Are you recording? The life and death of the found footage horror film

Every generation of horror is dominated by some new gimmick. In the last decade, that gimmick has been found footage. It’s a concept that can be well utilized, but too often is it just be a shameless way of keeping the budget as tiny as possible. After all, as these films are meant to look like they’re being recorded on someone’s home camera, production value can be virtually nonexistent, and we’re fine with it.

There are great examples of found footage movies transcending the gimmick and becoming truly special, but just as often the films feel like they’re simply ripping us off. Let’s take a look at the history of this genre, examine its impact, and see where it might be going from here.

Origins

The first found footage horror movie was Cannibal Holocaust, released in February 1980. It cost only $100,000 and is still one of the craziest horror films out there. The plot revolves around a documentary crew that goes missing while investigating cannibal tribes in the Amazon. That “documentary gone wrong” hook would later become the plot of a lot of these movies, as we’ll talk about in a bit.

These days, the found footage conceit is as common as dirt, but put yourself back in 1980 for a moment. No movie had ever tried to convince us it was real before, and then this shit comes along which appears to be an actual tape of people dying. It made such a splash that after the premiere in Italy, the director was literally arrested and charged with murder. People called it a snuff film, thinking the deaths on the tape were real. Director Ruggero Deodato claimed all the actors had signed contracts agreeing not to do any promotion, and that’s why nobody had heard from them in a while, which, granted, seems kind of suspicious.

Even when the director had the definitely-not-dead actors come to court and the charges were lifted, the Cannibal Holocaust was still banned, and it wasn’t released until four years after its controversial premiere in Italy. In many countries the ban remained.

As it turns out, though all the human fatalities are staged, they did genuinely kill animals on tape including a muskrat, a turtle, a squirrel and a pig. It’s gotten a lot of well deserved backlash for the animal cruelty. You probably shouldn’t watch it.

Today, it’s kind of funny to imagine about a world where anyone would believe a found footage movie is real. The genre would later evolve from a crazy experiment in tricking audiences into just another way to frame a story. When a Paranormal Activity sequel hits theaters, we laugh at any attempt to immerse us in a grounded universe. But back in 1980, this was a brand new idea, and to show what appeared to be actual murders was downright insane.

Into the Woods 

The genre received a revival in the late 1990s with The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project. The latter is more well known, but Last Broadcast came out about a year earlier.

The Last Broadcast once again takes on the fake documentary format, the premise being that we’re watching a bunch of TV hosts being murdered. The footage is presented to us by a documentation who’s hoping to find out what really happened, like a late ’90s Sarah Koenig. On the tape, the TV hosts journey into the woods to search for the Jersey Devil, and as you can imagine, they don’t all make it back. It’s kind of a similar premise to Blair Witch, except this time we have a fictional narrator providing voiceover, whereas in Blair Witch, it’s the raw footage direct from the camera. It’s an interesting movie, but without the viral marketing of Blair Witch, it didn’t resonate all that much.

The Blair With Project sure did, though. Like Cannibal Holocaust, Blair Witch blurred the line between fiction and reality, actively trying to fool audiences into thinking this really happened. A group of filmmakers really went missing in the woods, and we really found their camera.

Unlike Cannibal, though, the Internet was now a thing, which amplified the rumors about the movie’s validity even further. The filmmakers set up a website with supposed police reports and child photographs of the missing kids, and at Sundance, they passed around fliers asking anyone to get in touch if they had any information.

With that in mind, imagine the sheer terror of seeing this in theaters or on VHS and thinking it’s real. Today, it doesn’t scare audiences as much, as it’s quite simplistic. We never see the Blair Witch, and a whole lot of the fear comes from what we don’t see. Parts of the movie may seem lame in comparison to something like Unfriended or Paranormal Activity, but keep in mind that back in 1999, this wasn’t just a movie. We were supposedly watching the actual disappearance and potential death of these kids who were scared out of their minds and in real danger.

Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Broadcast looked real, but they didn’t really go that far out of their way to fool us. Blair Witch is one of the earliest examples of misleading audiences and using viral marketing, which helped make it one of the most talked about films of all time. It’s still one of the most successful movies ever made box office wise. It cost just $22,000 because it’s basically just three kids in the woods, but it grossed $248 million. To this day, when a studio makes a found footage movie, it’s that success they’re trying to recapture. Horror producers now had this new opportunity to create something very cheap but get audiences to turn out in droves for it, generating buzz and speculation. We can thank Blair Witch for being so memorable and influencing so many horror films to come, but we can also blame it for so much of the crap that would follow (including Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows).

The search for the next Blair Witch

Throughout the 2000s, we would see a whole lot of movies that were clearly inspired by Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project. August Underground (2001) revolves around a serial killer who is filmed by his accomplice. Over 20 years later, history repeated itself, and the director was arrested and charged with obscenity. Customs found the footage in his possession and they weren’t so sure about his excuse that that death footage he had was actually just a movie. That classic excuse. The charges were later dropped.

The Collingswood Story (2002) was the first of these movies to use the Internet as part of its premise, something which is a huge part of the genre now. It revolves around a couple’s long distance relationship, and the footage we’re watching is filmed through their webcams. Though it wasn’t that widely seen, this one broke from the traditional mold of found footage so far, which was usually either people with cameras getting lost and murdered somewhere or murderers filming themselves killing people. The Last Horror Movie (2006) and The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) fell into the latter category.

Not  just a gimmick anymore

In 2007, a Spanish film called REC (remade in the United States as Quarantine) did something pretty interesting with the found footage genre. So far, every one of the movies we’ve looked at takes a pretty realistic approach, following regular people under horrifying but realistic circumstances. We can believe that the movie is real, and many audiences did.

With REC, directors Juame Balaguero and Paco Plaza revitalize both the found footage and zombie genres by mashing them together. The film takes the documentary approach again, but what’s cool is that this time it’s using found footage for a different purpose.

Before, found footage was basically used to convince the audience what’s happening is real. We’re supposed to believe that we are watching real footage, with many of the early movies literally trying to trick audiences. REC doesn’t do that. The found footage isn’t meant to trick us; it’s meant to immerse us. That’s pretty clear when we see that the film allows itself the freedom to add in something unrealistic like zombies. Found footage can now be used for a variety of subgenres just as a different way of presenting a movie. Just like a film can be in 3D, it can be in found footage. When Angela in REC is running down a hallway from zombies, we aren’t supposed to think this is a real reporter who died, but seeing things from her perspective totally changes things and makes it all the more terrifying.

We’re now starting to see found footage not just as a gimmick. If it was meant only to be a media spectacle where the director risks arrest and moviegoers try to figure out if they’re being tricked, that couldn’t last as a subgenre. By 2007, found footage has evolved into just another way to tell a story.

The same thing was true with Cloverfield (2007). This isn’t really a traditional horror movie but more of a monster/disaster film, and so we’re now starting to see the gimmick expand. Like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield was successful largely due to its viral marketing. With Blair Witch, that was about making us believe this was real, but with Cloverfield, it was more about making the movie into a mysterious event. What is the monster? The film’s marketing refused to reveal what it looked like, and the initial trailer didn’t even say what the name of the movie was, just having a mysterious 1-18-08 at the end. J.J. Abrams proved that besides just trying to pass itself off as real, a found footage movie could be successful by presenting us with a tantalizing mystery and once again making use of viral marketing.

REC may have changed the game creatively, and Cloverfield helped expand it to other subgenres, but neither was as big of a smash hit as The Blair Witch Project. That was about to change…

The activity begins

To recap here,  The Blair Witch Project has so far been the only wildly successful found footage horror film, and throughout the 2000s, we saw a lot of imitators but nothing approaching a real revitalization.

Paranormal Activity hit theaters in October 2009 and immediately changed the game, both for found footage films and horror in general. Like Blair Witch and Cloverfield, the movie built itself largely around buzz. It actually premiered at Screamfest in 2007 and later came out in limited release, gradually expanding to more theaters. It was shot on a home camcorder, takes place all in one house, stars two actors and cost $15,000.

The movie made $193 million. On a $15,000 budget.

