Found Footage Horror Movies: Its History and Style
One of my main passions in life is movies. I watch any kind of movie in any type of medium or genre. If I were to choose my favorite genre, I would give you a different answer depending on the day or how I feel at the moment. However, the genre that I consistently enjoy watching and usually find myself returning to the most is probably horror movies.
Each movie genre offers something different and is unique. Romantic movies provide the viewer with an escape into the realistic feelings of love, even if they are artificially created onscreen for a movie. Action and adventure movies let the viewer embark on fantastic exploits and experience occurrences that would mostly likely never happen in real life. Comedies give the audience a chance to laugh at the absurdities of life and the mishaps of others, even if we all have experienced such embarrassing situations ourselves. Mystery and thriller films challenge the audience to think about subtle plot details; if even the slightest of these details are missed, then the shocking conclusion of many of these films will truly be shocking. Science fiction films make us wonder about the possibilities of technology and their role in the future. Horror movies scare us.
The horror genre is nearly as old as movies themselves. Over the years, some of cinema’s greatest moments occurred in horror movies; the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the awakening of the Bride of Frankenstein in The Bride of Frankenstein, only two of many. The horror genre has evolved greatly over its history. In the 1930’s, terrifying visuals were key, and in the 1950’s and 1960’s, fear of the unknown was a popular theme. The slasher film, a sub-genre that places emphasis on graphic images and stylized slayings, reached its peak in popularity in the 1980’s, highlighted with films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. However, a more recent sub-genre of horror, the found footage film, offers completely different aesthetics, cinematography, and terror not seen by other sub-genres of horror. In the found footage horror film, audiences are not passive spectators witnessing horror happening to a film’s characters, but they are active, experiencing the character’s perils along with them. Found footage horror films are unique in the concept that the story being told is not presented as a work of fiction, but it is meant to be real.
Devon Ashby of the website Craveonline.com defines found footage horror films as “horror films that pretend to be real-time documents of actual events” (Ashby). Audience engagement is key in these films. In other types of horror movies, the audience can be described as passive, meaning they play no active role in the film, and are merely watching a story onscreen that is meant to be fictional. Audience members who watch found footage horror films are active. They are spectators of the action and terror taking place on the screen, and the work presented is meant to have actually happened. This effect is achieved by the technical aspect of the filming itself, which makes the film look more realistic than traditional film. The movie is often produced using a shaky camera technique, and the dialogue is written (and sometimes improvised by the actors) to sound less scripted and more natural.
Adding to many found footage film’s sense of realism and audience involvement is the fact that the actors are usually not famous. The actors that audience members see onscreen are common and everyday people who might as well be a friend or someone they know. This is done deliberately to make the audience feel more like they are part of the film. Not many people can image themselves in the same situation as an A-list actor such as Tom Cruise, but it would not be difficult to imagine themselves in a situation with most found footage film actors because they are relatively unknown.
The inception of found footage horror movies can be traced back to the year 1980, with the release of the Italian horror movie Cannibal Holocaust, directed by Ruggero Deodato. The movie is about a young group of filmmakers from New York who travel to Brazil to investigate indigenous rainforest peoples. The film presents itself as a documentary that discusses the filmed images caught by the investigative group in the Brazilian rainforests. The set-up works as a film within a film. In the beginning of the film, a narrator in New York City tells the audience, “Four young and fearless Americans, children of the Space Age, armed with cameras, microphones, and curiosity…. Four youngster that never came back” (Deodato). This sets the stage for the entire movie. At this time in cinema history, the idea of a fictional documentary (known as a mockumentary) was not very common. This mockumnetary movie offers as direct inspiration to later found footage pieces such as The Blair Witch Project.
At the time of the film’s release, it was highly sensationalized for its unrelenting, grotesque, and inhumane content; the film depicts very realistic torture scenes, graphic violence, and violence against animals. Unlike most films in the history of cinema, Cannibal Holocaust was not shot to look like a standard film. Deodato manipulated the images and the film itself to make the first example of a found footage horror movie. Author Louis Paul wrote, “This clever idea of using faked “found footage” by scathing the negative, adding grain to the image, photographing with amateur 16mm equipment and a slew of scenes featuring numerous zoom lens shots is admirable” (Paul 111). This original technique of filming made the images in the movie seem even more graphic than if they were filmed the standard way, simple because they looked more realistic. Although Deodato’s film contains incredibly shocking images, the Italian director was an important horror film innovator and a key founder in the found footage horror sub-genre.
