THIS JUSTIN: Why Found Footage?

Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much.

In the summer of 1998, Eduardo Sánchez released The Blair Witch Project. Hailed as a groundbreaking horror film and being the first film I can remember having the eye-roll-inducing acclaim of being “the scariest film since The Exorcist” attached to it, the film was nonetheless legitimately scary. Much of the fear of it was due to the way it was shot and presented: the lost footage of a team of film students who were making a documentary on a colonial-era legend of a witch in rural Maryland. As someone who was cognizant and into horror at the time, I can tell you a lot of people thought this film was the actual recovered footage of an ill-fated documentary team. Sánchez crafted a thorough mythos around the film, and it was convincing enough to fool at least some people that it was genuine (including yours truly when I first read about it as a teenager).

However, an unsavory secondary legacy of the film will likely be the fact that it kicked off a trend in horror filmmaking that it only recently recovered from, if indeed it recovered at all: found footage. I know, Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Broadcast did it first. And Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found In An Abandoned House” is probably the literary precursor to FF-style films. But trust me: The Blair Witch Project opened the gates for this style of filmmaking. Hordes of copycats emerged from the woodwork, hungry for piece of the pie, and the result was way way way too many movies that were painfully unwatchable and agonizingly dull. Over the past twenty-ish years, it’s become quite clear that making a good found footage style film is a lot harder than just running with a handicam and screaming at something offscreen. What was seen as a quick shortcut to getting a film made was soon realized to be more difficult alternative to shooting a traditional horror film. FF films became a vehicle for lazy filmmakers who had a basic idea for a plot but didn’t want to do the work of expanding on it, so they just threw cameras into the hands of actors and sort of directed them. You think aliens are scary but don’t know how to write about alien abduction? Make a found footage film . Terrified of Bigfoot ruining your camping trip but don’t know how to develop a plot besides that? Make a found footage film!  This lack of understanding of the genre soon became glaringly apparent and it led to a glut of godawful movies. Even competent filmmakers such as the late great George Romero were unable to pull often a FF film, as evidenced by the woefully boring Diary Of The Dead. Sanchez himself was unable to recreate the horrific magic of BWP with his lackluster Exists, a film about badly-behaving Bigfoots that fell victim to the same tropes that Sanchez had skillfully avoided a decade and a half prior.

The biggest problem that most of the filmmakers who tried to cash in on this trend completely ignored is the way the viewer is seeing the film. Typically, in a film, the viewer understands that their point of view is fly-on-the-wall: the characters are not seeing them or the camera and are unaware that they are in a film. A film is not necessarily seen from a person in the film’s point of view but instead is sort of an invisible character. We are not the fourth character on the Orca in Jaws, but instead our point of view is that of an invisible character that none of the other characters know exists, and who plays no active role in the film. We see/hear/know things that the characters do not. We are, essentially, omniscient in that world.

However, FF films are not presented as films. They are being presented as footage that was found, so what we are seeing is what the characters are showing us because they themselves are shooting the film. And that often raises the question of “why am I seeing this action?” If I was on a documentary team that was lost in the woods and thought a colonial-era witch was stalking us, the last thing I’d be doing is filming it. If a Bigfoot attacked the cabin I was in I wouldn’t film everyone else barricading the doors and windows (or put the camera down strategically to show the action). There’s no reason to show this shit because real people wouldn’t do that. Imagine if Jaws actually was a FF film, and while Quint was getting attacked he was filming the shark as he was scrambling up the deck of the boat. Some FF movies are guilty of things just as silly as that. Exposition and commentary on the setting are given by the character filming, because unlike a traditional film we’re not seeing that action, we’re only seeing what the character filming is filming.