That is downright insane, and it makes Paranormal Activity the most successful horror film of all time. It completely revitalized the found footage genre, and the franchise itself spawned four sequels and a spinoff with a fifth installment on its way. The movie isn’t anything brand new, but it served as a pretty effective reminder of the power of this subgenre, and a reminder to the industry that yes, they can make a movie for dirt cheap and have it gross millions. Not only did Paranormal Activity match The Blair Witch Project; it blew it out of the water.

After Paranormal Activity, the genre was flooded with dozens of new found footage movies like The Last Exorcism, Atrocious, Troll Hunter, Grave Encounters, Hollow, Megan Is Missing, Apollo 18, The Devil Inside, V/H/S, The Conspiracy, The Bay, Willow Creek, Devil’s Due, not to mention non-horror ones like Project X and Chronicle.

All of these films were inspired heavily by The Blair Witch Project, and many of them wouldn’t exist without Paranormal Activity. Over the next few years, found footage rapidly shifted from an interesting little subgenre to a major aspect of of modern horror.

Unfortunately, that means audiences were starting to get tired of the tricks. These movies will spend about a half hour of nothing really happening, with the characters just hanging around because that’s what would be on a home movie! Things start happening, but we don’t really see much for a while because the camera keeps whipping around, and eventually all the main characters die, the camera falls, and the action cuts off. We’ve seen it all before.

Very quickly, the magic of the crazy, rebellious movies like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project was being lost to the studio machine.

Where We Are 

Now, found footage is still going strong, though it’s slightly less prominent than in the years immediately following Paranormal Activity. Lately, a new subgenre to the found footage subgenre has emerged with technology driven found footage films.

Most recently, this was thrust into the spotlight with Unfriended, but that was not exactly a totally new concept. In 2011 there was Megan Is Missing, which made heavy use of the Internet as part of its plot. The film was still shot using the characters’ personal cameras, but it told a story about the dangers of meeting strangers online. The Internet, which helped thrust The Blair Witch Project into history, was beginning to seep into these movies themselves.

In V/H/S (2012), an anthology film, one of the segments took place entirely over Skype chat. This idea adds so much freshness to the found footage genre, which at this point was getting kind of stale. Now we’re changing that up and incorporating technology we’re all familiar with in a really — way, not just relying on home camcorders like this is 2004.

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) did pretty much the exact same thing, taking place largely over online video chat. The Den (2014) varied that up a bit, this time taking place over Chat Roulette (or rather, something called The Den, this movie’s version of Chat Roulette.) And then of course this year we have Unfriended, shot entirely over Skype.

The genre started with movies like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, which didn’t do a whole lot more than have characters get lost and murdered somewhere in what is supposedly real footage. That would later evolve to include other subgenres like zombies, monsters and demons, with found footage becoming just another storytelling technique. It began to die out until Paranromal Activity revived it, and then movies like The Den and Unfriended began to introduce technology to freshen things up.

Where We’re Going

Now, the popularity of found footage horror movies seems to be declining again, and the type of supernatural film popularized by Paranormal Activity has started to die out.

That’s because more than any other subgenre of horror, found footage is very reliant on formula, and so it burns out pretty quickly. For that reason, it’s future is unclear. It’s really one of the most repetitive subgenres in horror. When these movies are good, they can be astoundingly good. But when they’re bad, they’re frustratingly, obnoxiously terrible. It’s the pinnical of cheapness, and we get the sense that the flimmakers are only using found footage as an excuse to not put in much effort. Hey, we can just whip the camera around and not show anything! The movie can look like total shit because it’s supposed to!

The problem with these found footage movies is that they have a lot of difficulty sustaining themselves, even more than typical found footage franchises. Paranormal Activity 3 was actually really solid, and PA2 wasn’t bad, but Paranormal Activity 4 and The Marked Ones were downright terrible, and that’s been reflected at the box office. The franchise has been continuously declining, with The Marked Ones the worst performing yet. V/H/S, previously the best modern found footage movies, completely jumped the shark with V/H/S Viral, and so that series is most likely dead.

The genre needs to constantly stay fresh since audiences quickly tire of the gimmicks and the repetitive nature of such a specific genre. Found footage will probably keep going for years to come, but we’ll need another movie like Paranormal Activity to change things up. It’s too early to tell, but maybe Unfriended will prove to be that movie.

At least let’s hope so.

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