Examining innovation in the found footage genre

Feature Christopher Smith 17 Jun 2014 - 06:20

Found footage films may cover lots of the same ideas, but there's innovation to be found, argues Christopher...

The penultimate paragraph of this article contains spoilers for Rec, Grave Encounters, The Tunnel and The Poughkeepsie Tapes.

Scheduled for release in a little over two months, Legendary Pictures/Universal Studio's As Above, So Below is the newest addition to the found footage genre. In it, a group of American and British urban explorers descend into the catacombs beneath Paris. Equipped only with hand-held cameras, they begin to explore what is the final resting place for thousands of people. However, their curiosity quickly turns to terror as they uncover a grim secret that has been hidden for centuries and soon an expedition of exploration becomes a battle for survival.

Little has been released about this French-American-British production other than a trailer and a handful of stills and it remains to be seen whether this will be a breakout success like 1999's The Blair Witch Project or merely another 90 minutes of running and screaming in the dark with very little to be frightened about.

The concept of found footage is by no means new. Cannibal Holocaust included elements of it in 1980, landing its director in serious legal trouble in the process, and literature has its own version in the epistolary novel where the narrative is told via a series of documents. But the possibility of massive success and the inexpense and relative ease using this film-making technique has led to something of a glut in the market. For every Chronicle there are dozens of Apollo 18s and audiences would be forgiven for dismissing every new release as a rehash of what they've seen before.

The basic idea behind a found footage film is simple: a group of people experience something dreadful and they capture the events on film. Usually no one survives and the footage found is the only indication of what happened. While the set up, the truth behind the horrible event and the people doing the filming can vary greatly, many things remain the same. In order for their work to be recognised as a found footage film or – perhaps cynically - to ride a wave of success created by similar work, directors often stick rigidly to the formula. This can be both a blessing in that everyone knows what is expected of them but at the same time a curse for the same reasons.

When innovation is achieved it is done in interesting ways. Some directors do away with horror completely. Chronicle and Cloverfield demonstrated wonderfully how the technique could be used with science fiction, whether it's a surprisingly relatable story of super-powered teenagers or a gigantic monster destroying Manhattan. Both films also broke with convention in the scope of the events depicted and in Chronicle’s case, the source of the footage is widened to every camera in the city. The comedy and action genres have their own entries Project X and End of Watch.


However, horror is really the natural home of the sub-genre and there is no sign that this will stop any time soon. It is also the genre where cast and crew have to work a lot harder.

Innovation is rarer but when it appears, it's noticeable. Independent productions The Tunnel and The Bay are presented as mockumentaries, with interviews with the survivors. Both films immediately tease the viewer with the possibility that they will receive some kind of explanation for what happened. A calm, informed commentary on the events is provided which helps to ground the film in reality.

In truth, this should be a key aim of found footage as well as implementing the traditional means of triggering fear which is via pricking our subconscious. The Blair Witch Project, after all, is frightening because it taps into our fears of the woods, those dark, wild places away from the comforts of a city where people can – and do – go missing. Furthermore, the idea of being hunted is a primal fear for us as a species. Humanity eliminated its natural predators long ago and thus having this invisible and very capable entity chasing us down in our mastered environment is terrifying.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes retains the realism and concept of being hunted but switches the supernatural for an evil we know all too well: other people. Through the screen, we witness the macabre and sickening recordings of a serial killer who can strike without warning and takes victims from their homes. The film therefore offers the viewer two things: a grim insight into what a police officer must see everyday and a warning that nowhere is safe from monsters.

The Spanish horror film Rec plays on this as well but here the danger is not quiet killers but blood-thirsty monsters, the rapid loss of control in an emergency situation and the abandonment by those who are meant to help us. The hugely successful Paranormal Activity also takes place in a home but doesn’t limit the scares to night-time when they are most expected. Here the rising of the sun is no barometer of safety.

Paranormal Activity

There is also a theme of voyeurism in found footage and this is present in V/H/S and its sequel, where again the viewer is invited to watch very grainy footage of unspeakable things. The use of a selection of video cassettes isn’t solely a modern take on the horror anthology model or to explain away the inclusion of several distinct stories, but is a reference to the passing around of bootleg recordings of death and mayhem.

This also ties into fears about the internet, where anything can be found if searched for long enough and grisly clips are circulated on paranormal message boards. Without any context or explanation included, it is difficult to judge whether something may be the real thing or just a very good student film. With so much of the world being constantly recorded, if monsters really do exist, it's difficult to believe that evidence doesn’t exist out there on a memory card somewhere. Mistruths and urban legends propagate online, taking a life of their own and in an intriguing display of life imitating art, it is quite common to see clips of these films being offered as evidence of the supernatural.

When the supernatural is the horror at the dark heart of a found footage film, such as in the well-received Grave Encounters, there is a tendency to not show the monster. Usually this is for budgetary reasons or as an attempt to maintain an audience’s fear – after all, the mind can frighten us far better than any director ever could. The latter reason requires subtlety and a delicate approach and many films simply fall short. There are only so many times an audience can be prepared for a scare only to be disappointed before they grow bored.

