The James Clayton Column: Holiday home movie horror

As Chernobyl Diaries arrives in cinemas, James wonders, are holiday home movies scarier than found footage horror flicks, and what happens when the two are combined…?

I know of a man who used to film every single moment of his family holidays. With a digital video camera constantly attached to his arm, he recorded every second of his summer vacations for posterity, later burning them onto memento DVDs with minimal editing.

Like a bizarre cross between Nick Broomfield and Russ Meyer, his Peeping Tom zeal for making home movies extended to filming his wife in the bath, which was a really unnerving thing to encounter when you’re watching what you think is a family film travelogue of a trip to Toronto.

I remember this horror as I look ahead to Chernobyl Diaries, which is rigged along a similar format – tourists taking footage of their trip to foreign places. The crucial difference is that this movie revolves around the notion of extreme tourism in a radioactive fallout zone and has (hopefully) nothing to do with familial non-adventures and domestic titillation. Seeing that man’s holiday DVD at a very young age taught me never to trust older men with cameras, years before I’d seen Peeping Tom.

It also made me realise that most holiday home movies are a drag, either ultra smug or deadly dull unless something really exciting is happening, like an unexpected attack of atomic mutants. Thinking about my own recent holiday, it’s undoubtedly the case that if I’d captured everything on camera I would’ve ruined my own experience and ended up with an epic amount of tedium that no one would want to watch.

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My vacation video would have mainly consisted of me wandering around galleries and museums in Florence repeatedly wailing “It’s beautiful!” like René Belloq at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I suppose I could’ve added some CGI demon seraphim and melting Nazis in post-production to make it more entertaining for casual observers. Regardless, I really couldn’t be bothered, and I retain my generalised stance that holiday home movies are not worth the effort except in exceptional circumstances.

Those exceptions are made by professionals and I have respect for, say, Bear Grylls and Bruce Parry whose travelogues offer mind-expanding stimulation. I always enjoy documentaries where people take psychotropic trips with Amazonian tribes or survive in the desert by ingesting nothing but snake entrails and their own urine.

The truth is that those types of travel films are way more enjoyable and educational than a dull video chronicle of the meals your children had and the baths your wife took on your summer break. Given the choice, I’d much rather go to the cinema and see a fictional film that has more dramatic character arcs, narratives and special effects than some half-baked, self-assembled pseudo-soap opera. If I did want to see such a thing I could easily doss away time on YouTube or make my own crappy home videos.

In spite of this stance, I think I’ll give Chernobyl Diaries a whirl and check it out at the cinema. I hope that its extreme tourism premise makes it a worthwhile watch and surprises me, because as well as being resistant to holiday home movies I’m also inclined to actively avoid found footage flicks. In my humble opinion, Paranormal Activity – from director Oren Peli who’s producing Chernobyl Diaries – is one of the most boring features ever made and, thus, I’m not enthusiastic about works of a similar ilk.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t find security camera-grade footage of ‘frightenings’ scary at all. After sitting through the first Paranormal Activity film I had no desire to follow up the rest of the series, having only been slightly jolted by one jumpy moment at the tail end of the movie. I don’t believe that the found footage format with all its rough-and-ready aesthetics and verisimilitude is the ultimate ideal for horror movies. In fact, I’d argue that the opposite – highly stylised moviemaking – is better for shock and awe and makes for richer cinematic experiences.

The motion pictures that have scared me the most are triumphs of style that haven’t slavishly sought to be ‘realistic’. Films like Black Swan, Suspiria and The Woman In Black are so spine-tinglingly effective because they push the fantastical and unreal to the fore. They use mise-en-scène masterfully to manipulate the viewer and through the combination of sound, special effects and editing craft exquisite, affecting sensory experiences.

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Unedited found footage, presented ‘as is’, doesn’t disturb the viewer’s senses as much. That’s a problem for me as someone who watches horror films because he wants to be disturbed, because he wants to give his mind and body an escapist and uncanny sensual experience.

Suspiria, for example, is one such experience, thick with outlandish colour, an ethereal soundtrack courtesy of Goblin and dreamlike phantasmagorical wonder that doesn’t characterise humdrum everyday existence (unless you happen to live in a nightmarish ballet school with a coven of witches and an Italian prog rock band). In contrast to Dario Argento’s artistic terror-fest, handheld camera horror flicks like Paranormal Activity feel feeble and are nowhere near as immersive.

The ‘found footage’ flicks that have impressed me are, unsurprisingly, the ones that use special effects in sublime fashion and elevate the material over security camera-style cinéma vérité. Chronicle, Cloverfield and Troll Hunter are, off the top of my head, the only movies in the genre that have really worked for me. (I’m not counting straight-up non-fiction documentaries and mock-docs like This Is Spinal Tap ‘cause they’re a different kettle of cucumbers altogether).

I’m on-board and enthused if the mundane is smashed by epic telekinetic superpower battles, rampaging alien monsters and colossal folklore creatures. Those flicks transcend the limits of the home movie medium and resonate as more intriguing, engaging works of art and there’s hope for Chernobyl Diaries as it takes place outside the domestic realm that I go to the cinema to escape from. Still, I know that I’d personally be more stoked up about the film if it was a highly stylised, unapologetically fictional horror film about Chernobyl than one which runs with the ‘found footage’ schtick.

Ultimately I suppose it comes down to the original intention behind the film. If the found footage format is used for artistic reasons and seeks to do something radical in cinema – as Chronicle did with the ‘superhero’ genre – then it’s justified. If it’s purely a cynical exercise designed to keep production costs low and score an easy box office hit as a means to an end, then I’d judge it as a bad thing.

It isn’t as bad, though, as hiding softcore porn in a family holiday home movie.

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James Clayton does not make holiday home movies but if he did they would feature melting Nazis and giant trolls. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.

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