Because Cannibal Holocaust was the first horror movie to use the found footage technique, many audience members, government officials, and even Deodato’s own film making colleagues were shocked by the startlingly real images in the film; they were not sure if the footage they witnessed in the movie was faked or real. After the film’s premier in Milan, Italy, Deodato and the film crew were arrested for accounts of murder (Summers, 189). Although the depictions of humans being killed in the movie were later proved to only be elaborate special effects, Deodato’s movie still get him in trouble with the law. “For the countless scenes of true animal cruelty, Deodato was taken to the courts by the Italian government and lost his case.” (Paul, 112). Killing real animals to make a movie, and even worse, showing the footage onscreen is generally seen as unacceptable and against the law, and under no circumstances shown be used in a movie.
The found footage genre certainly had dark and sinister origins in Cannibal Holocaust, but thankfully, as the sub-genre progressed over the years, filmmakers learned from Deodato’s mistakes. Directors knew that they were not banned from producing shocking images or graphic events in movies, but everything had to be artificial. The idea of found footage films are based on expanding the horror genre to more than just passive entertainment. The trick to making these films frightening is to present them as close to reality as possible without actually being real. It must look convincing. If not, the entertainment value in found footage horror movies is greatly diminished.
In the year 1992, the BBC aired a program on television called Ghost Watch. It was presented as an investigative news program. This cleverly made found footage horror movie was produced at a time when the sub-genre was not very common and was relatively young, so many people accepted the movie as an actual news report. The fact that the film is shown as an official newscast containing all the elements of late night news shows make it hard not to believe. The people who watched the television program certainly cannot be written off as gullible. In the beginning of the program, the host tells the audience:
Tonight, television is going ghost hunting in an unprecedented scientific experiment where I hope to show you for the first time irrefutable proof that ghosts really do exist. I’m joined in the studio with Dr. Lynn Pascal to give her expert technical advice. Throughout the program, I’ve been taking other expert’s opinion about the supernatural (Volk).
The presentation by the host and supposed “expert advice” all contribute to making this movie believable. Interestingly, in the quote above, during both instances when the host says the word “experts,” he emphasizes the word by separating it from the rest of his monologue. It sounds like he is giving the audience a hint that the experts he refers to really are not real experts at all, but in fact, people contributing to a mockumnetary.
The last major and impactful found footage horror film before the new millennium was 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. It marked the beginning of a new and rejuvenated era in the found footage horror film. The movie is about three teenagers who want to make a documentary about the local legend of a witch in a small town in Maryland. The character are Heather, the director of the film, Mike, the cameraman, and Josh, who is Heather’s friend. Like Cannibal Holocaust 20 years before, The Blair Witch Project features amateur and ambitious filmmakers planning to make a documentary, only to meet their end.
Blair Witch Project’s Heather
Although The Blair Witch Project follows a similar path as Cannibal Holocaust in regards to the basic plot structure (filmmakers hope to catch great footage for a documentary, but end up getting in serious trouble), the presentation is completely different. In Cannibal Holocaust, the scares result from what is seen on camera; in The Blair Witch Project, the scares result from what is not seen on camera. The result is that the latter film is much more tasteful than the former. The Blair Witch Project set a very important standard for found footage horror movies, whose influence can be seen in more recent movies such as Paranormal Activity. Quiet terror and subtle violence can be more effective than visceral and gory violence in found footage films.
Despite the title of the movie, The Blair Witch Project is not a horror movie about a witch, but a horror movie detailing the frightening amount of tension human beings can experience and the surprisingly simple path to human hysteria. Heather, Mike, and Josh journey into the woods hoping to find information on the local legend of a witch. From the moment they enter the woods, the tension among the three characters is apparent. Josh claims that he can’t stay for too many days in the woods because he has an obligation at his job back in his hometown. Heather is too absorbed in her documentary project and her camera to pay complete attention to the needs of her friends. Mike blames Heather when the three get lost, because he believes the map Heather used to find the witch sites was useless. In a very high tension scene, Mike admits that he threw away the map, which they were frantically searching for all day. He says half laughing and half hysterically, “I kicked that [expletive] map into the creek yesterday. It was useless!” (Myrick and Sanchez). Mike’s cruelty leads both Heather and Josh to angrily shout at him and blame him for getting them lost.
