Today, I am going to try an experiment: I am going to try my damnedest to argue in favor of something that I personally hate. Why am I doing this, you ask? Partly because fuck you, that’s why, but partly because even though I hate the current iteration, I believe that with the right tweaks, what I’m talking about could be the last bastion of the elements that make classic horror movies what they are in our collective esteem. In case the title didn’t give it away, today, we’ll be talking about found footage.
Regular visitors to the site may remember that last week I called out found footage as one of the reasons I don’t go to see many modern horror movies. I think that they are dull, way too cheeky about referencing their own format, and they are often far too reliant on simple jump scares. Found footage is absolute garbage.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Those of us that grew up in the 90’s probably all have incredibly vivid recollections of a little flick called The Blair Witch Project. If you’re one of those young’ns that didn’t catch it around its release in 1999, you probably just remember it more as “that overrated movie where nothing happened and people yelled at each other about a map for 90 minutes”. But when that movie came out, it was a big fucking deal. A movie like Blair Witch hadn’t been done in ages: it had a cast of complete unknowns, was largely improvised (by actually scaring the everloving bejeezus out of the actors), and was shrouded in a clever as hell PR campaign that, in the time before the internet was the animal it is today, blew all of our fragile little 90’s kid minds away. See, because the movie used unknown actors, all of the promotion revolved around them being “real film students”, and they were forbidden to make any film related appearances for a year surrounding the film’s release. Again, if you didn’t experience it firsthand, I can’t really relate how nuts all of this was. There were honest-to-god debates that went on for-goddamn-ever about whether this movie was an actual documentary.
Wanky Sidebar: I mentioned above that a movie like Blair Witch hadn’t been done in ages. That’s because it owes almost all of what made it popular to Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 film, Cannibal Holocaust, which I can only kind of recommend watching because it is really genuinely upsetting. The actors were forced to kill multiple animals on camera, and knowing that, it makes the brutality of those scenes absolutely fucking traumatizing. Anyway, the movie was presented as the recovered footage of a film crew doing a documentary on an isolated Amazonian tribe, but due to their imperialist assholery, they wind up getting gruesomely murdered. This is after they stage several sequences including burning some tribe-people alive and raping then murdering a young woman. Remember how Blair Witch‘s director made his actors maintain silence for a year? Well Deodato did the same thing, but his movie was so convincing that he had to tell his actors to break that agreement on account of Italian authorities wanting to arrest him for murder, as they thought this movie was a snuff film.
Anyway, my point is that these movies all have qualities of those cult classics we love. Both kinds are typically made on shoestring budgets (Blair Witch was made for a paltry $35,000), tend to feature unknown actors, and rely on being conceptually frightening. Blair Witch had almost no jump scares, relying instead on the idea that these innocent people were being pursued by an unknowable evil. Cannibal Holocaust forced the viewer to look at themselves and the foundations of their lives as the genuine “monsters”. Looking at the more conventional horror flicks from back in the day, no one had heard the name Johnny Depp until Nightmare on Elm Street, and in spite of its inherent cheesiness, the mere concept that your nightmares could actually kill you scares the actual shit out of me to this day. Likewise, Jamie Lee Curtis was languishing in trivial television roles until Halloween came along, and the mystery of Michael Myers and his motivations and abilities kept the underlying unease compelling as hell.
But much like last week’s look at splatter films/torture porn, modern filmmakers seem to have taken all of the wrong lessons from the found footage of old that genuinely terrified. They keep their casts of relative unknowns and the documentary-style approach, but solely out of cynical budget concerns. Instead of creating something that is frightening on a conceptual level, they go for cheap jump scares and simply try to see how many sequels they can shit out. The top-grossing horror franchise of our day is Paranormal Activity, and those movies are replete with the makings of horror garbage. VHS was an interesting experiment in trying to bring attention to shorts as a viable thing in the found footage repertoire, but those shorts were marred by being, well, awful.
The problem is that we simply don’t see the low-budget goodness of our favorite classics in anything other than found footage these days. But it could very well be our last bastion of that classic horror feel. We just need film makers to actually make use of the format in creative ways again, akin to the 80’s and 90’s. So help us out here, directors. Stop making this format the trash that it is, and get back to the roots of why it worked in the first place.