Related Posts

Share This

Scary from any viewpoint: the new found-footage horror film

You’re running for your life through a forest in the dead of night with only the weak beam of your flashlight to guide you. You can see only a few feet ahead. Violent screams erupt somewhere, but you don’t know why. Your vision is shaky as you sprint, until your flashlight dies. There is complete darkness; you are heaving for breath. You sense the killer right behind you. Then it’s over.

Paranormal activity resuscitated the found footage tradition with its release in 2007. [Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures]

Paranormal Activity introduced the multi-screen twist in 2007. [Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures]

This is the experience of watching a found-footage horror film.

It is a type of movie that makes the audience feel they are the main character. Traditionally, in the movie plot, a recording device such as a hand-held camera tells the narrative, and a documentation of something terrifying ensues. The taped footage is then “found” by a third party who turns it into a film. Hollywood production is replaced by a very shaky camera, first-person perspective shots, and a gritty image to make the films feel realistic.

The idea is simple enough, but newer examples of the subgenre are starting to move away from its prior conventions. Filmmakers are catching on to the fact that simply finding a single camera’s footage with scary images doesn’t work anymore. Why is that? Probably because multiple screens and formats are our real lives today.

Fresh blood

Found footage leaped into view in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project, about three filmmakers who disappear in the woods while filming a documentary about a local myth called the Blair Witch. The audience is told the filmmakers are missing, and the footage of their documentary was discovered a year later. The film consists of the found footage they shot.

It was one of the first films to be promoted on the internet, which effectively blurred the lines of fiction and real-life documentary. Shrouding it in mystery paid off enormously; it went on to gross nearly $250 million, from a budget of only $60,000.

The Blair Witch Project’s success spawned numerous found-footage copycats,with the genre peaking with films such as Paranormal Activity (2007), Quarantine (2008), and Cloverfield (2008).  These, in fact, were so popular that critics started to consider found footage a gimmick. Films like Paranormal Entity (2009) and Monster (2008) failed to capitalize on the phenomenon because they offered nothing new.

André Loiselle says the found footage tradition is an interesting challenge to horror movie conventions, but he isn't sure if it'll stay popular forever. [Photo © Martha Darby]

Film studies professor André Loiselle: not sure that the found-footage tradition will endure.
[Photo © Martha Darby]

André Loiselle is a professor of fim studies at Carleton University with a special interest in horror films. He says that film genres like found footage survive by spinning the old conventions into something new and exciting.

“You have an expectation for a horror film, but it’s a rethinking of those conventions and trying to find new spins that will make it a success,” he says.  “Even horror buffs get bored of the same formula.”

Multiple screens, multiple screams

The emerging trend in found footage is a complete removal of the traditional hand-held camera, replaced by a number of slightly different spins where new technology is used to record the footage. Instead of a movie shot solely from first-person perspective, other recording devices like cell phone cameras, web cams and GoPros show multiple visual viewpoints converging to tell a narrative.

“Horror comes from the content,” says Loiselle.  “The found-footage narrative device is not new, but visual content can make it fresh.”

The Paranormal Activity franchise has picked up on this and experienced enormous success. The 2007 Paranormal Activity grossed $193 million dollars, from a budget of only $15,000, making it one of the most profitable films ever. It is reviewed on Rotten Tomatoes as one of the scariest ever made, too.

Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) use the hand-held camera viewpoint like The Blair Witch Project, but make it more interesting by using footage from house surveillance cameras to add suspense.  Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) takes the new spin even further by using a combination of webcam and Skype footage.

Another found footage franchise using multiple screens and viewpoints to create a horrific atmosphere is REC (2007), where the films are shot as a live journalistic feed from a television camera. As Above, So Below (2014) is a recent example that is filmed on digital cameras mounted on each character’s head, as they venture down into the catacombs of Paris.  The footage then switches to different characters’ perspectives throughout the film, to make a more complex plot.

The popularity of found-footage films like Paranormal Activity invites some explaining. Yes, the new multi-format found-footage film offers a visceral, scary experience. But why does it get to us so effectively?

Creepily close to home

Professor Loiselle explains that this new breed of found- footage films tie into society’s fascination with technology and immediacy. With everyone recording everything in real life, multi-viewpoint found-footage films feel more realistic and scary.

“There is an immediacy for news and events now,” he says. “Found footage gives us immediacy and no distance from what’s happening. And the response to the familiar feeling of immediacy is terror.”

Using technology like cellphones or webcams in found- footage films removes the safe feeling of distance for a 21st-century audience. The idea of your webcam filming a ghost in your bedroom seems more plausible than you being attacked by a grotesque monster.

Jake McDowell is an amateur found-footage filmmaker in Toronto. He says he finds the subgenre so scary because it feels like it could happen at any moment.

“We live in such a voyeuristic society these days, where almost everywhere you go, you’re recorded,” he says.  “When you’re watching found footage, it sort of feels like daily life but you don’t have control to look away or run away.”

Crowsnest is a found footage horror film where five friends go missing on a road trip.  [Photo courtesy of Brenton Spencer]

Crowsnest is a found-footage horror film where five friends go missing on a road trip.
[Photo courtesy of Brenton Spencer]

Brenton Spencer is another Canadian filmmaker who has tapped into the subgenre’s shift. He directed a found-footage horror film called Crowsnest that was released in both Canada and the United States in 2012, which used the traditional hand-held camera narrative. He is now working towards a sequel that uses the new multi-viewpoint style.

“It’s going to be led a lot by technological developments in media,” says Spencer. “From Google Glass to developments in cellphones, to incredible digital cameras and the ability to post material and distribute it instantly.”

And so filmmakers continue to think up new ways to incorporate everyday technology and experiences into their horror films.

“Found footage gives off the impression that it is real, but we all know that it’s fiction. That’s why we like the shivers down our spine,” says Loiselle.

The idea of your webcam filming a ghost in your bedroom seems more plausible than you being attacked by a grotesque monster.

Found-footage films can act as a mirror to society, with the goal to scare the audience. They resonate with a new generation because people use multiple screens and formats in today’s real life. We are constantly online, on our cell phones, or sharing our lives over social media, which is what these films are mimicking.

[Front page photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures]

Found-footage timeline

1980 – Cannibal Holocaust. Arguably the first found-footage film ever made. Italian director Ruggero Deodato was charged and cleared of making a snuff film because it was rumoured that actors were actually killed on camera.

1999 – The Blair Witch Project. A whopping success that pushed the subgenre into the mainstream. The shaky camerawork caused strong motion sickness in some viewers, forcing them to leave the theatre, some while vomiting.

2007 – Paranormal Activity. This film began the incorporation of multiple recording devices, using both a hand-held camera and footage from surveillance cameras. Its success spawned many sequels; the sixth installment is set for release in March 2015.

2012 – Chronicle. While this is more a science fiction film than a horror film, it uses a camcorder, as well as cell phones and surveillance cameras, to document the events.

2014 – Unfriended. The film is entirely found footage of a Skype conversation between six friends that goes wrong when an unknown person logs onto the conversation and threatens to kills them.