From Blair Witch to Blair Witch: The rise and fall of the found footage subgenre.
Found footage is a divisive sub-genre. There are those that love, those that hate it, those in-between that think some are good, and some are bad (this is where I feel like I reside), but no matter who you are, if you’re a fan of film you’ll no doubt have come across this discourse at some point or another.
At this point the found footage horror sub-genre is as an important part of the overall horror puzzle as body-horror, slashers, or any of the other crazy little niche pockets the genre holds. Some of the movies the herald from the sub-genre are downright classics. The likes of Paranormal Activity or REC. are widely regarded as being fantastic entries into the horror canon that deliver on scares and inventiveness in equal measure.
Meanwhile, beyond the simple “bad or good” conversation, the discussion around exactly what makes something found footage continues to rage. Does last year's HOST count? What about Blumhouse’s Unfriended movies? What about Cannibal Holocaust? We would call Stephen Volk’s excellent BBC mockumentary “found footage”, or does that belong in its own entirely separate category? There are no easy answers, and the uncertainty around it only further fuels the interest.
But regardless of where you sit or what you think of found footage, one thing is pretty much universally agreed upon when discussing the sub-genre. It hit the mainstream proper in 1999 with Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s earth-shattering debut feature, The Blair Witch Project.
It’s hard to put yourself into the mindset now, given that the cinematic landscape was so altered by the release of this little movie that it, arguably, spawned the entire found footage sub-genre in its current form singlehandedly, but The Blair Witch Project, at the time, was a big deal. There was a genuine discussion over where or not it was real, and people were legitimately concerned for the whereabouts of the supposed missing teens featured in the movie.
As silly as it sounds for grown-ass adults to genuinely buy into the whole “this footage is real” aspect of a movie – I mean, as if they’d actually release this footage into cinemas for entertainment if it was real – I swear they did. The marketing of the movie played a big part in this. The filmmakers insisted that the cast don’t add themselves to IMDb, and there was a heavy online campaign, making significant use of the internet at a time when such things were relatively new to the movie industry. Meanwhile, a tie-in mockumentary about the legend of the Blair Witch was produced to air on television, which includes more detailed information on the fictitious folktale than even the film itself.
On a slightly separate note; I strongly recommend grabbing yourself a copy of the DVD of The Blair Witch Project, which includes this mockumentary. It’s great.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this, though, is that the movie and its publicity stuck very, very rigidly to the concept. As far as any output from marketing through to the film itself was concerned, this was actually found footage. The movie never breaks, even going so far as to explain the continued recording of the characters in terrifying situations as part of the plot, while the missing person output and the wider creation of the “myth” of the Blair Witch in all the other materials only builds the creepiness and adds to the feeling that, well, even though we all know it isn’t true… maybe it is.
And it is here, in that slight ambiguity, that the film really connected with the audiences of the time. I can remember watching it late one night with my Dad and being totally terrified beyond belief. Not because I thought it could be real, but because it felt like maybe it could be real. It felt like this could have happened, and while it probably wouldn’t have been released to mainstream movie-goers if it had, somewhere out there, there could have been a video containing a similar terror to someone else. It could be me next time I took a walk through the woods by my house.
Obviously, no one really buys into the “this is real” concept anymore, but that hasn’t prevented the found footage sub-genre from continuing to throw up a few gems. No one thought Paranormal Activity had any basis in reality, but it’s still an enjoyable and spooky movie, for example. Likewise, the excellent 2013 British horror, The Borderlands, is legitimately terrifying. By the time you reach the finale of that movie, you’ll be mortified.
It’s my personal opinion that what makes these films work isn’t so much that anyone believes in them – after all, times have moved on since The Blair Witch Project first hit screens – but that the films do. Successful found footage movies never break their own internal logic. REC., The Borderlands, Paranormal Activity… hell, even Hell House LLC., all maintain a consistency in their own premise. As far as the movies are concerned, THIS. IS. REAL.
But there is a growing trend among found footage films to sort of almost forget that they’re supposed to be found footage. Often now there is no longer a clear motive for the footage itself to exist. While in 1999, The Blair Witch Project made it clear that this footage was the product of student filmmakers producing a documentary, more modern films often don’t even bother with an explanation, let alone consistency.
Take Adam Wingard’s 2016 sequel, Blair Witch. The film attempts a sort of explanation early on, but it quickly drops the act and essentially cheats its way out of the found footage trope with the use of multiple cameras, drones, and various other gimmicky set-ups. Even the reason for filming becomes muddied and eventually just sort of thrown out in favor of a more traditional approach to horror filmmaking.
To be clear, I’m not saying that 2016’s Blair Witch is a particularly bad film. Truthfully, I actually kind of enjoyed it. But it definitely didn’t grip me or frighten me in the same way as the original, nor the other movies I’ve mentioned here. It’s fun, but it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny and it’s ultimately pretty forgettable.
This trend of the found footage movie that gives up on its found footage premise is something that works when we’re talking about comedy shows such as The US Office or Parks and Recreation. There is a breezy, relaxed nature to those shows that allows for an audience not to be too invested in the general idea of it being a “mockumentary”, but when it comes to horror, we need to believe it.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon actually managed to handle this quite well, but again the film has a far less serious, far more meta tone. It doesn’t need to be taken as seriously as something that’s trying to scare you. For an audience to be scared, we need to become invested and sucked into the world. And it’s hard to be absorbed in something that can’t even bother to be consistent.
Found footage is a sub-genre that allows for some great new stories. It can and has been used in interesting and unique ways. But ultimately, so long as filmmakers continue to use it solely as a gimmick, casting it aside when it becomes easier to just forget it, their films will never hit the heights of the greats.