[The author is watching a bunch of horror movies and doing a lot of horror-related things during the month of October. This thread takes you along with him on the journey. Enjoy, but keep looking behind you, there could be spoilers … or at least monsters]
One of the ‘new’ genres of horror movies is that of the “Found Footage” horror movie. In this sub genre, someone, usually a group of amateur moviemakers who get in over their heads, or a news team that finds more than they counted on, or homeowners documenting the weird experiences they’ve been having, or some similar conceit, grab a camera or ten and start filming. Strangeness and horror — and often death — ensue. Later, this movie footage is ‘discovered’ by the producers (or someone) and published as a sort of public service, marketed as a documentary. The best ones make you wonder if what you’re seeing, or even if part of what you’re seeing, might be real.
From what the internet tells me (motto: “Horrifying you with links to porn sites since 1991”), the first Found Footage movie was probably “Cannibal Holocaust” (Italian, 1980). I haven’t seen that one, mostly because it looks absolutely horrible, and not in the absolutely-horrible-but-in-a-fun-good-like-“Flash-Gordon”-kind-of-way. Also, it isn’t available for streaming on Netflix.
The idea there was that a documentary crew heads off into the jungle and gets eaten. Later, a team sent in to look for them finds their footage, thus allowing us to see what happened to the poor documentarians. The movie was banned in several countries because the animal cruelty depicted in it is actual animal cruelty, even if the cannibalism wasn’t (the director had to defend himself against this latter charge in court).
But you probably haven’t heard of that one. The most famous Found Footage movie is “The Blair Witch Project” (1999). This one took over the internet. I’d guess it wasn’t the first movie meme to spread virally across the World Wide Web, but it was perhaps the first to be so darned effective. The marketing materials surrounding the movie were extensive. There were internet clips, a Sci-Fi Channel special, and fake web sites detailing the fake people and fake places in the movie. At the time though, although there might have been some suspicions, no one in the general public knew whether or not the “Blair Witch Project” was for real.
Reception to the movie itself was mixed. Some moviegoers complained that the shaky hand-held camera style made them motion sick. Others were thrown off by the fact that the film didn’t make use of many of the staples of horror movies, most notably, a soundtrack (I’ll cover music and horror movies in a later entry in this thread). Still others thought that the first 90% of the movie was too slow. They wanted more scares.
I often hear this last argument from people who saw “Blair Witch” at home rather than in the theater. But if you don’t do it right, watching this movie at home loses its impact. You can’t hit pause and go to the bathroom, or pop some popcorn, or answer the phone. You have to sit there and watch it from the opening scenes of happy-happy faux documentarians all the way to the nerve-sizzling final moments. The slow burn buildup is what makes the ending work and what makes “Blair Witch Project” one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, and the only one that I’ve seen as an adult that gave me nightmares.
Following the “Blair Witch Project’s” success, came a number of other Found Footage horror movies. There’s “REC” (Spanish, 2007) and George Romero’s (of “Night of the Living Dead” fame — he who gave us the zombiepocalypse without ever calling his shambling dead folk ‘zombies’) “Diary of the Dead” (2007). Both of these were zombie-centric, and “REC” is the more “Found Footage” of the two, since everyone knew that Romero’s movie wasn’t ‘real.’
“Cloverfield” is like the “Diary of the Dead” in that regard, too. Pretty sure we would have noticed if a giant alien tentacle-thing had fallen on New York. So for some movies, the Found Footage motif is used for stylistic reasons rather than in an attempt to convince us that what we’re seeing is real. Thusly, I won’t cover any more of those here.
But a quiet little movie that did want to convince us that what we were seeing had actually happened was “The Last Exorcism.” In it, a sham exorcist has changed his exorcising-demonically-possessed-folk-for-money ways and wants to expose the ‘profession’ of sham exorcism by going out on one last gig, with a film crew, and showing how he’d fooled people all those years. What he finds is more real than he, or we the audience, were expecting. This is another case of the slow-build, which is a staple of the Found Footage sub-genre. But the payoff is a surprise — if not a pleasant one, then at least a satisfying one.
Much less quiet, in theaters, at least, was “Paranormal Activity” (2007). Telling the story of a couple of young upwardly mobiles who are trying to figure out what all that spooky stuff going on in their house is all about, it spawned a couple of sequels (so far) and several knock-offs. As with “Blair Witch Project,” opinion on “Paranormal Activity” is mixed. Most of the slow burn for this movie is composed of sounds heard off-camera, and genuinely spooky scenes of the girl part of the couple standing beside their shared bed, staring blankly at the guy-part for hours on end (time-lapse speeded up, of course, in the film, ’cause otherwise that would be boring rather than spooky). As much as I complain about trailers giving away the major points of movies — I think it was in “Quarantine,” an English-version of “REC” where the trailer shows us the very, very, very final scene — for “Paranormal Activity” this actually works in the movie’s favor, as I was on edge every time we switched over to night view in the boyfriend’s camera, waiting for what I knew was coming, but not sure when it would be coming.
However, for horror, shock, and disturbing spookiness, I have to declare the winner to be a “Paranormal Activity” knock-off called “Paranormal Entity” (2009). It was produced by The Asylum, who make it their business to rush-film similarly-named “mockbusters” of popular films. Their “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) for instance, capitalized on the popularity of the Robert Downey Jr blockbuster of the same name, but the Asylum’s Holmes had to fight a giant octopus, killer robots, and, erm, a t-rex.
Yes, a t-rex.
However, “Paranormal Entity” doesn’t rely on as slow a burn as “Paranormal Activity” and the viewer is rewarded with a movie that is, well, all of those things I said a few sentences ago. Also, there’s nudity. Bonus.
To finish off our discussion of Found Footage movies, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the one that I just watched a couple of days ago: “Trollhunter” (Norwegian, 2010). In this, a group of young Norwegian documentarians go looking for a bear poacher, but instead find Hans, Norwegian Trollhunter! Hans leads the kids into the dangerous world of troll hunting and the amateur film work is set off beautifully by the trolls we get to see — much like “Cloverfield’s” shaky handheld camera gives more umph to the monsters the survivors encounter.
“Trollhunter” has a sly sense of humor that underlies the movie, too. Trolls, apparently, can “smell the blood of a Christian man.” So at one point one of the filmmakers is asking the new team member if she’s Christian. Finding out she’s Moslim, he says to Hans, “Moslem, that’s okay, right?” to which Hans responds, perfectly deadpan, “I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”
I so want to be Hans, Norwegian Trollhunter, for Halloween, but my girlfriend won’t let me. It might be the part about where he insists on going around covered with “troll stench.” Apparently, troll stench doesn’t smell great.
Oh well, I’ll just have to grab a camera and go to Halloween costume parties as a fervent-but-naive filmmaker, looking for something extraordinary to put on film.
Maybe later, someone will find that footage and show it to you.
[Update: Here’s a short Found Footage vampire movie called “Night of the Vampire” that you can watch right here on the intertubespiderwebs]