When Cannibal Holocaust was released, director Ruggero Deodato was arrested for murder. Because of the film’s found footage conceit, people believed the actors had really been killed, and that the movie was a genuine snuff film. Deodato had to get the cast – alive and well, of course – to appear on a talk show to prove that he hadn’t actually murdered anyone.
Found footage has come a long way since the early ’80s, though, and nowadays it’s unlikely anyone’s actually going to go searching in the woods for some kids who got lost, or take a bottle of holy water round to the Paranormal Activity house to help them deal with their supernatural visitors.
Actually, most of us are probably pretty bored with the genre. Getting your actors to hold the cameras used to be a shortcut to realism, but as audiences, we’re sophisticated enough not to get too drawn in any more. But cameras in the movies aren’t going away, and most modern horror movies involve at least one character who’s an amateur documentarian. Last year saw a few new horror movies get clever with the way they use technology and multiple film sources. Let’s look at some examples.
Oculus is a movie about a cursed mirror. Or it’s a movie about a troubled family, and how mental illness and abuse have long-lasting consequences. Really, it’s both, and it’s got a complex narrative structure that involves jumping forwards and backwards in time as a pair of grown up siblings go back to their childhood home to try to discover what made their father turn abusive.
Kaylie (Karen Gillan) is convinced that a malevolent entity trapped inside an antique mirror is at the heart of her family’s problems; her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has spent years in therapy learning that his childhood obsession with the mirror was just a way of dealing with the terrifying reality of his father’s illness. To uncover the truth, Kaylie has set up a series of scientific instruments, including cameras, because the one thing both she and her brother agree on is that their memories – and even their interpretations of reality – can’t quite be trusted.
Oculus isn’t a found footage movie, but it does incorporate cameras into its story. The idea of the unreliable narrator is nothing new in fiction, but Oculus plays around with it in a clever way, since it has two different characters, each with their own interpretation of events – plus a third, apparently impartial viewpoint in the shape of a camera. Right from the beginning, the footage recorded on Kaylie’s camera shows things happening differently from the main film’s version, which wrongfoots us as much as it does the characters. What’s really happening? It’s hard to say for sure.
Without spoiling too much, there’s a sequence in the film where Kaylie pulls out her iPhone to try to use its camera to distinguish reality from what she (maybe) hallucinated, and it’s terrifying.
The Quiet Ones
Another film that uses a camera in its narrative to try to distinguish fact from fiction is The Quiet Ones. The set-up here is that an unconventional professor (played by Jared Harris) has a theory about a link between the supernatural and mental illness: to him, it’s all energy, and if a patient could manifest their illness as a kind of poltergeist, it could be exorcised and the patient cured. To prove his theory, he enlists the help of a couple of Oxford University students and a local cameraman, and packs them all off to a house in the middle of nowhere to run some experiments.
Now, there are some obvious parallels between that and Oculus, since they’re both about tensions between science and magic, about perception vs reality, and whether mental illness is linked to the supernatural. But while Oculus sets up its cameras as impartial observers that see the mundane truth, The Quiet Ones kind of does the opposite. For the first two thirds of the movie at least, the only way we, the audience, get to see anything spooky happening is through the lens of the camera in the movie.
Which is a bit weird, isn’t it? Given the movie’s premise, you’d almost expect the opposite – that anything supernatural would fail to be caught on camera, so there was never any proof of what was going on. It’s never entirely clear how the film wants us to interpret that decision: does it mean that something supernatural is happening even when the characters insist on scientific explanations? The fact that sometimes the camera catches something the characters never even see would seem to suggest yes, that here we’re supposed to believe in magic over science.
Another thing that makes The Quiet Ones different from Oculus is that it’s a period piece, set in the 1970s. So the camera used by Sam Claflin’s character is an old fashioned film camera, and it’s deliberately shown to be using low quality film stock. Maybe the only reason the film shows us its spooks through that camera is that we’re conditioned, on some level, to find old degraded film stock creepy?
Or maybe it’s a question of authenticity. One of the film’s subplots involves a piece of film the characters watch right at the beginning which turns out, later on, to show something quite different from what they’d first thought, so maybe there’s a comment in there about how unreliable film can be.
Annoyingly, the final reel of The Quiet Ones contradicts some of what went before, so if it was trying to say anything interesting, it kind of gets lost. But I’m still including it here because I think there’s something interesting about the way this film, like Oculus, sets up layers of ‘reality’, with its characters seeing something different when they watch their film from what we’re seeing, watching ours.
The last film I want to drag into this discussion – and I know there are probably lots, lots more that are doing similar things – is Mr Jones. Unlike Oculus and The Quiet Ones, Mr Jones is a found footage movie. Or at least it seems to be.
It starts out, boringly enough, with a young couple making a documentary. Like many recent found footage style movies, it’s edited – with captions and voiceover, even – but includes scenes you’d think any decent documentary maker would have cut out, like mundane scenes of Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones) arguing or packing their bags. As the film goes on, though, the subject of the documentary shifts, and things start getting really weird.
I don’t want to spoil the movie by revealing all of its secrets, but there’s a revelation quite late on that makes everything we’ve been watching up until that point suspect. Things that might have looked like mistakes turn out not to have been, and even the existence of the camera comes into question. The finale is dreamy, hallucinatory, and utterly terrifying – but hard to explain. Mr Jones does something more experimental than either Oculus or The Quiet Ones with its cameras, playing with the conventions of a found footage movie in interesting ways.
Ever since The Blair Witch Project, found footage has been a popular format for horror films. If we’re being cynical about it, that could just be because it’s seen as a cheap and easy way to make a movie, but it’s also because the form just makes sense when you’re telling a horror story. It feels immediate, like the viewer is right there in the middle of the action. And putting a camera in a character’s hands is also an excuse to have them walk into danger – after all, they need to get the shot, right?
As audiences, we might have got wise to found footage movies, and we don’t believe something’s real just because it’s been shot with a handheld camera. But I think there are still ways filmmakers can use their characters’ cameras in new and scary ways. There are bound to be more found footage horrors released this year – Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is scheduled for March, for starters – but let’s hope they’ve evolved beyond just making their characters wander around with night vision mode on and expecting that to be enough to give us the creeps.