5 reasons why found footage is a good thing… other than money!
Even though found footage in horror is often considered as starting with the infamous Cannibal Holocaust (1980), the trend did not pick up until 20 years later, with the release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999. The film shocked because of how scary it was, but it is not what Hollywood producers remembered best. Made with a budget of roughly 600 000$, the movie generated a gross of more than 140 M$ in the US alone, and around 248 M$ worldwide, making it the biggest profit in horror history at the time. This was to be beaten only once, eight years later by another found footage: Paranormal Activity.
Naturally, one would be tempted to conclude that money is the only factor that motivate film-makers into making found footage movies – and one would be right most of the time – but not always. My point is that, for despite its lucrative aspect, the found footage aspect has some strong arguments for itself. It gives directors a freedom, both in terms of storytelling and budget that should not be overlooked.
The found footage genre has been heavily criticized because of the increasing number of horror movies that rely on it. But I think the problem comes more from lack of innovation rather than from the style itself. When you read a book, do you care if the author write in the past or in the present tense? In the passive or active form? Probably no… well, here is the same. Unless the camera is too shaky or the sound too bad to be enjoyed normally, viewers should focus on the story and the characters instead of using the filming method as a scapegoat.
Let’s not forget that the genre footage genre has delivered some of the greatest modern classics of horror, some of which are listed below along with 5 reasons why the found footage is a blessing to the horror genre rather than a plague.
1. It’s Low budget friendly
A typical found footage presents the audience with a footage that was supposedly shot by the movie’s characters themselves, allowing filmmakers to use lower picture quality than in normal movies (looks more amateur). It exactly this poor quality that has allowed so many found footage movies to get through with a fraction of what a “normal” movie would have cost.
By virtually eliminating the budget problem, the found footage genre allowed much more people (amateurs and semi-pro) to take the plunge and make a movie about their ideas. Of course, this is double edged and we are currently flooded with crappy low budget releases because of that, but more movies releases also means more potential good ones – and I’m happy with that.
The best example might well be Home Movie (2008), directed by Christopher Denham. The movie is a low budget independent horror. It follows a couple and their two kids as they make a family video …except that the kids turn up to be real psycho. It was filmed with a camcorder in a normal house, without any special effects or expensive set up, yet it ended up being a very disturbing movie. To think that such a movie would have not been possible without the found footage is already enough to convince me of the genre importance.
2. Not showing much can be a good thing
This one can be simply summarized in three word: “power of suggestion”. Everyone knows that when a movie does not show something, our imagination takes over and always imagines the worst, making the final result much scarier than if the ghost, or the killer was shown directly.
This is something that Hollywood was quick to understand, the best example being the Paranormal Activity franchise, mostly directed by Oren Peli. Despite all the criticism aimed at these movies, Paranormal Activity I and III are both good scare. Of course, they are not a “great” movie in the academic sense: there is not much happening after all, but that’s the point. A couple of pots moving, some light flickering, a door slamming are sometimes enough to scare the hell out of people. Let’s not forget that thousands of people got ultra-scared watching this over the years!
Don’t get me wrong, a movie needs balance and cannot rely solely on the power of suggestion. An example is the recent Willow Creek, a movie that shows absolutely nothing of the action, relies solely on suggestion, and ended up receiving some of the worst critics ever written.
3. It’s a versatile style
Since the found footage trend exploded in the late 2000’s, it has been used in every imaginable way. Ghost, exorcism, monsters, vampire, zombies, etc. No subgenre of horror is free from having its “hand camera” version. The best example showing how versatile found footage can be is the success of the V/H/S franchise. Even though the first V/H/S (2012) left some people unconvinced, the second opus VHS 2 (2013) was a universal success. Most importantly, it made a brilliant use of the found footage concept, combining innovative shots such as the Go-Pro zombie along with good scares and shocking bitts. This compilation reached a level of entertainment rarely matched in other horror anthologies, and surely the found footage style has something to do with it.
4. It works great for character building
Because found footages follow the characters so closely on their journey, it makes it easier for directors to develop a strong relationship between the main guy(s) and their audience. Whether the camera follows the good guys like in Cloverfield, or the killer(s) like in The Last Horror Movie, the found footage aspect opens possibilities than would not be possible in “normal” movies, such as having the character talking directly to the camera, or even making its last confession in close up like the ultra-famous scene from The Blair Witch Project.
The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), directed by Scott Glosserman, is one of the movie that most cleverly used this concept to create a strong connection between the viewers and the main character. This movie is both a great comedy and a brilliant parody of the slasher genres, but most importantly, you get to see Leslie Vernon constantly playing in very imaginative ways with the camera for 90 minutes, subtly getting you to like this otherwise detestable character.
5. The power of immersion!
Most importantly, the found footage style allows filmmakers to immerse their audience more easily (easily, not efficiently). Whereas “normal” movies take a god-like point of view where you can expect to see thing from virtually every position, found footage filming is bound by the law of nature applied to the character filming. Because of that, it appears more realistic to the audience. You get to walk side by the side with the character and experience the action exactly as they do, making you feel like you are part of the movie.
This is best illustrated in the movie that truly kick started the found footage genre: The Blair Witch Project (1999), directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. The movie takes you camping as if you were the fourth character in the team. You experience the events exactly as the characters do, and there is no way for you to know more than they do. Even in the end, you never get to see the Witch simply because that is how the characters experienced it. This creates a very particular atmosphere. Not knowing did upset many people at first, but that is what made this movie so scary. Personally, The Blair Witch Project deprived me from sleeping for quite some time.
Despite all the criticism that found footage has been receiving, it is a style that has proven very efficient if well-used. The problem is that, alongside from being powerful, it is very profitable too, and the latter aspect is the real plague. It has led many unscrupulous filmmakers into choosing the found footage style just to make cheap & crappy movies, without putting effort into the story or atmosphere building.
All these bad releases diluted the overall quality of found footage movies and gave it a bad reputation. I hope this article will help you understand who the true enemy is, and reconcile you with the genre a little.