Essentially, it boils down to believability and the suspension of disbelief. Or, in the case of most of these films, the lack thereof. A crash course in suspension of disbelief: when we are watching a horror film, we understand that what we are seeing is not real. It’s imaginary. But we understand it’s not real and look past that so as to enjoy the movie. We momentarily suspend our disbelief. Take, for example, the criticism of AMC’s The Walking Dead and how a lot of people got hung up on how trimmed some of the lawns were, something that would be impossible in a zombie apocalypse. These people forgot that in addition to lawn maintenance being impossible the dead walking is also an impossible thing. When you’re willing to buy into dead people trying to eat the living, give the lawns a break. FF films, however, often strain this ability to suspend disbelief to the breaking point, because they completely fail at addressing why the person shooting the footage is doing so. Sure, we can buy into the weird and fantastic happening. But for FF films to succeed and work the way that sets them apart from traditional horror films, there has to be an extra layer of disbelief to cast aside. We have to believe we are seeing the final hours/days/moments of the people in the footage, and when people in FF films act like people in a movie it takes the wind out of the sails. My only real problem with Cloverfield was that no rational or reasonable human being would have filmed it. I don’t care what anyone says, when shit hit the fan the last thing anyone would worry about is “I’ve gotta get this on camera!” Trust me dude…the world knows about the monster that crawled out of the ocean and tore New York City apart. Just get the fuck out of there. At least the medium-rare Alien Abduction, a film so forgettable it’s just called what it is, came up with the best reason the camera shows everything: it’s being filmed by an autistic child who sees the camera as something of a security buffer between them and the rest of the world. It’s a little offensive and insensitive but it provides a solid reason as to why we see what we’re seeing.

People in peril don’t often give a shit about capturing their experiences on film. The very structure of these films means there is much more to worry about other than filming any of the action. I can accept that a giant monster would attack NYC. I can also accept that aliens would attack a family in the wilderness of North Carolina (if they haven’t already). And I can accept that an 18thcentury witch would stalk a crew of film students in rural Maryland. All of that is possible and reasonable within the accepted reality of the horror films. But for the characters in a film to make sure they were filming every little aspect of the action just tugs at the thread of believability until it unravels.

Horror films tend to be among the easier films to make, and so they already attract, shall we say, sub-par filmmakers. When it comes to a trend like found footage, there’s going to be a lot of hack filmmakers who not only don’t understand how to execute a FF film but are also barely competent when it comes to making films at all. They’re not likely to be able to get the best performance out of actors. I’m not necessarily a stickler for acting, but if a film’s technique hinges upon it being found footage as opposed to a traditional film, bad acting will absolutely ruin the intended experience. Similarly, it helps to have actors who aren’t necessarily bigger stars. Sanchez was smart (or lucky) enough to work with three film students who were unknown and capable actors, so during the film’s promotion it was easier to accept that yes, these three people had gone missing and this was the recovered footage from their expedition. It wouldn’t be conducive to believability if Tom Cruise or Will Smith were in a FF film.

It goes without saying that the most successfully executed FF films are the ones that get around this question of “why am I seeing this?”  The V/H/S films pull a weird sort of hat trick with the idea of “why was this filmed?” and navigate around it by using the technique that makes or breaks an anthology film: the wraparound story. In the series, the stories are that we are seeing tapes from the collections of unsavory characters. Not only that, but often the films are shot using devices that don’t necessarily have to be held and pointed at any dangerous action: a GoPro strapped to a dog as it’s owners are assaulted by aliens at a sleepover party, or footage from a prosthetic eye that reveals ghastly specters invisible to those of us with both eyes, or a helmet cam of a mountain biker bitten by a zombie as he goes on a rampage, or web cam footage of a woman who thinks she is being stalked by something otherworldly. The films aren’t anything amazing, but they at least get around the question of “why am I watching this?” and weave that in with the wraparound story.

The technique of presenting a film as found footage can work wonders. The Blair Witch Project is undeniably an incredible film in addition to being a landmark in horror filmmaking. It might not have been the first film to use this technique, but it was certainly the one that hit the hardest in popular culture. The first Paranormal Activity film is similarly frightening and a smart twist on the technique. These films succeed because they present themselves in a raw and unrefined manner and fully commit to the technique. Unlike a lot of other FF creators, the filmmakers who made them know what they’re making and know their limitations. They understand the boundaries within which they’re working and are successful at doing so; ultimately making something that is frightening not necessarily because of what we see in the film but also because part of us is believing these films to be real in a way that most horror films are not. The amateur look and technique make them far more relatable than traditional horror films, even if they are equally fantastic. I came down a little hard on Cloverfield earlier, but I’ll give that film credit for making me believe that what I was seeing was how the situation would unfold on the ground if a giant monster attacked NYC. It’s easier to put yourself in the characters shoes, because in a way you’re not watching a horror film; instead, you’re watching footage that some average person shot. And if it could happen to them, it could happen to you. There’s something deeply frightening about these films when they’re executed correctly. Unfortunately for audiences, a technique that is capable of evoking such profound fear is more often not a vehicle for lazy and uncreative filmmakers to push out hackneyed garbage in the hopes of making a quick buck.

