The last 10 years have seen the rise of a particular style of film-making that has almost become a genre of its own, and certainly a favourite of little old Celluloid Zombie. The ‘found footage’ movie tells its story either partially or completely from the first-person perspective of a protagonist’s camera, giving proceedings an edge of authenticity and immediacy sometimes missing from standard, third-person storytelling.
Although The Blair Witch Project is believed by many to be the founding father of the genre, the first found footage movie can be traced back to Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 movie, Cannibal Holocaust, based around recovered footage from a group of documentary makers who trek off into the jungle to film a lost tribe of cannibals. Needless to say, this dreadful film represents a rather ignominious beginning for a genre that has since spawned some of the best horror movies of the last decade.
Its a genre that seems to lend itself particularly well to horror, producing a consistently high ratio of success, perhaps because of the realism it brings. No-one seems in any rush to make a found footage rom-com, that’s for sure, although the recent release of Project X, a found footage movie about teenagers having a party, marks something of a low point. But we can pretend that never happened, can’t we. Project what?
So here are my 10 favourite examples of a genre that shows no sign of slowing down.
Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler – USA – 1998
Amateur film maker David Leigh investigates the murders of a group of cable TV presenters after they are killed while hunting for the Jersey Devil in the Pine Barrens, New Jersey. The group’s recovered footage uncovers some chilling secrets.
Made a year before The Blair Witch Project, which was somewhat wrongly hailed as a new direction in filmmaking, The Last Broadcast was unfortunate not to receive similar plaudits. Made on a shoestring budget, with all the actors playing characters with very similar names to their own, The Last Broadcast is an engaging slice of mockumentary with a real sting in it’s tail.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? Admittedly, there is a cheeky slip into third person at the end to avoid that very question. Naughty!
Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel – Belgium – 1992
A camera crew begin following a serial killer named Ben, documenting his psychotic activities. As time goes on, however, the crew slowly move from disturbed observers of Ben’s murderous tendencies to willing participants.
Presented as a black comedy, Man Bites Dog is an increasingly difficult watch but, thanks in large part to Benoît Poelvoorde’s affable, charming turn as the homicidal and charismatic Ben, keeps you watching until the last frame. Man Bites Dog poses the question of when documentary passes over into voyeurism and then onto actual complicity. Uncomfortable, compelling and sometimes funny, in a guilty way.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? Mainly because these guys end up throwing the shit at the fan. Filming is the least of it.
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez – USA – 1999
Although this insanely successful movie wasn’t the first to use the found footage format, it certainly made it popular. Myrick and Sánchez set loose their actors in the woods with only rough character sketches and instructions on where to go. Then they set about scaring the shit out of them. It’s a technique that lends the movie a high level of authenticity, although it suffers slightly from some tame scares.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? Insanity, perhaps? These people are still waving their cameras ahead of them when any normal person would be keeping both hands free for self-defence.
The Vicious Brothers – Canada – 2011
The presenters and crew of ghost hunting TV show Grave Encounters have themselves locked inside the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital to investigate rumours that it is haunted. The recovered footage shows why they never came out.
The Vicious Brothers (don’t ask me) clearly intended to make a contribution to the genre which, while retaining the authenticity that the format brings, goes a little more over-the-top. In this they succeed pretty admirably, with Grave Encounters eschewing the less-is-more approach for a much more intense ride. The scares are somewhat hit and miss, but there’s enough to make this an enjoyable addition.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? Self-important presenter Lance Preston clings to the hope that he will get out with his footage until the last. Damn fool.
Matt Reeves – USA – 2008
A group of young New Yorkers have their celebrations cut short when the city is invaded by a rampaging monster. A handful attempt to make their way across New York to rescue a friend, digital camera in tow.
One of the few monster movies in this genre, Cloverfield is Godzilla for the YouTube generation, giving us a ground-eye view of what a monster attack would look like. Benefiting from an expertly handled promotional campaign, the hype went viral while it was still being made. The monster itself is not over-used and the addition of little monsters add an extra threat. The only thing that threatens Cloverfield’s realism is the fact that everyone looks like a Gucci model.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? Give the camera to a dumbass. Problem solved.
