Halloween Horror: A Viewer's Guide to Found Footage
Over the course of four years of doing Halloween Horror coverage at 3 Brothers Film each October, I’ve watched a lot of horror movies. A lot of those films have been found-footage horror movies, a subgenre I admire a lot more than the majority of moviegoers and film critics. (Look out for a defence of the subgenre coming in the next week.) Inspired by Anton, who pointed out that I’ve become something of an expert in the subgenre over recent years, I thought it useful to throw together some pointers to guide people through found-footage horror if they’re unfamiliar.
However, before I get to the list, I have to give a few pointers for approaching found-footage films. First of all, you have to suspend your disbelief. This goes for all films, but for found footage, where characters continue to film their horrifying experiences late in the narrative despite audience incredulity, it’s even more necessary. There are many reasons why people are willing to give found-footage horror films (or horror movies in general) less slack than other genres in this regard—I’ll get into this in my defensive essay—but suffice to say, the subgenre needs the benefit of the doubt. If characters did not continue recording, there would be no movie to watch, so if you have any interest in this formal technique, you should be willing to forgive lapses in logic.
Secondly, pay attention. There are few things that kill a horror film quicker than inattention, whether due to boredom in scenes where scares aren’t present or distraction due to fear, such as looking away from the screen because the images are too unnerving to witness. More than other horror films, found-footage films rely on your constant focus on all corners of the frame. Much of the dread of these films is those dead moments of anticipation, where the grainy footage and static camera hint at inexplicable horrors lurking just out of your comprehension. If you look away due to fear or at your phone from boredom, you’re refusing to let the movie work its magic on you. Give the film the benefit of the doubt and watch it all the way through.
With both of these key points in mind, I present the following guide to working through found-footage horror movies.
If you have never seen a found-footage horror movie, you might as well start with the best. The Blair Witch Project is the holy grail of realistic horror, as the entire narrative is presented as real footage of three campers getting lost in the woods and terrorized by an unseen supernatural presence. The Blair Witch Project is so convincing that it almost ruins the subgenre for all films to come after it; since the film successfully tricked audiences into thinking it’s real, the subsequent realization that this compelling footage of three young people losing their minds in nature wasn’t real made it impossible for any future films to successfully convince people of their authenticity. This doesn’t mean that no found-footage films to come after The Blair Witch Project are worthwhile—far from it actually—but this first instance of found-footage horror breaking into the mainstream is the gold standard. If you only watch one found-footage horror movie this Halloween season, this should be it.
The most successful franchise of found-footage horror movies is also one of the better franchises in all of horror. All but one of the films succeed at unnerving this viewer and creating some compelling static imagery. The first film is a bonafide classic, while the other Paranormal Activity films succeed in building on the restrained visual technique of the first film—aside from the damp-squib of a finale. Watch the first five films, from Paranormal Activity through to Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, but skip the final entry, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. Key to these films’ success are their visual patience. Few horror movies are so confident in holding on silence and nothingness for so long in order to build dread and activate the viewer’s imagination.
Although I never wrote on it for the website, REC is undoubtedly the best found-footage horror film aside from The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. This Spanish horror film concerns a camera woman for a local news station who gets trapped inside an apartment building during a zombie apocalypse. The building is quarantined and the residents quickly succumb to a zombie-like virus, running rampant over those uninfected people trapped inside.
The first film is relentlessly terrifying, with inventive visuals and a great use of geographic space. The second film, REC 2, is diminished returns, but essentially pulls an Aliens, transforming a haunted house horror picture into an action spectacle that works reasonably well, especially when viewed soon after the first film. Don’t bother with the other two sequels, REC 3: Genesis and REC 4: Apocalypse. Genesis unsuccessfully takes the franchise in an Evil Dead-style gore comedy direction, while Apocalypse is a forgettable extension of the mythology beyond its breaking point.
Stick with the first two and you’ll be fine. Apparently the American remake of the first film, Quarantine, made by the Dowdle Brothers, is good as well, although I have yet to catch up with it.
As Above, So Belowis a genuinely-entertaining exercise in claustrophobic found-footage horror, taking viewers into the Paris Catacombs for a horror exercise that’s laced with alchemical adventure. The scares are a mixed bag, but the film never outstays its welcome and the cinematic elements of the narrative give it character. Adam Wingard’s long-awaited follow-up to The Blair Witch Project, Blair Witch, was a bust with critics and at the box office, but it deserves a fair shake. The first half stumbles with set-up, but once it gets into the heart of the Burkittsville Woods, the film works as a relentless scare engine. Few films in the genre are as purely scary. Creep is a mildly-amusing take on the “is he a killer or isn’t he?” approach to horror, with Mark Duplass playing with character and viewer sympathies. The actual scares are slim here, but the film tries to vary the approach to found-footage horror, even if I think it’s only partially successful in doing so. Others might get more out of it.
The Last Exorcismis a sorely-underrated found-footage exorcism movie, following a charlatan exorcist (Patrick Fabian from Better Call Saul) as he lays his practice bare for documentary purposes and takes on one final case, which might not be as fake as he thinks it is. The strength of the film is how the first half plays as a convincing documentary about exorcist con artists, as if it could’ve aired on Vice had it not descending into horror in the second half. Speaking of Vice, low-fi horror maestro, Ti West, took a crack at the subgenre with his Vice meets Jonestown minor-key horror film, The Sacrament. Although the film loses tension due to its extreme similarity to the Jonestown Massacre, there’s worth in its unflinching approach to real-life terror.
The V/H/S series is an anthology series of found-footage horror that epitomizes the subgenre’s mixed quality. The first film is mediocre, but worth viewing for select segments, even it doesn’t work as a whole—you might be best watching the individual segments like “10/31/98” and Joe Swanberg and Ti West’s entries and skipping the rest. The sequel, V/H/S/2, fares better, as each segment brings some value, especially the relentless and ferociously-inventive Safe Haven, from The Raid director Gareth Huw Evans. It’s one of the best individual entries in the subgenre. Avoid the third film, V/H/S Viral, like the plague.
If you like the idea of found-footage filmmaking, but don’t like horror, try one of the other entries that utilize the technique. Chronicleis a mildly-inventive take on the superhero genre with some good early moments. Cloverfield applies the Blair Witch Project approach to the monster movie. I remember it being a blast, although you should avoid it if you’re easily motion sick.
Following this guide will help you navigate this oft-maligned, but formally-fascinating subgenre of horror. The found-footage method might not be for you, but only after watching the landmarks of the subgenre like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and REC can you properly make that determination. For all its critical infamy, found-footage horror is a method worth exploring.