A quick look at Found Footage horror
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
If before 1999, you asked someone to recommend a found-footage horror film to you, they may well have chased you with a pitchfork, and tried to burn you for witchcraft. That happened in the 90’s right? But a film industry hammer blow was due to change all of that for good. The Blair Witch Project may not have been the first found-footage horror film - read this really interesting Bloody Disgusting article for more information on what really was the first- but it certainly brought the genre to the attention of the industry, and of filmmakers to come. In the present day, we’re not really surprised to see a found footage release hitting the cinemas, and crawling up into the box office. Whilst The Blair Witch Project still maintains the most successful film in the genre, according to Box Office Mojo, but later additions like the Paranormal Activity series capitalised on the essence of the genre to do well too. So what is it that defines Found Footage, which films are particularly important to it, and what state is the genre in at the moment? (2019 at time of writing). Don your best film student clothes, pick up your 90’s video camcorders, and employ your buddy to go and shake some tree branches out of site - it’s time for The Darkened Corridor Guide to found footage horror.
Before we begin, I want to define our overarching term ‘found footage’. I want to take this opportunity to add a proviso here, and that is the I’m not including hoax films. There are many pieces of “real” film, such as the Gable film, and numerous others - perhaps controversially I’m including the Patterson/ Gimlin film here too, which fit the bill. The Gable Film particularly has a rich backstory behind it to attempt to legitimise what we see - I strongly recommend reading Xavier Ortega’s piece here which summarises the many shenanigans surrounding the film well. But these films have the aim of entirely deceiving a viewer into believing a film is real, rather than doing so within cinematic limitations. As such, I'm only focusing on film releases which were released commercially, be it at the cinema or straight onto DVD, VHS, Streaming service, or any other media which may exist whenever you may be reading this.
If there were a found footage filmmakers bible, its first statement would be “make it feel like a documentary”. At the very core of the genre is that it should feel real - it doesn’t matter if an audience thinks it’s real, mind. For this, documentary films are the key source of inspiration, guerrilla news reports and all. It provides a specific visual expectation of what reality looks like, one which we’re conditioned to believe at least. So, what does ‘reality’ look like?
Tripod free since 1999
Shaky and ‘unprofessional’ looking camera is at the core of the feeling of realism. It’s one of those subversion of expectation kind of things, in which because we expect a polished film to be made with expensive cranes and complicated steadicam rigs to keep each shot steady and focused, it is in the absence of this that there is a feeling of realism added to the film. And it’s not just found footage horror that employ this technique. If you watch some big blockbuster films, you’ll see small segments of it are done using exactly this style to the same end. The same can be said of films going in and out of focus, a sin by traditional filmmaking standards, but something which creates a powerful feeling and exudes an authenticity designed to help you relate to a specific moment.
For found footage specifically, the camera quality has to be believable too. No one wonders around the forest with a $100,000 Arri Alexa in tow, so filmmakers are wise to scale back, and look at alternatives which are either more relevant to the story, if there’s a news crew involved for example, or more accessible to regular people. Indeed, I can imagine it being entirely viable these days to make a found-footage horror film entirely on a smartphone , and if you know of any, I’d love to see them if you message me on Twitter, or email me at Thedarkenedcorridor@gmail.com!
The camera itself is important as well, as it acts as the viewer's diegetic ‘eye’ in the film, providing both our perspective and our limitations. We have no control over where it’s going, but through the character using the camera, we are much more actively engaged with the world of the film since the camera actually exists in the film itself.
Composing Script and Considering Performance
This is going to be a rather more opinion based category than others, but I think the script shouldn’t be rigid with a found footage film, and that performance should be at the core. I’m a boring person at heart really, and whilst I sat listening to the commentary track of the DVD of Armando Iannucci’s incredible The Thick of It, I was able to come to this simple conclusion. The Thick of It is a British Political comedy series, famous for its swearing, its satire, and for creating the feeling of being rather unscripted. Whilst this isn’t the case - there are scripts created for each episode- but the acting on the day has a great amount of influence over what we actually see on the screen. The writers and director aren’t too precious with sticking to their scripts, which allows scenes to evolve and create feelings which couldn’t be expressed as easily if scripted. The same should be true of found footage. People know when someone is acting, but if you’re improvising people are greater able to suspend their disbelief about what is going on in a scene.