Daniel Stamm – USA – 2010
Louisiana Preacher and exorcist, Cotton Marcus, disillusioned with his faith, agrees to take part in a documentary in which he will debunk the practice. He decides a summons to help the daughter of a farmer will be his last exorcism.
The Last Exorcism divided audiences and it is certainly not what you would expect. While there are some disturbing scenes, this is more character study than horror movie, with terrific turns from both Patrick Fabian as Cotton and Ashley Bell as the afflicted Nell. What really caused the schism in opinion is the movie’s leftfield ending, turning everything on its head while giving Cotton the perfect character arc.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? They’re there to shoot the shit. And I don’t think they saw the ending coming either.
Oren Peli – USA – 2007
Overhyped and ridiculously successful, there is still a very effective chiller at the heart of the craze. Using suggestion and whispers for the most part, this is not for those who enjoy a rollercoaster ride. The original ending was changed at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg and is much the better for it. Already spawned three sequels and all are worth a watch.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? The blame for this one falls squarely on Micah, for whom the phrase ‘let’s get the fuck out of here’ apparently has no meaning.
André Øvredal – Norway – 2010
A group of students decide to investigate and document a possible poacher in the area following a spate of bear killings. When they finally track down the mysterious Hans, they discover that he is in fact a government sponsored troll hunter, tasked with controlling the population.
If there is one thing that the found footage genre excels at, it is in making implausible scenarios seem more believable. And they don’t come much more implausible than this. Rooted by a solid performance from Otto Jespersen as the grizzled Hans, Troll Hunter is insane, ridiculous and brilliant fun. They really can smell the blood of Christians, apparently.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? Hey, if you found yourself looking at a 200-foot mountain troll, you’d want to get proof, right?
Joel Anderson – Australia – 2008
After 16-year-old Alice Palmer drowns in a local lake, her family begin suffering supernatural occurences and become convinced that she is haunting them. A collection of home video footage, interviews and photographs begins to piece together the dark truth about Alice.
This little known gem from Oz works as a creepy, atmospheric ghost story, an engaging mystery and a genuinely touching study of grief. Constantly pulling the rug from under your feet and gleefully playing with your expectations, Lake Mungo weaves its slow, deliberate way toward a very chilling conclusion. Outstanding.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? Technically, the shit has already hit the fan by the first frame. This is retrospective shit hitting. But all is not as it seems.
Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza – Spain – 2007
The crew of a reality TV show accompany a group of Barcelona firemen into an apartment building following a reported emergency and find themselves trapped inside as the occupants fall prey to a mysterious infection.
One of the biggest complaints that this genre receives from is the often slow pacing and lack of action. No such complaints have ever been levelled at Rec which, once it gets going, is relentless. It is also scary, exhilarating and throws in an ending which is leaves you completely off-balance. Genius. Rec 2 is also well worth your time, with Rec 3 due out this year.
Reason for continuing to film when the shit hits the fan? Professionalism, my friend. Pablo the cameraman keeps that camera steady even when there is a fat, foaming, screaming zombie old lady rushing toward him. We salute you, Pablo.
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I would say my favorite of the list is Cloverfield but I haven’t seen REC yet so what do I know I’m not the biggest fan of the genre as it has becomes way too much of a gimmick at this point.
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Well usually found-footage is used on horror movies, which isn’t my genre. Hence I haven’t seen any of these. I was curious about Paranormal Activity but knowing me, I think I’ll have nightmares for years!
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Lake Mungo is one I’ve been trying to track down since first hearing about it. But I’ve only found over-priced DVDs so far. Perhaps it’ll arrive on TV sometime soon.
The best for me remains The Blair Witch Project – the granddaddy! REC, The Last Exorcism and Paranormal Activity all excellent too.
However, I hated Cloverfield. It wasn’t so much “found” footage as “well-orchestrated, choreographed and directed” footage – awful film.
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