We watch through the terror as the three students film the events of an ill-fated high school project through a digital handheld and a 16mm film camera. The fear is heightened, the screams appear to be real and the vision is shown onscreen to mirror that of the audiences own perception, thus the foundation was laid for a sub genre of films with similar concepts, low budgets and high profitability. It wasn’t the first…It wouldn’t be the last.
90’s horror movies were pretty patchy. It became a second cousin of the 80’s Slasher’s, tweaking the formula just a little by adding pretty Kids from big T.V Shows as the stars being murdered in P.G 13 ways, rather than the unknown leads seen in their 1980’s counterparts. They became more aimed at a teenage audience and gave way to style, substance and scares, which all went out of the window for annoying characters and stupid twists which were even parodied by one of its own in Wes Craven’s Scream series.
It wasn’t until 1999 when a pair of young independent film makers presented an original Found Footage film and brought a new dimension to the surface. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez’s The Blair Witch Project, (which was apparently based on true events) focused on jaded documentary wannabe’s who head out to the woods to capture evidence of a local myth and succumbing to said myth. The Blair Witch’s moments of terror come from the audience knowingly watching three people descend into the unknown of which we know they never return, and slowly losing touch with reality as they become swallowed up by their insidious surroundings.
However, the true terror comes from the characters themselves and their reactions with each other and what waits for them (or what doesn’t) around every corner, and their reactions to what the audience don’t see. The character’s reactions to disturbing events give the biggest jolt. We never see what they are so afraid of.
Blair Witch hit the ground running with some interesting marketing which involved the Internet, “Missing” Posters of the Students Josh, Heather & Mike being put on street walls and the pre-release Documentary The Blair Witch Curse, which pushed the based on fact point further. It went on to earn $248 million worldwide and skyrocketed its reputation, and the reputation of Found Footage itself as a notable filming technique, which for modern horror was perfect.
An interesting post Blair Witch point to make would be, ‘but what next? Where do you go from there? How and what Direction will this movement take?’
Unlike the 80’s Slasher films that originally followed the first wave, the other films after were not exactly carbon copies of The Blair Witch, nor as financially successful. Two come to mind straight away for me, two which rather than ape on the precursors, try and lay their own unique slant atop of the growing pile, 2002’s My Little Eye, and The Collingswood Story, which were both very cheaply made and only borrow sporadically from the few that came before.
Both are worth mentioning because they both move away from standard handheld cam (standard as far as found footage goes) and replace it with two other ways of found footage: C.C.T.V which is used in My Little Eye, and web cam for Collingswood. Note the lack of soundtrack or score in the film, a ploy used most commonly in Found footage, which is very unsettling as every little noise (done particularly well in Collingswood) is heard by the audience and instead of soft piano keys to build tension. It’s all done by the faces and reactions of the lead actors, which again is well realized in both Collingswood and My little Eye. It is these thought provoking concepts and movements forward in the sub-genre that makes them key attractions for Found Footage fans.
The entry of a Blockbuster can only mean bad things for some genres, but in found footage’s case it was all in good hands when JJ Abrams gave us a modern 21st century Godzilla which wasn’t a load of shit (looking at you Roland). 2007’s Cloverfield had a modest budget and with Abrams Lost scoring big on T.V, he had people like Steven Spielberg wanting to work with him, and given the fact that in the films marketing it was sold with maximum secrecy to what the film actually was (where would we be without the internet?) this piqued interest and almost guaranteed a big audience.
Another thing that helped it gain attention was that it was about the physical destruction of downtown New York by an unknown terror, which tackled the subject of terrorists in one form or another in modern America. The Spanish Zombies in a tenement block horror REC was a hyperrealistic and scary take on a Zombie virus breaking out in an apartment complex, and even Norway’s 2011 surprise hit Troll Hunter, and the paranoia in space experimental horror Apollo 18 are good examples of how Directors are playing around with what can actually be done plot and effects wise in Found Footage.
Once the genre began to pick up large audiences, good budgets and big concepts it started to lose some of its early inner nastiness, its playful suggestiveness and nervous paranoia and again it wouldn’t be until independent film makers began to re-enter & give it a shot of originality, this time being the introduction of the Serial Killer element. Perhaps a little too nasty but films like the notorious 2003 shocker August Underground Mordem, Head Case and its follow up Trauma, started a spell of films from the point of view of the antagonist, usually a brutal killer/s videoing their exploits for their own sadistic pleasure. The films are dark, disturbing, grainy and a little too unsettling for the average horror fan, who may not be scared but more disgusted at these celebrations of snuff. However, the one which unsettled me the most was The Dowdle Twins first feature, 2007’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes.
The apparently real tapes found by the authorities of a serial Killer who terrorized the Poughkeepsie community in the late 90’s, it is ultra eerie and played out in an incredibly serious manor as if it where the real thing, with Police interviews, newspaper & news footage and interviews with the victims’ families.
After such moves forward came the time for the biggest to date, the most recognizable and most frightening entry into the Found Footage genre, when first time director Oren Peli placed a camera at the end of a bedroom and decided to capture ghostly goings on whilst his leading couple sleep.
Paranormal Activity genuinely scares the shit our of you. Very little happens in the film. We get a few bumps down stairs whilst our protagonist couple (Micah & Katie) sleep, things breaking and shadows appearing on the bedroom door but it is all so much down to suggestion and again what we don’t see, which makes it so unbelievably terrifying. Unlike Blair Witch or many other Found Footage films, there’s no mystery of what it is that is going bump in the night, it is most definitely a haunting.
It’s a very scary premise that even shook Steven Spielberg (Him again) up when he viewed it post final edit. He apparently got halfway through before getting too scared to finish it and called his agent to have it removed, claiming it was “Evil”.
But why did Paranormal Activity work so well and why choose to film it this way? For me the answer is simplicity. It was a simple set up that almost anyone can relate to (have you ever heard something go bump in the night?). Nevertheless audiences lapped it up and it became even more financially successful than The Blair Witch Project.
Perhaps the main reason they are so popular with audiences is because they tap into the primal instinct (similar to Slasher films) in which we like to watch everyday people suffer on screen but at the same time believe that it is actually happening and has been recovered as some sort of real life incident caught live on tape (hence the term Found Footage). Nevertheless, whether Found Footage or not at the end of the day it’s only a movie right…Right?