How to Save Found Footage

OK, so in the past few years, the subgenre of “found footage” movies has become a pretty easy target. Even though Hollywood loves it for the fabulous profit margins it can generate, and some truly classic horror films have been built around it, audiences generally find the whole found footage thing to be, at best, a device they tolerate. At worst people will refuse to see any found footage movie, probably while using terms like “shaky cam” and claiming that it makes them nauseous.

This has been the case pretty much since the first (famous) found footage movie, The Blair Witch Project, came out in ’99. Back then found footage was merely Blair Witch’s individual gimmick, not a subgenre. About a decade later it had a resurgence, with (to name just a few examples) Cloverfield, REC/Quarantine, and most notably Paranormal Activity. VHS and VHS 2 took it to another level by blending the concept with the anthology format.

But now, taking the temperature of the public’s reaction to new found footage horror movies, it looks like the backlash has begun in earnest. After enough copycats have been released, it becomes obvious that the genre of found footage has… let’s say a limited range. However, when I think back on my reactions to seeing The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity for the first time, I am reminded that the technique CAN be used to truly great effect by competent filmmakers. And further, I think there’s still some juice left in it. 

Yes, found footage presents a lot of limitations that are built into the very idea of the concept. But these can be worked around. The real problem is stagnation. By my count, there have been only three examples of movies that have taken found footage into truly new territory: The Blair Witch Project (for essentially inventing the genre), the first Paranormal Activity (for using it to gradually build suspense to unbearable levels), and the VHS series (for putting it into anthology format).

Here’s my 3 step plan for breathing new life into found footage.

Step 1) Shake up the formula

To date, virtually every single found footage film has the same throughline: It begins the moment one of the lead characters picks up a camera and explains (on camera) why they have decided to film everything that goes on around them, and it ends the moment that character dies and the camera drops to the ground. It’s such a predictable formula that every single segment across both VHS films ends that way. In The Blair Witch Project, it was abrupt and chilling. Now it’s routine.

Even the name “found footage” kind of gives it away. It implies that the events captured in the footage had no survivors. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Imagine a found footage movie that centers around a single traumatized survivor who can’t bring herself to watch the footage, but ends up being the key to understanding what occured. The main characters of the movie could be making a documentary about the events in question (more on this approach later), and they need to track down the survivor.

This one differing element alone would literally set a found footage movie apart from everything that came before it.

Step 2) Make it plausible

Despite the “cinema verité” feel that found footage provides, we all collectively roll our eyes when we see characters within the movie insist on cinematically filming every single moment that happens, even when they are literally running for their lives. We groan when a character randomly decides to start filming his mundane life – a thing pretty much NO ONE has ever done – and then by miraculous coincidence, astonishing paranormal events start occuring immediately thereafter.

The lack of plausibility in found footage takes us out of the experience mentally. It makes it harder for us to accept the reality of the events on screen. This isn’t a problem in traditional movies, because we go in already psychologically conditioned to accept the cinematic nature of what we’re watching. Found footage in terms of horror needs to seem real in order to have the full impact. Remember how many people thought The Blair Witch Project was genuine footage?

To break through that plausibility barrier, we need to have the courage to dispense with some traditional elements of storytelling. Not every single “event” has to be perfectly captured on film. Let the camera miss certain things. Let the cameraman shut it off when appropriate, even if it leaves the audience hanging. You can pay it off later in the movie.

Most found footage movies make some kind of attempt to logically explain why somebody started filming, but in real life, if a person managed to accidentally capture extraordinary events on film, there would naturally be gaps. We would not wind up with a perfect beginning, middle, and end wrapped up in a nice bow. The found footage movie in my head would be structured in such a way as to allow for those incongruities. Interstitials (title cards) could be used to fill the audience in on unseen events or communicate when mundane footage was edited out.

Step 3) Add flavor

In my opinion, current found footage thinks too small. Strange events start occurring, things gradually escalate, there’s all-out chaos, everyone dies, the end. The VHS movies added flavor by incorporating another horror subgenre into the mix – anthology. Despite the overall un-evenness of the individual entries, they are still exciting movies because of the sheer variety and experimentation. The individual segments almost all follow the usual formula, but still…

Here’s my pitch: My found footage movie would be a hybrid of traditional found footage and mockumentary. In other words, we would be watching a “documentary” investigating the mysterious, unsolved deaths of several people, consisting primarily of “found footage” but also including interviews with professionals and authority figures, as well as one or more “survivors”. It would include title cards and voiceover narration, just like an actual documentary.

I’m going to feel like a doofus if a movie just like this already exists, but I hope that if it does somebody brings it to my attention, because I’d like to see it (I suppose Under the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon shares some similarity, but it’s not quite what I’m thinking of).

Of course there are plenty of other ways to add flavor to a stagnant genre. Look at what Scream and Cabin in the Woods did with tired tropes – has there ever been a found footage satire? Has anyone seen a found footage werewolf movie? Or body horror movie? Or alien invasion movie, besides the final segment of VHS 2?

Found footage doesn’t have to die – it just needs a fresh dose of originality.

Footnote 1: The film Chronicle is not a horror movie, but the fact that it’s essentially a found footage superhero movie makes it a unique take, and I enjoyed the film. But it still had major plausibility issues. No explanation is given as to why the main character starts filming a routine house party – which very quickly leads to the event that sets the story in motion. As the film goes on, increasingly far-fetched measures are taken to maintain the found footage conceit as things get more and more out of hand. By the end, the villain character literally levitates scores of cell phones and camcorders around himself for no clear reason.

Footnote 2: Shortly after finishing this entry, I vaguely remembered seeing the trailer for a movie called The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which seemed pretty close to the found footage/mockumentary idea I presented above. Information on the film is scarce. According to IMDb, it was completed and the trailer was even widely distributed, but it never saw an official theatrical or home video release. Reviews from the few individuals who did see the movie at special screenings were underwhelming.

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