Found footage horror gets a bit of a bad rep, despite the iconic Blair Witch Project blazing one hell of a trail nobody seems to have captured the same magic. I’m always keen to see what new efforts directors put into the format, successfully or otherwise. It’s a subgenre that has seriously divided opinions, those that love the claustrophobic feel that throws you right into the perspective of the victim, or if you just want to see what’s happening and for the camera to stay still.
While Blair Witch popularised the style, it’s increasingly famous for the over-done Paranormal Activity franchise, the nauseating Cloverfield, a collection of hammy exorcism videos, a few other rather crappy examples too numerous to mention because of how easy it is to make on a low budget and imply everything without ever really showing much more than a prop-blood soaked limb. But it’s the low budget that I think really makes the good films better, the classics never had the blockbuster budget or the incredible special effects that make superhero, fantasy and sci-fi films better and better every year.
Anyway, long story short here’s some good found footage films and the reasons why the format worked for them. For each I’ll break down the justification for the hand-cam in story, and how well it works.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
The other eponymous found-footage film, a couple move into a new house and start documenting all the strange and terrible things that start happening to them, specifically the horrors that have followed the girl since she was young. Over the course of the sequels and prequels we discover more and more of the truth amidst the trouser-filling jump scares.
Why the camera? It starts fairly rationally, a young girl beset with woe wants to find answers, but other entries into the series seem more narcissistic, or grasping for purpose when there really shouldn’t be any. Security cameras to watch for burglary, recording moving into a new house, the cameras we have on us every day, so on, so forth. After… six films by my count, ideas start running thin, as does the effect from what I’ve seen.
Does it work? For the first film it certainly had plenty of shock value, the use of cameras was good but didn’t make up for an overall lack of story. Again, later films become less and less potent for over-saturation but the original film made fair use of the series of fixed cameras, giving the feeling of helpless witnesses rather than putting us in the shoes of the victim.
What starts as a local news fluff-piece for an aspiring young Spanish journalist turns into a nightmare as a zombie outbreak centres on an apartment block in which the firefighters she’s documenting are called to help. She, and all the residents are quarantined, trapped in a nightmare.
Why the camera? Putting a journalist and her cameraman into the situation means that at least two of the characters are compelled to record and document everything. It’s perfect justification, and as things get worse and worse, people start dying and men in gas masks wrap a building in plastic, their need to have everything on camera intensifies.
Does it work? In the close confines of a cheap tenement building the hand camera certainly feels more immediate, especially as the undead start leaping on their victims in narrow passages and down the tight staircase. Was it necessary? I don’t think so, but it certainly helps, and I don’t know if Rec would have been so effective without it, and certainly wouldn’t have received a weak Americanised remake.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)
Also known as Devil’s Pass, a group of students go to investigate the infamous mystery of the Dyatlov mountain pass in the Ural range in which nine hikers died in mysterious circumstances after fleeing their camp hastily, most of hypothermia, some with head injuries, one missing her tongue. As the students delve deeper they naturally run afoul of the same fate.
Why the camera? This is a student project first and foremost, so half of the focus is on keeping track of the most important details whenever they might be encountered, and the rest is just a bunch of kids having fun on holiday. After a while the need to document is forgotten and it simply becomes part of the film.
Does it work? Again, not entirely but it helps. The environment starts out a lot more open and becomes enclosed later, so a lot of the tension building from the point-of-view camera is quite abrupt. It’s a good horror film, and nothing is lost for the camera style, but I don’t think it really gained a lot from the choice.
Mr Jones (2013)
A couple look for a distant retreat from the world in order to work on their relationship and make a documentary of the wilderness. In the middle of nowhere they stumble across the secret hideaway of the anonymous artist who makes haunting scarecrows under the pseudonym Mr Jones, and strive to meet the artist, only to fall down a rabbit hole of eldritch horror.
Why the camera? The need given for the camera is tenuous. It seems a little odd for someone to just decide to record a documentary, and even then they don’t seem too committed to the bit. It all changes when they stumble onto a real story and suddenly they’re glad of the camera.
Does it work? Yes. For a change the camera is entirely necessary. It not only emphasises the mysterious nature of Mr Jones, his art, and the secrets beneath his house, but eventually becomes an integral but unintrusive part of the horror as the couple discover footage they never recorded, and start capturing mysterious happenings during the night.
As Above So Below (2014)
I recommend most of these films, none more so than this. I loved this film, and will bring it up repeatedly.
A girl’s search for the Philosopher’s Stone leads her to the secret workshop of Nicolas Flamel beneath Paris, only accessible through the packed catacombs under the streets. She and her cameraman employ the help of a group of urban explorers to lead them through the sealed tunnels and forbidden depths. The deeper they go, the more and more evil things they encounter, as if they were descending into hell itself.
Why the camera? The opening scene shows us the crazy extremes our protagonist is willing to go to for her research, giving us some real character motivation for the camera style, as she races through a hidden tomb to discover an artifact that is about to be sealed away by explosives. The urban explorers all come equipped with head-mounted cameras because why explore if you can’t show people? It’s all so well justified that you don’t question it for a moment.
Does it work? The intensity is brought home as the group crawl through spaces made sickeningly tight by the stacked bones, and the head-mounted cameras give a direct point of view in most cases, making their panic yours. The jump-scares are close and intense, and in the few instances where we see what our victims don’t those moments are brilliantly delivered.
A few other quick recommendations if you’re a fan, some of these don’t exactly fit, some are not so great but in every case I think they’re worth a watch:
- Dead Set – A zombie apocalypse from the perspective of the Big Brother House. Isolated and oblivious, the housemates are left wondering why the cameras have stopped moving.
- The Pyramid – Mixed normal and found footage, a documentary crew follow archaeologists as they uncover an impossibly old pyramid, with only three faces.
- Apollo 18 – The reason we never went back to the moon. It’s been a while since I watched this but I remember enjoying it, but wondering afterwards, “how did they get the film back?”
- Unfriended – A different take on the notion, filmed entirely within the confines of a computer screen utilising Skype, YouTube and others.
- V/H/S – On the to do list, never watched it. I welcome reviews.