In all of the above films, only The Tunnel's antagonist remains elusive. True, enough glimpses of it are seen for the audience to know that it is big, fast and vaguely humanoid but that's really it. Rec has the people around us become the monsters and in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, it becomes someone we might see every day but chose to ignore. In Grave Encounters, the characters are subjected to a gauntlet of ghosts - some of which they even capture on camera. We hear the crazed screams of both mortal and undead and while only a few are ever seen, it is enough to make the audience seek shelter as well.

The camera in an effective found footage horror film shouldn’t just provide a window into what happened but make us relive what the characters went through. It is meant to show the terrifying things that can happen in the dark corners of the world and remind us of the monsters that lurk in the shadows. They are ghost stories for a constantly-connected, hyper digital world but with very traditional fears at their core.

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I actually enjoyed George Romero's Diary of the Dead, which made the found footage film a bit differently. Cloverfield is still the very best of these films IMO. It's the only found footage film that actually feels like a real movie.

I know it's a genre that has its haters and for the most part I can understand why. It seems to be a love/hate divide with little middle ground. I however love it. It's the closest thing we have to a first person viewpoint in cinema and there's no better genre to witness things through the eyes of the characters than horror. They do a perfect job of capturing feelings of being lost and completely in panic and as the article mentions, it's not what you can see and more about wondering what the Hell that thing was you just saw out the corner of your eye. To me that's far scarier than any jump scare and is likely to stay with you longer.

Rec and V/H/S were both great films and I loved The Blair Witch Project when it came out. Grave Encounters was also brilliant and I enjoyed that fact that the start was a perfect spoof of shows like Most Haunted (complete with the camp and crap psychic). Looking forward to As Above and I hope it's better than Urban Explorers which sounds like the same plot only set in a German tunnel system.

I'm generally more forgiving with found footage films as I know they're low budget and are less likely to feature loads of special effects. I really enjoyed The Dyatlov Pass Incident and The Lost Coast Tapes recently, even though both were straight-to-DVD and had some rubbish acting. The Chernobyl Diaries was pretty cool as well.

I find these movies mostly boring. I was excited for Cloverfield until I saw it, what a let down. Mostly because you needed to find the whole story on the web, that's where they explained where the monster came from and how the heck Manhattan was swarming with military within a couple of hours.

Michael Crichton's "Eaters of the Dead" (which became the decidedly-not found footage film "The 13th Warrior") is a great example of "found literature," as the narrative claim is translation from the manuscript of the main character.

And believe it or not, if you want to add a BIG name to the "found literature" genre, then you'd have to add the Middle-earth writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Why? The entire story is supposedly translated from The Red Book of Westmarch, written by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

I've found that the films in this genre that stick with me longest are those that make use of the format - the thud of the camera and the dawning realisation at the climax of Blair Witch being the perfect example. Also pertinent is the Last Broadcast (arguably the founding catalyst in the current trend) and it's utilisation of video distortion to hide the perpetrator's identity.

But then again I really enjoyed Apollo 18 so what do I know...

I quite liked the lack of exposition in Cloverfield.

The whole point - for me - was that it was supposed to be the event as witnessed through the eyes of an average Joe in the city, so to speak. Too much information would have taken away from that.

IMO, of course.

I agree, you're pretty much along for a ride in that movie, you don't need to know where it came from, what it is, what it wants, you're just following the characters as they try to survive.

The scariest thing about Blair Witch was it's trailer. The film itself was pure bollocks!

I liked Chronicle and Cloverfield but I mostly find these films a bit dull. I enjoy a well shot film and these films aren't on purpose. I know that's the point but it's not my cup of tea.

Exactly. We'd seen traditional disaster movies scores of times before. Cloverfield offered a new perspective on the genre...

I was about to say that I enjoyed Apollo 18 also. Even more shocking: I liked it more than Chronicle :-O

A really great found footage film is Europa Report. It is a fantastic sci-fi film where the found footage element makes complete sense. Never got a cinema release in the UK and I had to buy the German Blu-Ray, even though the film is in English.

I'd also say that a crucial element of such films in the found footage genre is the characters. If one has empathy for the characters, then the film's fear factor increases tenfold. With Cloverfield, it was an interesting narrative, but it fell short for me because I couldn't give a damn what happened to the characters. Part of me was cheering on the monster. I can be so mean.

For me Cloverfield and the first two REC films are the pinnacle of the genre. They used the technique to make you feel like you're right there with the characters. When the camera peers down the stairwell near the end of REC and we see the zombies coming up the stairs it's still some of the most exciting cinema I've ever watched.

I am the author of this article. I have a bit of hate for
Apollo 18 because I was so looking forward to it and it broke my heart. :)

There are dozens of films that I have not touched on in this
article and it cannot possibly be a comprehensive summary of every good FF film.
The films I mention are ones that struck me as being particularly noteworthy
but I am fully aware that found footage is very much a love/hate genre and in
many cases, these films will only appeal to fans of the genre – and I am very
much one of those.

If you have recommendations of films I may have missed,
please let me know at @bloodonthedice.

I have actually seen that. Great film

Good article. No mention of Troll Hunter..? Probably my favourite 'found footage' film...

In theory, yes. For me "Found Footage" implies footage found after the event (like Blair Witch Project). Ghostwatch live is more mockumentary, where something fake is passed off as real. I would argue that mockumentaries are cousins of found footage and can be included,

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