And acting really is the key to a found footage film, get it wrong and you’re in trouble. As the very core of the films, which tend to be very low budget, acting in found footage is front and centre, and is one of the major obstacles to believability. Improvisation is a huge asset to making us believe the characters may be real, but having some talent on the screen certainly helps!
The Unknown unknowns
Saying that, don’t conflate talent with fame. Fame is incredibly disruptive to a found footage film exactly for the reason of immersion, and increasing the number of steps of disbelief an audience needs to take in order to most believe what they’re seeing. With this in mind, how likely are you to believe a found footage film where Tom Cruise is the spritely young film student investigating a series of paranormal disappearances in the hills? Not very, and for a number of reasons. Put someone you’ve never heard of or seen before in front of the camera though, and you’re heading in the right direction.
Low budget is definition
In many ways, the found footage horror genre is largely defined by the low budgets that go into making it. The Blair Witch Project cost only $60,000 to make, which is simultaneously very low for the film industry, and surprisingly rather high for the genre, with entries such as Paranormal Activity (2009) only costing $15,000 to make. I’m a huge advocate of filmmakers using low budget to their advantage, rather than wearing it as an albatross around their necks - indeed I would argue one of my favourite films of all time The Battery pulled this off beautifully. By putting efforts and energies into characters and their journey, rather than special effects, a low budget film can really make us feel something, which surely is the fundamental point of not just cinema, but entertainment in general.
Found footage has the unique position that it is able to, by combining low budget with it’s quest for realism, create a much more immersive experience.
One of the fundamental principles of found footage is given to us in its very name. The film should create some kind of provenance, and a story - even if implied - as to how the footage is appearing on the screen in front of us. In The Blair Witch, we’re able to see that the camera is ultimately dropped, and as a result it can be found, edited, and prepared for audiences, within the cinematic confines of both the film, and the implied fictional world external to the film which would have made it appear on our screens. It only needs to be shown by the actions in the film, but we need to have a reason why the footage was lost. That doesn’t necessarily mean the death of all those involved, but in some ways I think it is much more powerful if it does. Sorry, found footage actors, that means you won’t be making the sequel - my bad!
Found footage at the Box Office
Now that we’ve looked at what makes the genre, let’s look at why the genre is made. There’s a few simple answers here so let’s begin with the most simple, money.
It’s sort of a no brainer for a film company, whose only responsibility, lets not forget, is to return profit to its shareholders. (Side reading, if you’re interested in film businesses, have a look at Legendary Entertainment which is funded by hedge-fund investment and is a really good case study of the industry) If you can make a film for just $15,000, then it doesn’t take a lot to make a return on your initial investment. I would say that Paranormal Activity is a little bit different, in as much as it had an incredibly powerful viral marketing campaign to back it up. But the truth remains that there still can be lucrative rewards from a small investment in a found footage film.
Making it easy
Tying in nicely with the point about money, is the next point about simplicity. By its fundamental principles, found footage has many facets which direct it towards being low budget, and being easily accessible. It is by its very nature generally a single camera set up, and with only very few actors and limited locations, and either natural lighting or very limited lighting at most. All this means that the tools which you need to make a found footage film are considerably lower than a higher budget film. When I was at Film School, found footage films were the flavour of the day, why? Because you can create something to professional standard - a standard which you can see on the screen- whilst you’re prepping for the deadline, in a hazy, drunken blur.