Appendix

I literally had this article ready to send to our editor when it dawned on me that maybe I should talk about some actual FF movies I enjoy. So here we go!

The Blair Witch Project

Maybe it’s just because I was an impressionable teenager when it first came out, but this movie still sticks with me as a great example of FF. The acting is on point, the way Sánchez used the fact that it was supposed to be a documentary to flesh out the really creepy mythos of the Blair Witch through interviews with locals is super effective, and a lot of the film looks like useless footage showing nothing which is exactly how such footage would look. And the ending was similarly fitting we don’t actually see the witch, but we’re still left with the feeling that we just witnessed something absolutely horrific and unspeakable. It’s become something of a target for people who like calling mainstream horror films overrated, but in my opinion it’s deserving of every bit of praise it’s ever gotten.

Willow Creek

This is a bit of a divisive one. Bobcat Goldthwait is known more for his wacky slapstick antics than horror films, but I think Willow Creek shows he is more than capable of creating something truly horrific. A lot of people hated this movie, and I get it: there’s a lot of non-action in this movie. There’s a good ten-minute stretch where it’s one shot of a couple cowering in a tent in the dark as something stalks around their tent. It’s a little heavy on the human drama, but it’s executed amazingly. And, say what you will, but staying in character for ten minutes without cutting away is an impressive technical feat for an actor. Willow Creek is a film that’s light on imagery and action, but I think the actors are good enough that they make it work, and we actually believe we’re seeing the dissolution of a relationship in the midst of a badly behaving Bigfoot incident.

Cloverfield

Arguably the most hyped ad campaign I’ve ever seen for a film (before Endgame). In 2007, my friends and I went and saw the first Michael Bay Transformers jawn. And, while we had a great time with that movie, what we were all talking about weeks later was the trailer before it. Months later, when I finally saw this movie, I remember thinking that what the movie captured perfectly was how it would feel to be at ground zero as a civilian if Godzilla attacked. I’d never seen that done before. Sure, T.J. Miller as the narrator/filmer gets old real fast, but I think with someone else who knew how to play it subtle and quiet, it would’ve been a near perfect FF film.

The V/H/S series

I love a well-done anthology, and I love a good FF film. This series has both. Certain segments are guilty of the FF trope of the seemingly random glimpse of something horrific just on the edge of the frame, but otherwise I think these movies are rad. There are always creative set-ups, the stories are super fucking weird, and most of them are genuinely frightening. But also, and most importantly, the segments feel like genuinely found footage, something that was on a VHS tape you found in an abandoned house while fucking off with your friends.

Trollhunter

Definitely the weirdest entry on this list. Trollhunter is Norwegian filmmaker Andre Ovredal’s debut full length. The premise is kind of silly: a documentary team doing an expose on bear poaching in rural Norway stumbles across the supposed poacher who is actually hunting trolls on behalf of the Norwegian government. It’s ridiculous, but Ovredal leans so hard into the premise that it comes out the other side as something brilliant. He manages to answer the “why am I seeing this?’ problem with a very Gordian knot approach: we’re seeing this footage because trolls are real, and we need every second of footage we can get on it. It’s deadly earnest and at no point does it wink or nod. The only criticism I can level at it is that at times the CGI is a little too slick for the way the rest of the footage looks and it kind of takes me out of it, but otherwise this is a brilliant example of FF.

The Taking Of Deborah Logan

Presented as the footage from a documentary on Alzheimer’s disease, The Taking Of Deborah Logan is a brilliant example of FF done right. From the surgical use of “less is more” to the excellent logic of everything being filmed because the titular characters every waking moment needs to be filmed, this film feels super realistic even at its most fantastic.

The Lost Coast Tapes

Another great badly behaving Bigfoot jawn, this film is doubly awesome for the weird little twist about halfway through. It strays into “mystical indigenous person” territory at times, but it does an awesome job of making you feel like you’re truly seeing footage from an incident involving naughty Bigfoots. Much like The Taking Of Deborah Logan, it uses the idea of remote surveillance video cameras to show us action that the characters themselves don’t see and thus can’t film.

Justin Lore
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