Despite their overwhelming popularity, it’s easy to harsh on found footage films. Considered a gimmick by many a filmgoer, this cinematic style, on the surface, appears to be a cheat. What was once a device to make the actions on screen seem “real” has now become a sign of make believe. With a wealth of found footage style films hitting theaters year-round, the conceit has doubled over on itself and cancelled out its own effectiveness … or so the haters say.
Me? I LOVE found footage. I believe that much like many other subgenres, there are good and bad entries. Saying “I hate all found footage movies” is identical to the popular dating profile cliche: “I like all music except for country.” Really? I guess you’ve never heard of Patsy Cline or Hank Williams. Senior, not Junior.
So before you go branding all found footage as a cheap waste of time, maybe give a few of these bad boys a chance!
Willow Creek (2013) – Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait
Bobcat’s first foray into horror is the story of a Bigfoot expedition gone wrong. A young couple is going camping in the area where the famous Patterson-Gimlin footage was shot. Their hopes are to catch a Bigfoot on camera, and to do so in a much less blurry way. Beat for beat, this film plays similarly to The Blair Witch Project. In fact, Goldthwait has been known to jokingly refer to it as “The Blair Squatch Project”, likely in a growly, cartoonish voice.
The reason why this film is so successful at evoking fear with the conceit of found footage is precisely why Blair Witch was so effective: nothing explicitly supernatural happens on screen. There could be a rational explanation for everything … or it could be Bigfoots (Bigfeet?). Minimal, scary, and real.
Europa Report (2013) Dir. Sebastián Cordero
Orbiting Jupiter is a moon named Europa. It has a surface of ice which is theorized to cover a vast ocean. Where there’s water there is potentially life, and an independent space mission is sent to check it out. Europa Report is comprised of footage from inside the ship cut with commentary from notable staff members of Europa Ventures, the company behind the mission. Neil deGrass Tyson plays himself as one of these talking heads, and that alone is enough to make it all seem so real.
This is a historic mission that demands to be documented, so there are no moments of “why the hell are they still filming this?!”, which is a hallmark of bad found footage. Equal parts space adventure, claustrophobic thriller, and staring-certain-death-in-the-face horror, Europa Report is about as heady as found footage can get without becoming overstuffed. Also, Embeth Davidtz isn’t around enough anymore, and it’s good to see her doing interesting work.
The Bay (2012) – Dir. Barry Livens
The government does not want you to know what happened in this sleepy Chesapeake Bay town on July, 4th 2009, and have confiscated every ounce of footage they can find. Luckily for us, this footage has leaked, and we can see it all unfold in the form of news broadcasts, security cams, and personal footage shot by witnesses of the event. What starts as a small, typical-for-horror-movies occurrence grows into a bigger story, pulling the lens back on this town until we can see why the government is hiding this event. While it is a viscerally scary movie, when you reach below the surface, the implications of the events are much scarier. It’s pretty gruesome too, which is always nice if you’re into that sort of thing.
Levinson releases the information at a metered pace, allowing the narrative to unfold as a mystery. As he slowly reveals the “what” of it, one can’t help but be affected. I just now shuddered.
Grave Encounters (2011) – Dir. The Vicious Brothers
I am a firm believer that one of the lowest forms of entertainment is the ‘ghost hunting’ show. It seems like there are three on every channel, and every haunted locale has been scoped out twice. Even with all of these cameras pointed at potential ghosts, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. And let’s be serious, if something actually were to happen, that wouldn’t be reality show fodder so much as it would be worldwide news.
Watching these shows, it’s easy to become critical of the ‘hunters’. How can we take these guys and gals seriously when they’ve never once done their job successfully? Nothing pleases me more than imaging these hacks finding irrefutable proof of a haunting and being too scared to handle it. This is why Grave Encounters makes the cut. Not only is it legitimately scary (and not just jump scares), but it is a spot on parody of every ghost hunter in television history. Don’t let the poster fool you. This movie is the real deal.
V/H/S (2012) – Dir. Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence
Putting found footage into a horror anthology format works like gangbusters. With each short film only being about 20 minutes, there’s no room to let the found footage defeat its own purpose. Simultaneously, by using the found footage style, the anthology is never weighed down by exposition. The filmmakers did not consult one another before making their individual entries, and the only guideline they had to follow was to make a short-form found footage flick. This results in a consistently scary moviegoing experience, bolstered by the fact that it is cinematically interesting.
V/H/S spawned two sequels in the two years following its release, cementing it as a sort of indie Paranormal Activity. Even though there is connective tissue between each film, it is tenuous enough to ignore. The V/H/S series, at its most basic, is a showcase for the newer school of horror filmmakers to play in a collective sandbox. If the movie gods are good, we will see a new entry each year.
So there’s your homework! Check these flicks out and if you end up disliking them, then and only then can you say that found footage sucks, you beacon of good taste, you.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.