One of The Blair Witch Project’s most important assets is its setting. The majority of the film takes place in a large forest in Maryland. Watching the film, it is difficult to feel like you are safely viewing a movie at your leisure. Instead, it feels like part of you is doomed in the woods as the film’s characters are. The setting is put to great use in one scene especially in which the three characters hike for an entire day, hoping to find civilization, only to realize they ended their day of hiking exactly where they started it; at a giant log that fell across the creek. This realization leads the characters to a fit of hopelessness and hysteria. At this point, the idea that they will not escape from the woods because apparent in the character’s attitudes, tone of voice, and lack of effort they show in further escape plans.
The tone of The Blair Witch Project emphasizes the ordinary and not the supernatural and extraordinary. Heather and her friends do not expect to catch any shocking images on their cameras, but they film everything from their jokes, serious conversations, and very heated arguments, just in case they might catch something on film. What results from their full-time filming is very realistic teenage dialogue. Horror critic John Muir stated his opinion of the film’s style, saying “This movie is all about things that can’t be seen, can’t be quantified, can’t be recorded or processed. It’s about people who record endless footage on their video camera but don’t see anything” (Muir, 603). The film works as a commentary on the difficulty of catching truly memorable events and images on camera; not just throw-away film.
Near the end of The Blair Witch Project, Heather speaks directly to the camera and delivers one of the most powerful verbal representations of true fear in a found footage horror film or any horror film. She speaks with fear while crying:
I was very naïve. I am so, so sorry for everything that has happened… It was my project, and I insisted. I insisted we weren’t lost, I insisted that we’d keep going… Everything had to be my way, and this is where we ended up, and it’s all because of me that we’re here now. Hungry, and cold, and hunted. (Myrick and Sanchez)
This type of confession would not be nearly as effective if it was not a found footage horror movie. The close up of Heather’s face during this scene is extremely effective and feels very intimate. Heather is not just a Hollywood actress playing the role of a girl being hunted in a horror movie. She is an innocent, frightened, and doomed girl who followed her ambition to make a documentary. The deconstruction of her mental state in this scene is a fitting climax to the movie. From that point forward, the audience knows that Heather, the group leader, has given up, and there will be no escape for her and her friends.
A Japanese foray into the sub-genre of the found footage horror film is exemplified by the 2005 film, Noroi: The Curse, directed by Koji Shiraishi. The film follows the narrative of a documentary filmmaker named Masifumi Kobiyashi who has a keen interest in the supernatural. The movie chronicles his investigation on a spirit demon that has a connection to a variety of unexplained events in a Japanese town. Despite the fact that this movie was released eight years ago, it remains highly unknown to the general public and has yet to see an American DVD release.
The film’s strength lies not in producing shocking violence as Cannibal Holocaust does or explaining the mental frailty of humanity as The Blair Witch Project does, but Noroi: The Curse can be seen as a piece of found footage horror that lures its audience in and slowly challenges them to try to avoid feeling pure, unrelenting terror. There are not many traditional elements in this movie that can be classified as scary per se, but the slow build-up of every event makes the feeling of this movie very uneasy.
Image from Noroi: The Curse
Noroi: The Curse is such a strong and unique entry in the found footage genre because of the uneasiness it forces the audience to endure. For example, Hobiyashi interviews a mother and her child in his neighborhood. He thinks there might be a connection between them and a recent supernatural event in the village because they claimed to have been hearing strange voices in their house. He talks to them, and they seem like normal people. The next day, he goes to their house for a follow up interview, and afterwards, waves goodbye to the mother and her child. Five days later, Hobiyashi finds out that they died in a car accident, leaving the audience to feel uneasy, sad, and sick to their stomachs. Those two happy and innocent people that director introduced in the movie are now dead. Hobayashi explains the incident to the audience: “The car went over the divider into oncoming traffic” (Shiraishi). That is just one of many examples of terror in Norio: The Curse that can send chills up viewers’ spines without presenting anything that would traditionally be considered “scary” in a horror movie.