Top Found Footage Films to Watch
If you’re new to found footage, there are 3 films which I would recommend watching in order to get a flavour of the genre. I’ve included affiliate links for each, so you can buy them if you want to give them a go, whilst also helping out the blog!
The Blair Witch Project
The film which popularised the genre is probably the first one to watch. It’s a ruggedly simple film at its core, which very much cemented the genres tropes after it’s release. The film is about student filmmakers, creating a documentary piece about the Blair Witch in Maryland. The three head into the woods, which they then get lost in, entering a downward spiral as events escalate around them.
The film is worth a watch not just because of its importance to the genre, but because it still can be quite entertaining, principally because the film was able to create tension by using what isn’t in shot to their advantage as much as what is in shot.
Nevermind the seemingly endless sequels, if you want to watch a Paranormal Activity film, just stick with the original. The one that started it all. It’s premise was both simple and effective - use in-house security to capture increasing activity, and the attempts to resolve it before the films conclusion. The plot is a little generic for paranormal stories - both ‘real life’ and film, i.e a couple move to a new house, and paranormal activity ensues as a result, but it's in the delivery that paranormal activity really found it’s audience.
This is an oddball film, but one which I really enjoyed. Made in Norway, the film has a definite quirky feel to it. It’s all about hunting trolls, as the name may imply, and has a comical edge throughout the film. Another student project - why are students always getting themselves into trouble?!- leads to an action packed, trolltastic adventure which I think is entertaining enough to deserve a spot on the list.
Found footage 2019
Found footage has been with us now for several decades, with so many films now under its banner that it would stand a decent chance of besieging Helms Deep. What is interesting though is the kinds of films which are being released more recently. You see, even as budgets have gone up, found footage hasn’t evolved too much. Sure the stories are different, but the tools remain the same, and it is very much the tools and the rules they set which guide the genre. But there are notable examples which have tried to break the mold, such as Unfriended 2014, which used a Skype conversation as the host of the found footage. I’ve found innovations like this to be rare though, and I have a theory as to why. Fundamentally, the technology we use hasn’t changed enough to make anything but the original found footage style particularly viable. Where as it was at first the fact that people had the capacity to film video on their own that made a found footage horror plausible, we haven’t changed the way in which we use cameras much, even though most of the population now has one attached to their smartphones. My concern for the genre is that I think we may be at a time where that type of film is becoming stale, and the tropes bordering on parodic. Even if you change up the story, found footage may have been carving its fundamental tenets onto a gravestone, rather than onto a ledger. Don’t get me wrong, i’m sure we’ll see many more found footage films, some of which will be enjoyable, but I think originality will continue to be scarce until technology such as VR is much more accessible, and thus makes the experience able to be refreshingly new. But even here there is a problem. We have to believe that it is possible for the people in the film to be using VR recording equipment in the film, and aiming to achieve something long enough to consider a film from it. At its current stage and for the foreseeable future, I don’t really see that being an option.
What’s the saying? Born too late to explore the Earth, born too early to explore the stars? I think that may be our experience with found footage horror too. We saw the inception of the genre, but we may not be able to see it’s logical next step for quite some time to come.
Or perhaps I'm wrong. You see, my other theory is how the genre will continue to survive, and it lies in the student films which I sat through countless times at film school, and a little platform called Youtube. You see, there is every possibility that whilst the technology to record a found footage film hasn’t changed too much, the technology for consuming it has. Gone are the days of VHS, DVD, even paying for a service to some extent, and the creative haven of Youtube provides rich ground for found footage films for the 21st century. All of the founding principles of found footage make it exactly right for Youtube, with the added bonus that you can vary the length of your film much more since you don’t physically have to sell it anymore, rather just be able to market it to an audience for ad revenue. So perhaps for the next few years, found footage will delve deep into its online cave, preparing once again for the time it can rear it’s gruesome head above the surface to shock the world once more.
What do you think of Found Footage horror? Do you have one which you would recommend? And what do you make of my conclusion about where the found footage film genre is today? Let me know!