There used to be a rumor about The Blair Witch Project. It said that if you paused the movie at the exact right moment—a frenzied midnight sprint through the woods—you could see a masked figure perched in a tree. In this scene, actress/victim Heather Donahue screams amidst the chaos: “What the fuck is that?!” But no matter how many times you rewind or pause it, it’s never clear what she’s screaming at. There is no masked figure.
Yet people obsessed, about this and other homegrown theories. Credit the brilliant marketing, which, through guerilla tactics and a detailed AOL-era website, attempted to sell the film’s “found footage” as legitimate. The concept that this was legitimately lost footage, recovered from the muddy forests of Burkittsville, Maryland, was quickly debunked, of course, but a kind of reverse skepticism surfaced that sought for mystery within the fiction. The shaky, inelegant camera work, the inane dialogue, the improvisational feel: At the time, it reinforced better than any title card that, whatever this is, it didn’t come out of Hollywood. As such, it ignited the imaginations of audiences sick of being spoon-fed demons and monsters.
This “found footage” concept wasn’t new, necessarily. Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 gorefest Cannibal Holocaust arguably introduced the gimmick in movies, while others, like Dean Alioto’s UFO Abduction, made ripples in its aftermath. But it was Blair Witch that breached the mainstream, and the surprise success of Oren Peli’s ultra low-budget Paranormal Activity in 2007 that piqued Hollywood’s interest. Paranormal Activity sequels followed, new found footage-based franchises formed ([REC], V/H/S, Grave Encounters), a sci-fi tentpole was erected (Cloverfield), and dozens of chaotic, shaky-cam standalones were launched and subsequently forgotten. Few have captured the zeitgeist, however, and none have lit a fire under the obsessives. At least, not in the way Blair Witch did.
From here, “found footage” transitioned from a storytelling convention to a style of filmmaking defined by a first-person, semi-improvisational perspective. As such, core tenets of the concept became lost. The recovery of the footage, an integral part of the genre’s early adopters, became a moot point, as did the question of why the subjects would continue to film in the face of imminent danger. This has led to something of a backlash, both from horror hounds and critics. Countless reviews and articles have called for a moratorium on found footage horror, citing a lack of plausibility, nausea-inducing shaky cams, and a lack of visual flair.
They’re not wrong, necessarily. But why place all the blame on the genre itself, especially after we’ve seen it work so well? Critics might say because it relies on such a specific, alienating style. Or that the conceit itself requires a certain amount of novelty to succeed, something that’s hard to come by in a saturated market. But to blame the boundaries of a genre for its shortcomings is to disregard the artists behind it. Working within limitations, in fact, is often what allows an creator’s true talent to distinguish itself from the rabble. Let’s not forget that John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese first proved their worth within the budgetary constrictions of Roger Corman. The problem here isn’t found footage horror; it’s lazy filmmaking.
Take a look at M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, a found-footage spooker released last month to mostly positive reviews. The story of two kids meeting their estranged, eccentric grandparents for the first time, The Visit oscillates nimbly between atmospheric unease and gross-out horror as it confronts universal fears of age and displacement. Shyamalan, with tremendous misfires like The Lady In The Water and The Happening, has invited plenty of ridicule, but you can’t argue with the auteur’s natural talent for tension-building and tableau. He sacrificed none of it for his first foray into found-footage horror, eschewing shaky cam chaos for patient, graceful pans and eerie moments of quiet reflection. The Visit’s not perfect—Shyamalan’s clunky dad humor nearly sinks it—but it exemplifies how a visual stylist can bend the genre to their own strengths.
The Visit also indulged in much of what even mainstream found-footage horror does well: the exploitation of the genre’s limited, POV-style perspective. By placing the audience in the shoes of the protagonist, found-footage horror can easily access the dread that accompanies navigating a shadowy hall or descending a darkened staircase. No longer are we given an omnipresent peek into what lies beyond or approaches from behind. Instead, we’re treated to mere glimpses of the horror, signposts that point to a terror much larger than we can comprehend. Near the end of The Visit, the 15-year-old protagonist is locked in a pitch-black room with her grandma, whimpering as the older woman’s face eerily floats halfway into the shot and out again over the course of several nerve-shredding seconds. We don’t see her hands; we can’t read her intentions. As an audience, we are as helpless as the protagonist.
Consider Blair Witch’s ending, with Donahue witnessing her co-star comatose in a basement corner before she’s knocked to the ground by an unseen presence. Though divisive at the time, it has persevered for its ambiguity and power of suggestion. Modern found-footage films have learned from this. The best segments of the first V/H/S anthology, for instance, relegate their most stunning set pieces—a winged succubus, ephemeral arms grasping through solid wood—to mere seconds, where they can imprint our subconscious rather than exhaust our eyeballs. Even drek like As Above, So Below and Renny Harlin’s Devil’s Pass display a keen understanding of ambiguity, as their most resonant moments tease a world so much larger than their respective protagonists, a world we’re left to imagine without the aid of omnipresence. The results are often more thought-provoking than what you’ll find in the cheap, cheesy endings of critically acclaimed flicks like Sinister or The Conjuring, solid movies that nevertheless leave nothing to the imagination.
