later, under the name Quarantine – a word many of us have come to dread during the last year for not entirely unrelated reasons.
In the claustrophobic apartment complex, we have no choice but to form bonds with the supporting cast we are trapped alongside – empathising as though our lives were also on the line in a way. And just when you thought two sub-genres was enough – the story unexpectedly branches into a third. In the climactic sequence of Rec. and throughout Rec. 2 we become aware that the virus is less of this Earth than initially expected – and that the film decides to freshen up the tried and tested possession narrative while it’s at it.
Troll Hunter (2010)
When a group of Norwegian students investigates a series of mysterious bear killings, they soon learn an impossible truth. Something much more dangerous, and much less believable, is going on. Through their interactions with a mysterious hunter, they gradually uncover a national conspiracy obscuring the continued existence of trolls. Obviously.
Sadly there is no way to market a film like this without utterly showing your hand regarding its premise. While it might have been nice to have a bit more mystery regarding the revelations of this faux-documentary, leaving it all ambiguous might never have grabbed any headlines to put bums in seats, while the fantastical twist probably would have infuriated the few sober-minded documentary fans determined enough to see it.
That’s beside the point though. This is a film which uses every aspect of found footage to its advantage. Its grounded organic cinematography really helps when it comes to suspending your disbelief as to the story – and as nice as the visual effects were at the time for the titular creatures, CGI is always going to have an uncanny valley aspect that needs that little bit of help. Even mega-blockbuster Cloverfield deployed found footage to help do that.
Unlike Cloverfield, which centres on a group of preening and self-obsessed Yuppies, though, Troll Hunter is also able to deploy its medium to help us forge bonds with its cast. The students are determined journalists, with honourable motives. In this case then, as we have some people worth relating to surrounding our ‘eyes’ of the camera, we can’t help but become tethered to them – to empathise with their hopes, fears, and losses.
And with regards to the ‘monsters,’ the trolls themselves are also treated with a degree of respect. At certain points, this comes across as a conservation film, something the name doesn’t necessarily suggest. Otto Jespersen as Hans, the troll hunter, is conflicted about his work, and gradually exposes the way the trolls are being abused by Norway’s government to preserve profitability – using something unbelievable to prompt a little thought on real life shortcomings in the conservation of amazing animals that inconvenience the world’s ability to make profit.
The Borderlands (2013)
Centring upon a group of Vatican investigators researching an old church which is rumoured to be the site of a miracle, The Borderlands sounds like yet another protracted dip into the world of possession found footage. The film does wonderfully to quickly dispel this feeling though, as it evidently doesn’t take itself too seriously.
That is not to say writer and director Elliot Goldner treats his subject frivolously. Rather, his script is heavy with scepticism and wry sarcasm. After so many other films where protagonists humourlessly approach everything as dour, grave and inescapable, it is refreshing to have characters who will initially laugh in the face of danger, just as knowing audience members often do during a horror.
As our characters initially approach the fateful church, they have been snarking back and forth at each other – as well as the local populace – in a disarmingly relatable way. They come across as having seen it all – embodying the mindset of the modern horror connoisseur. We’ve all lived through a countless list of ‘unspeakable horrors’ at this stage, and we all feel like we would approach a horror scenario with the kind of dry gallows humour The Borderlands exudes early on. In particular, the effortless chemistry between Brother Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and Gray Parker (Robin Hill) goes a long way to putting us at ease – as though we’re on a ghost tour with some particularly sarcastic mates.
The brilliant thing about this is how utterly powerless we feel when this safety blanket is gradually pulled away. As things descend into madness, locals become hostile, and evidence of ritual sacrifice (including children) emerges, the lead characters find themselves disarmed – and as their first-hand accomplices within the camera, we are similarly robbed of our armour. At the end, a horrific series of events sees the men we had bonded with brutally dispatched by an ancient – some might argue Lovecraftian – entity, living deep beneath the bowels of the Church. In the process, we are left aware that however well-versed in horror we are, we have never seen it all – and should we become cynical enough to think we have, that is when we will be at our most vulnerable.
Is there a film you would like to recommend for a found footage movie marathon? Would you like to complain about the absence of Grave Encounters, or The Last Exorcism from this list? Perhaps you would like to defend Cannibal Holocaust – though God only knows why you would. Let me know in the comments below. I might even read them…