Noroi: The Curse is very unique and inventive in its overall plot structure. For a found footage movie, it is very complicated and contains nearly 15 important characters that the audience must follow to make complete sense of the plot. There are many seemingly independent events early on in the film that might not seem to fit into the plot, but in fact, everything comes together fittingly in the end. For example, a sequence in the beginning of the film shows footage from a television variety program that features a psychic, Koichi Hirotsu, getting schoolchildren to perform psychic tricks (Shiraishi). This scene might feel unconnected from the rest of the film up to that point, but as the viewer watches more of the movie, it all begins to make sense.
This seemingly unrelated variety show scene is actually very important to the movie. Koichi Hirotsu gives the schoolchildren an empty flask and asks them to try to produce water through telekinesis. One little girl is actually able to accomplish this feat, to Hirotsu and the rest of the children’s amazement. As the movie progresses, the audience finds out that this girl’s psychic ability came from the powers of the demon entity that Hobiyashi is investigating. That level of plot deepness is not present in many other works of found footage.
In the year 2007, Spain took a try at the found footage horror sub-genre. Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza created one of the most frightening found footage movies with REC. The movie is about a local television personality, Angela Videl, and the filming of an episode from her television show, While You’re Asleep. For the current episode that she and her cameraman, Pablo, are making, they interview firemen and get an insight as to what happens during nights at fire stations. Angela and Pablo venture to the fire station and meet the firemen. The firemen give them a tour of the building and brief them on nightly protocol. The light and often playful mood is interrupted by a real call for the firemen. Angela and Pablo join them and excitedly ride on the fire truck to the scene of the call. Angela learns that the call was for a person trapped in their apartment. When they arrive, Angela sees a police car and says, “Maybe it’s more serious than we thought” (Balagueró and Plaza).
Angela’s statement early on in the movie is certainly correct, and the relaxed and carefree mood from the first six minutes abruptly comes to a halt once Angela, Pablo, and the firemen enter the apartment. The investigation unravels, and the audience and Angela find out there is a dangerous and infectious disease in the woman’s apartment who called for help. This specific disease is highly communicable and can be spread through a bite or through contact with blood. In common horror movie terms, this disease is responsible for a zombie outbreak. The police outside the apartment do not let any of the apartment residents, the firemen, Angela, or Pablo out of the building. An American remake of REC was released and titled Quarantine, referring to the forced isolation the people in the zombie infected apartment had to face.
Throughout the movie, Angela regularly talks to Pablo as he is filming what the audience is seeing. Whenever Angela speaks to Pablo and looks into the camera, the audience cannot help be feel that she is speaking to them. Pablo represents the oblivious character who does not do anything heroic or anything to change the course of the movie, but instead, he is there only to capture the horror as a bystander. In essence, Pablo is another member of the audience. Many found footage movies feature the lead characters talking to the person holding the camera, but in REC especially, the fear apparent in both the camera person and the other characters feels very real. Pablo and Angela witness many frightening images and fight for their lives in a quarantined building filled with zombies. These characters are not simply random victims of a disaster; the audience knows them up close and personal. The way the movie is filmed and the way the desperate characters normally refer to the camera, REC masterfully makes the audience feel that they are quarantined in the zombie-infected building along with the film’s characters.
In the year 2007, the found footage sub-genre of horror broke into the mainstream and established itself as one of the front runners in the horror genre. Movies like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project certainly had an impact on the mainstream culture and on the horror movie genre, but it was not until the release Orin Peli’s Paranormal Activity that found footage movies became a staple in the horror genre both financially and stylistically. The movie made 107.9 million dollars (Rottentomatoes.com) with a budget of only $15,000 (IMDB.com). It is important to note that The Blair Witch Project made more money than Paranormal Activity at the box office, making around 140 million dollars (boxofficemojo.com). However, the superior popularity among the mass audience of the Paranormal Activity films can be easily seen by the fact that three financially successful sequels have been released in the past three years. The sequel to The Blair Witch Project, called Book of Shadows, released in 2000, did very poor at the box office, earning around only $26,000 dollars in the United States (IMDB.com).
