Found Footage: Why the sub-genre has such a poor reputation, and why that reputation is wrong.
The found footage sub-genre of horror is one that has a bad rap. So often, I’ve found at least, when discussing found footage with people the mere suggestion of the concept will be met with eyerolls and groans. There’s a sort of stigma attached to found footage that can be hard to shake.
I understand why, as well. The fact that it’s so easy to achieve the style means that there are countless found footage movies out there, and so many of them use the concept to paper over blatant cracks in the storytelling. There’s also the way in which the sub-genre has a tendency to rely on slow builds and long moments of nothingness contrasted with loud shouty bits where the camera goes wild and it can be difficult to keep track of where everything is.
And, of course, there are the issues that plague almost all found footage movies, even some of the good ones; a) who would believably still be recording all this? and b) where is this footage even coming from, anyway?
See, if draw an audience into the state of immersion found footage movies need them to be to work, there has to be, at least as far as some people are concerned, a level of understanding in how the footage we’re watching play out on the screen got from where it was in-movie to where it is now. Why, and perhaps more importantly, how are we seeing it?
Horror as a genre requires an element of disengagement from an audience to be enjoyed anyway. After all, if we were super invested in the plight of the characters in Friday the 13th, for example, it wouldn’t exactly be entertaining watching them get slaughtered, would it? And what’s more, found footage often requires us to buy into the believability of the concept, and so any movement too far in one direction can be fatal to the audience enjoyment. Too believable and what we’ve been watching feels pointless. Too unbelievable and the entire gimmick falls apart.
It's a balancing act, and few movies do get it right. Of course, the most obvious successful example of the sub-genre is The Blair Witch Project, which managed to fool audiences the world over into believing what they were seeing. The film has the added benefit of being the first to really mainstream the sub-genre, and therefore, at least as far as your average moviegoer went, there wasn’t an expectation prior.
Still, The Blair Witch Project remains a great example of how found footage can work if done right. It’s low-key, amateurish feel feeds into the discomfort of the entire situation, the grainy footage only furthering the atmosphere. The slow build, in which the film drip feeds us information while carefully ramping up tension, is smart. But, perhaps most importantly, despite what we all tend to remember, nothing supernatural or out and out unbelievable ever really happens in the movie.
There is no confirmation that a ghost or demon has done any of this. We never even really see anything. And the films title card, which informs us of the outcome before the movie starts, leaves a sense of doom dangling over everything. The movie even manages to work its way around the old “why would you still be filming this” problem by inserting the documentary filmmaker angle and actually making the absurdity of continuing to shoot footage while the core trio are facing more and more frightening obstacles a key part of the character dynamic.
Likewise, the original Paranormal Activity smartly uses its found footage concept to further the horror. Much like The Blair Witch Project, day and night become distinct moments, and the capturing of the footage is a key part of the narrative. They’ve set out to catch these things on film, not filming it when it finally starts happening isn’t really an option.
But, for every Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity there are countless lesser works. The Gallows, The Devil Inside, or Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimensions spring to mind. Films that attempt to use the found footage concept as nothing more than a lazy way to jazz-up what was already a tired concept. And these films tend either to not understand how to make the style work successfully or are simply not interested in doing so.
These are the films that people think of, I believe, when they hear the words found footage. That’s why we have that collective groan. That’s why the sub-genre has such a bad rap.
The thing is, though, I actually kind of like found footage. At least, I like the idea. When I learn that a film is found footage, I’m often curious to see whether it works or not. My experience tells me that a successful found footage movie is going to be scary and effective in a way that your standard movie simply can’t quite capture, and as a horror fan that’s… well, that’s sort of what I want.
There have been attempts to breathe new life into the genre. Films like Unfriended and The Den, for example, have taken a “computer screen” approach, where the film is played out entirely as though we were watching someone’s computer screen. While this can work, it foregoes a lot of the staples of found footage entirely; this isn’t rediscovered footage we’re watching, for example, and no one is filming it in-movie. Although a lot of the techniques were born out of the found footage movement, these films tend not to really fall entirely into the category.
There’s a new breed of found footage movie lurking in the wings though, one that 2019’s Death of Vlogger (which you should watch, by the way, it’s great) really got me thinking about, and that is the mockumentary approach.
This approach has been around for a little while, but it’s incredibly effective, and where things like Adam Wingard’s 2016 reboot/sequel of the Blair Witch failed, I believe, is in its strict adherence to the old rules of the sub-genre. See, and I mentioned this briefly above but it’s important to remember, when The Blair Witch Project was unleashed upon audiences back in 1999, the whole idea of found footage was pretty new. People could believe it because they’d never seen anything like it before.
Sadly, here in 2020, after I don’t know how many cash-ins, knock offs, and lazy found footage movies, audiences are just too savvy. We already know it’s fake before it even begins, and the entire thing sort of falls apart. In fact, we kind of wind up going in looking for the cracks.
Where the mockumentary approach helps, however, is that it takes that sense of analyzing the film for problems away from us. The talking heads on display, even though we know they too are just actors, point to the flaws for us. This is where Death of a Vlogger is especially effective. It no longer becomes about trying to buy into the footage itself but rather the story around it.
Found footage isn’t necessarily an indication of quality. At least, not any more than “slasher” or “ghosts” or “zombies” is. It’s a sub-genre, and when done well, it can be incredibly effective.