The headlines and articles back in summer 1999 said that the film had changed cinema forever. They made extravagant claims that the internet had now been used to such a degree that the marketing and distribution of films would never be the same again. This may have been premature, what these journalists didn’t quite grasp was that the majority of citizens with a connection to the internet were still on slow dial-up connections, and this made watching trailers or downloading porn a lengthy night’s chore at best.
The film that was causing all of the hoopla was none other than Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project, although not the first ever in the sub-genre now known as ‘found footage’, it turned out to be the most memorable and acclaimed. Sanchez and Myrick had used the internet and showings at film festivals to build a major ‘is it true or is it not?’ buzz and when eventually released, The Blair Witch Project became a cultural event. I can’t be alone in being someone who post screening in October of that year, drove to the woods with his friends and dared each other to walk into the darkness.
Post release, although Sanchez and Myrick talked up a romantic comic follow-up called ‘Heart of Love’ which went nowhere, not much really happened. I think many expected there to be a deluge of found footage films flooding the marketplace, cashing in on the success of Blair Witch but it seems that the technology was not yet suitably cheap and readily available enough for many wannabe directors to actually go out and do something. We were still a couple of years off camera phones and eight years from the release of the iPhone. Even the Blair Witch Project sequel; Book of Shadows ditched the format and subsequently disappointed and flopped, killing hope for the planned third movie which would have been a prequel.
Fast forward to 2007 and a strange, epic and mysterious teaser accompanies the release of Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie. In a culture that now has a buzz build and then be instantly discarded in such a rapid fashion that there is barely time to register it, it’s worth looking back on the marketing campaign of Cloverfield and what it owes to Blair Witch. For around six months people were puzzling over what the severed head of the statue of liberty meant being tossed down a New York City street like that. Random websites would pop up with something to do with a soft drink somehow connected to the movie and people theorised that this was a teaser for a Voltron movie because up until January 2008, Cloverfield still didn’t have a title.
JJ Abrams and director Matt Reeves played a good game and then eventually it was Harry Knowles, harkening back to the Blair Witch era desperate to still be relevant, that revealed the game and gave the film a good “Review” without spoiling things completely. Cloverfield was a big hit of course, the game had been played and it paid off, something about the way it was shot though, on newer digital camera technology and none of the super 8 or black and white nonsense, meant that something started to brew amongst those desperate to break into the industry.
A film pre-dating Cloverfield in terms of production had been sitting on a shelf gathering dust. This film was the polar opposite to Cloverfield in terms of scope, taking place all in one location and starring two actors menaced by a supernatural presence. Paranormal Activity was the directorial debut of Oren Peli and apart from a couple of strong showings at film festivals, nobody was really interested in releasing the film and it remained in the Paramount vaults. It’s unclear whether this was the result of fan support, the intervention of Steven Spielberg or the success of Cloverfield but eventually Paranormal Activity was released in late 2009 and became a massive and profitable hit spawning a yearly franchise. Finally after years of false starts, the found footage floodgates were opened.
Now Paranormal Activity is a solid and unnerving film which I didn’t see in the cinema but I would have felt short-changed if I had. The way that up and coming filmmakers and amateurs adopted it as a template though, it feels like the flood of Star Wars clones that filled up your video shop in the early 80s. Now anyone with a camera and some friends has looked at the success of Paranormal Activity and decided they want some of that sweet moolah without really understanding the mechanics, the skill and the talent it takes to pull off such a film.
So in the last three years the bottom shelf of Blockbuster has been heaving under the weight of films with titles like Paranormal Entity (hey if it isn’t broke), Evil Things, Atrocious, Grave Encounters, The Devil Inside and The Bigfoot Tapes. All of them are somehow worthy of discussion both good and bad but mostly bad. Evil Things for example supposes that someone at the FBI somehow found some weirdo’s footage of stalking some annoying teens and not only edited it together but gave it a moody score too.
This is kind of a fundamental misunderstanding of found footage from a conceptual level up, but the film also contains the unintentionally hilarious scene of a group of teens being lost in the woods and all turning on each other very dramatically only to find they are literally a stone throw from their doorstep (I’m not kidding this is an actual scene in the film). Regardless of quality, Evil Things got a release on DVD and VOD and now sits on the Lovefilm instant service taking up space. The Bigfoot Tapes might have been better than Evil Things in terms of execution, acting and more or less everything except that it throws in a lengthy and disturbing male rape scene as its finale effectively ruining all the tension building that has gone before. A hairy dude then walks by as an afterthought (again, I’m not making this up).