What makes the Paranormal Activity series so popular in the sub-genre is its unique direction and cinematography. In film critic Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he said, “…silence and waiting can be more entertaining than frantic fast-cutting and berserk f/x. For extended periods here, nothing at all is happening, and believe me, you won’t be bored” (Ebert). Ebert is spot on with his analysis of the camerawork. During the film, the audience will be waiting and waiting for something to happen on screen. When something finally does happen, it is nearly impossible to restrain from jumping out of fright or letting out a scream. Nathan Lee, writer for the Film Comment journal explained another reason for the film’s success. “The Paranormal Activity movies are much less interested in offering pieces of a puzzle for us to assemble than in demanding our absolute attention to the specific, immediate unfolding of events in any given shot.” (Lee, 46) Paranormal Activity knows exactly how to scare its audience and the cinematography in this film expertly exploits the idea of fear in a found footage horror film. Audience members can try to look away from the screen during the night scenes of the film where the paranormal entities appear (or not appear, depending on the scene), but the innate and inquisitive impulse of humans that makes us wonder “What’s going to happen next?” will convince us to keep or eyes glued to the screen. The ending result may leave the audience either screaming or letting out a sigh of relief.
Image from Paranormal Activity
Not only is the story completely original in Paranormal Activity, but the film puts its characters to good use. The main character, Katie, is a believer of the supernatural. Her boyfriend, Micah, does not believe in it; he thinks everything about it is a joke. As the movie progresses, Micah slowly becomes interesting in the supernatural. This leads to conflict between the couple. Katie believes that Micah’s new interest is something evil and very dangerous. This is a conflict that many horror movie fans can relate to; just how deep will you go to experience new kinds of terror? Is there a point where you should stop while you are ahead and appreciate a current frightening state of horror without desiring more? In the film, Micah’s desire to indulge in his new kind of terror leads to his disturbing fate.
Paranormal Activity is the most recent popular and groundbreaking found footage horror movie, along with its three sequels. It easy to see why the series is so important and popular; it is original, exploitative, anxiety inducing, and frightening. The audience is not in their room or in a movie theatre when watching this movie; they are in Micah and Katie’s bedroom, firsthand witnessing paranormal occurrences taking place.
In cinema today, found footage horror films are booming. In the year 2012, there were an abundance of releases, spanning from The Devil Inside, to Chronicle, and to V/H/S. As long as the sub-genre continues to generate box office gains, it is not going to leave. Since found footage movies are relatively new when compared with other horror sub-genres, there is still an incredible potential for innovation and originality. However, it seems that many found footage movies rely on a single simplistic concept and hope that the mere method of filming frightens the audience. For example, Paranormal Activity is about a couple setting up a camera inside their bedroom to catch evil spirits and ghosts on camera, and not much else. Ghost Watch is about a group of people investigating haunted houses in Britain, with no further plot complications. A movie that goes against the idea of a simple found footage film is Noroi: The Curse.
Norio: The Curse, as mentioned before, contains a very complicated and multi-layered plot. There are many side stories in the film that seem independent of each other, but come together at the end. There are also many characters in the film to keep track of in order for the plot to come together. I do not think all found footage horror movies should be complicated as Noroi: The Curse, but director Koji Shiraishi certainly is an innovator in the sub-genre. If more directors experiment with found footage and its uncovered potential, the sub-genre could grow into something even bigger than it already is, but artistically and in popularity. For instance, imagine an animated horror film done in the found footage style. Although that would be very difficult to make and might not attract a large audience, I believe it technically could work as a film and it would be very innovative. There is still so much more that can be done with found footage that has not even been touched yet.
Found footage horror movies are an increasingly important and prolific sub-genre in the horror genre. The idea that the movies are created to seem real, exemplified by Heather’s hauntingly realistic confession near the end of The Blair Witch Project, and Pablo the cameraman’s portrayal as the film capturer in REC make found footage movies unique in the entire realm of cinema. Never before in horror movies have the audience members felt like they are truly in the locations and situations that are being shown on the movie screen. The audience really is right there with the characters.
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