Examining innovation in the found footage genre

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.

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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.

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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.

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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