Now this isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some good found footage films over the last few years, Troll Hunter, Chronicle, V/H/S and the previously mentioned Grave Encounters and its sequel are all pretty good films and in some cases great . However what makes me think that the bubble has burst and that it’s time to move on, are four films of wildly varying quality that showed at last August’s Fright Fest in London.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident directed by Renny Harlin (Yes him really) is a solid based on true events movie that even features an ex member of the Hollyoaks cast and is still watchable. The film tries something different in that it welds a kind of Philadelphia Experiment time travel plot to its shaky footage and manages to be more exhilarating than most. The simple fact is though that it doesn’t work as a whole and feels rather too muddled to be memorable with its reach exceeding its grasp but remains a solid rental prospect.
Then there was V/H/S 2 which has been rather over praised as being better than the first. Getting down to brass tacks though and the first two segments of this sequel are rather too familiar and it feels almost like you are watching the same story twice in a row. This leaves the second half and honestly, the last two segments are the best things that the VHS franchise has yielded so far but due to the lacklustre first two segments, leave a film a bit too unbalanced to be as praised as it is even if it is an anthology film.
What really made me convinced though that this is the end of an era (or should be) is the film Frankenstein’s Army directed by Richard Raaphorst. Taken on its own terms Frankenstein’s Army is fun and well put together and a close experience to playing something like Silent Hill or BioShock in the dark on your own which Hollywood has been trying to do for ages. However why is the film found footage? It purely doesn’t make sense as it is set during the end of World War 2 and yet is filmed on pristine digital footage with barely a scratch on the frame.
The simple answer is that this aesthetic and concept are what is selling now and logic and historical accuracy be damned. I mean look at Silent House, even if that wasn’t found footage and was a different gimmick entirely, it was still marketed as if it was a found footage film. I’m convinced that Frankenstein’s Army could have been a classic if not for the way it was shot and Raaphorst should have had more faith in his strong concepts and mounted it a different way. I was hoping that World’s Greatest Dad and God Bless America director Bobcat Goldthwait would swoop in and save the day.
When it was announced that Goldthwait was making a found footage movie based on Bigfoot, I was tantalised by the prospect of a savage burn on the makers of Evil Things and Atrocious as Goldthwait skewed the sub-genre and spoofed it in black comedic fashion the way only he could. So Willow Creek was extremely disappointing in that apart from one line near the start, it was simply another found footage horror movie with no real self-awareness, albeit one with a long and tense one take scene in a tent. Willow Creek was the final straw for me and I came to the realisation that it wasn’t really his fault and Goldthwait simply didn’t have anything to work with, the found footage concept and sub-genre is flimsy and shallow and there is nowhere left to go with it where they haven’t yet gone.
When you boil it down, to create an effective found footage movie, you have to have logical characters who would have logical reasons for picking up a camera and not letting go when the world falls apart and how far can you really push this golden rule? Your main characters would have to be journalists or film students every time and this simply won’t work.
Frightfest 2013 marks the end of the found footage fad for me and it should do for filmmakers worldwide too, but what do I know? Ti West’s latest, The Sacrament, is also a found footage movie based on a religious cult and is getting good notices at festivals stateside so the bubble seems to have not quite burst yet. It can be quite depressing to be a horror fan and see the iTunes charts constantly full of low low budget found footage rip offs which you just know are going to be a chore to sit through, however two recent low-budget efforts which ignore the trends have given me a flicker of hope.
Here Comes the Devil is a Mexican horror film which played a few film festivals late last year and has now quietly come out here on DVD and VOD. The film is low-budget and has a simple concept where two kids disappear up a hill into a cave whilst their parents fret about their whereabouts. The kids come back and are different somehow. The film riffs on The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and Invasion of the Body Snatchers and does it with more or less no money at all and yet somehow is the most effective horror film I have seen in 2013.
Here Comes the Devil doesn’t have tons of gore or creature effects but hints at unspeakable horrors going on through sound effects, sexual imagery and dialogue and is more evocative and unnerving than any blurry and wobbly digital camera footage could ever be. Then last summer we got a low-budget American film called Absentia which revolved around a street and a tunnel and the characters living there and a missing husband, simple and yet the most atmospheric and creepy film even if it didn’t have the budget to fully convince with its creature effects.
These two low-budget and simple films show that talent will shine through with hard work and dedication. Found footage is simple yes, and it’s cheap so remains a good foot in the door. Talent goes a long way however and if you have a really strong concept, a good story and good characters you don’t need to dilute your talent with a moronic cameraman doing your talking for you.
People were producing clever, independent and entertaining films before Paranormal Activity, and before even Blair Witch (Vincenzo Natali’s Cube for example) and they will again or the straight to DVD/VOD horror industry will simple cease to exist. We need to support low-budget and independent voices that do good work and highlight then as good examples when we can otherwise things will not change. Only you the consumer can vote with your wallet and make these films solid rental hits and when Paranormal Activity 5 comes out, stay at home and watch Here Comes the Devil or You’re Next instead.