Found footage also feels infinitely more connected to the modern age than nearly any traditional horror film to hit theaters in recent years. Take last year’s excellent Unfriended, for example, a “slasher” that unfolds entirely on a laptop’s app-stuffed display and ingeniously tells its story through Skype, Facebook, Spotify, and instant messaging services. Nacho Vigalondo’s impenetrable Open Windows adopted a similar conceit, while Zachary Donohue’s so-so The Den exploited the innate horror of Chatroulette’s random pairings. Other films, like Blair Witch director Eduardo Sanchez’s found-footage Bigfoot flick Exists, rely on the increasing presence of GoPro cameras to justify their pervasive recording.
Modern traditional horror rarely tackles such themes, which is baffling considering how dramatically technology has evolved in recent years. We live in a society where anyone with an iPhone carries an HD camera in their pocket, not to mention one where kids are as likely to film a fight or tragedy as they are to stop it. By weaving this technology into the very fabric of its storytelling, found footage can comment on it via structure and presentation as much as content. Unfriended, especially, infuses its themes of cyberbullying with greater depth and resonance by depicting just how reliant we are on the technology that can so easily expose our vulnerabilities. While most traditional horror views technology with distrust and condemnation, found footage can draw upon its POV-style perspective to explore how society’s inevitable communicative advancements complicate both identity and anonymity. It’s a direction future found-footage filmmakers would be wise to consider.
But found footage’s greatest potential lies not in the future, but in its past. Because what’s now missing is what the genre’s innovators valued first and foremost: the blurring of fiction and reality. Just as the crew behind Blair Witch fostered doubt as to the fiction of its story and central mythology, director Ruggero Deodato helped fueled rumors that Cannibal Holocaust was a snuff film by working it into his actors’ contracts that they had to stay out of the media for a year. Deodato’s gamble worked so well that, soon after the film’s release, he was brought up on obscenity and murder charges that were dropped only after he brought the actors before an Italian court and revealed the secret behind his special effects.
Thing is, Deodato’s movie is a snuff film, just not of the human variety. On camera, the performers brutally slaughter a muskrat, monkey, baby pig, and, in one of the sickest scenes ever put to film, a sea turtle, calling into question the authenticity of every subsequent act. “The brain has been conditioned to accept that which it’s now seeing as real,” said legendary goreteur Lloyd Kaufman of the film, referring not just to the murders, but to the amateurish nature of the editing and handheld camerawork. That Holocaust was filmed in the Amazon Rainforest with real indigenous tribes only contributes to the film’s unblinking naturalism.
What’s so clear in Holocaust and even more so in Blair Witch is that there’s no army of gaffers, audio techs, and interns behind the camera. The handheld camera and improvisational bent only heightens the innate danger, insinuating that what’s happening onscreen is happening moment by moment in unforgiving environments that could turn on the actors at any moment. Holocaust’s uncivilized tribes and Blair Witch’s unrehearsed locals register not as extras, but as unreliable participants in a pocket of make-believe. When truth is introduced in fiction, the question that inevitably arises is what other truths might emerge. Thus, masked men in trees and, lacking that, the persevering question of just what exactly Blair Witch’s Donahue is screaming at as she runs from the tent.
According to the DVD commentary, it was art director Ricardo Moreno. He was running alongside Donahue, wearing white long-johns, white stockings, and white pantyhose pulled over his head. Silly, yes, but still satisfying, because Donahue genuinely didn’t know who or what it was. Her scream was a real one, born out of terror and confusion. If that isn’t pure, thrilling horror, I don’t know what is.
It should go without saying that this isn’t an argument for onscreen animal mutilation, but rather a reminder that found footage lends itself to spontaneity and naturalism in ways that are wholly organic to its style. Not all found-footage filmmakers have disregarded the genre’s humble beginnings—Bobcat Goldthwait worked wonders with the Blair Witch template in last year’s Willow Creek—but most have simply inserted Hollywood’s tired horror tropes (jump scares, creepy kids, hilariously elaborate kills) into the found footage style.
But Hollywood’s interest in found footage is waning, as the upcoming Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is said to be the last in the genre’s flagship franchise. Let’s consider this a positive, because found footage has always been a square peg in the round hole of Hollywood; it was never supposed to go mainstream. Innovation within the genre is born out of necessity, which is why it will always thrive under the eye of budding, broke filmmakers who have no choice but to record their debut feature on an iPhone. Or just look at Mark Duplass’ unnerving Creep, a low-budget, low-risk endeavor where the established indie guru and young buck Patrick Brice (The Overnight) could experiment with form in the shadows, far away from studio lots. Because if the man in the mask is anywhere, it’s there.