As I was settling in on the couch one morning drinking my coffee and trying to wake up, an idea popped into my head: why not give a random movie a go? A few clicks later The Den, a pseudo found footage movie, was loading up. As a lot of people might argue, these kind of films can be a bit hit and miss; they are really good or really bad, there seems to be no middle ground in this genre. This led me to start asking myself more questions, like why do I enjoy this kind of movie so much? And why do they always have to be great or crap?
Firstly, I would like to get it out of the way and admit that I’m a huge fan of found footage movies. Being into this particular filming style is a lot like being a Megadeth fan – you know the brilliance they can achieve but have had nothing but disappointment from their most recent material. Being a loyal found footage fan I always offer the movie gods a little prayer before I hit play: “Please let this be good”. In The Den’s case I think the gods were also having their morning coffee so they decided to ignore me. The movie was just atrocious. It had a decent start but the middle and the ending were simply abysmal. This made me start thinking about other found footage films and I even kicked myself a bit for being drawn to this genre.
To the best of my reason and logic (which both fail me on a regular basis!), I can trace my love for these movies back to Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project. Following the latter I sort of left this fandom on the shelf but only until Paranormal Activity was released, and then I took it back out off the shelf and started drinking this Kool-Aid again by the gallon.
Found footage is a perfectly viable genre, just think about films such as [REC], Long Pigs, The Last Exorcism, Trollhunter, The Black Water Vampire and even the much maligned Paranormal Activity franchise. All of these movies move the plot along at a great pace and keep the tension right where it should be. They also include enough comedy elements so viewers don’t just burn out on anticipation. For example, the opening scene of Long Pigs features a cannibal serial killer stringing up a dead victim while he is narrating how to prevent the meat from going bad. The nature of this comedy-horror scene reaches out and grabs you. Even films like Devil’s Pass, which straddled the line between found footage and science fiction by employing some time bouncing, turned out to be a good addition to the genre. This is a great upside of this style of filmmaking – it can adopt characteristics of other genres and can still deliver a great outcome.
So what can ruin a found footage movie? All of the films I mentioned above have a well-structured plot which doesn’t rely on any obvious additions to make it plausible. Let’s go back to The Den now, a not-so-carefully crafted found footage film. The killer seems to be everywhere throughout the film and to justify that they imply there’s a gang of killers right at the very end. When the viewers find out, it’s an emotional let-down. They should have focused on one killer, a monster in the closet that is everywhere and nowhere. This is a common mistake made by many found footage filmmakers, that they try to shoehorn logic into a horror story. Viewers leave logic by the door as they enter the horror realm. They are prepared to take these mental leaps, they don’t want things to be carefully box wrapped for them. If they did, they wouldn’t be horror fans, they would be spending their days watching Love Actually and Bridget Jones Diary on a constant loop instead.
Introducing new elements to the script is done by filmmakers not only to justify certain outcomes but to provide the necessary scary moments. However, it just comes off as lazy filmmaking. It doesn’t allow the viewers to emotionally invest in the characters and the story, it simply provides a hook for the plot so it can keep plodding along.
What can really push a found footage movie from bad to great is balancing all the different elements. It’s fairly easy to create tension in a horror story; in fact you can almost feel tension before you click play or get your ticket stub ripped. The trick is not to overdo it. A found footage film needs good twists and character development to carry it through as well. If it’s simply a string of bumps in the night then it is highly unlikely that viewers will engage and it will definitely fail to become a memorable encounter.
The unique thing about the found footage genre is that it is a blank canvas. When you’re about to watch a slasher or a possession film you roughly know what to expect but with found footage it’s not the same. It could cover just about anything, from vampires (The Black Water Vampire) and demonic possession (The Last Exorcism) to serial killers (Long Pigs). This is one of its most interesting aspects – you don’t know what you’re going to get until you sit down to watch it. At the same time it can be an unforgiving style and when it goes bad nothing can make up for it. However, when it’s done right it can offer a near religious experience of film viewing.
Give this genre a go. Dig out some of the good films mentioned here and you may just find that this style appeals to you in a unique way and will make you a found footage fan in no time.