Found Footage Film Forage

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 22nd May 2012.

I still remember that night. The cinema was packed. The tension was palpable. I had prepared myself with a few motion sickness tablets. The lights finally dimmed and the crowd hushed, ready to be scared out of their wits. It was time to meet the Blair Witch.

The year was 1999, and after months of hype, The Blair Witch Project finally hit Australian cinema screens. One of the first examples of a worldwide internet marketing campaign, the movie was pitched as an edit of real footage found in the woods a year after its crew went missing whilst searching for the elusive Blair Witch.

The mystery surrounding the film didn’t last very long. How many real life encounters with the supernatural come with their own soundtrack album, tie-in books and comics? Of course, the hype worked and the film went on to be one of the most successful independent films ever.

My encounter with the Blair Witch wasn’t nearly as frightening as I would have hoped. The film is 78 minutes of tiresome wandering around and minor squabbles between the “filmmakers” followed by one minute of a shocking, and very memorable, ending.

I was right to take the motion sickness tablets. The nature of the film meant that the whole thing was shot handheld, and I don’t mean with a Steadicam. The continuous jerkiness of the onscreen action is amplified on the big screen and a little vomit inducing.

The success of The Blair Witch Project inevitably led to more entries in the found footage genre, all with varying levels of success.

In 2008, the zombie Godfather, director George A. Romero, added to his zombie apocalypse series with Diary of the Dead. Following a group of student filmmakers who stumble onto a real life zombie outbreak, they do what comes naturally and run. Actually they don’t run, they decide to document the incident on film.

Probably the weakest in Romero’s iconic series, my biggest complaint with the film is the tendency for the protagonists to keep filming in situations of danger rather than get the hell out of Dodge.

The same dilemma similarly handicaps Cloverfield. Also released in 2008, the movie benefitted from online hype particularly about the nature of the mysterious creature attacking New York. Minutes before the unnatural disaster, a farewell party is taking place for Rob, who is moving to Japan (I wonder if he was aware that Godzilla flattens Tokyo on a regular basis?).

Luckily for the audience, Rod’s mate Hud is filming farewell messages, and when the ultimately disappointing turtle-like creature emerges, he keeps recording, even when it would be more useful to say, save your friends.

The Paranormal Activity trilogy launched with the original film hitting cinemas in 2007. A series of bizarre happenings in the home of a young couple lead them to set up cameras to discover what might be responsible for the haunting. What follows is akin to watching a series of security camera videos. Things go bump in the night. Doors creak. Nobody thinks to move out. Two further sequels followed buoyed by strong social media campaigns, with a third on the way. So far the series has grossed US$700 million worldwide. That’s 700 millions reasons to keep churning them out.

My favourite found footage film is the 2007 Spanish horror entitled [Rec]. A television crew recording the fictional show, While You’re Asleep, are following a fire crew on night shift. A call to an apartment building sees them quarantined inside with the tenants during an outbreak of a mysterious virus which renders its victims into violent and angry zombies. When the power is cut, the night vision of the camera becomes the only way for the survivors to search for a way out.

[Rec] works because it makes sense for the camera to be in use despite horrible things happening. It’s an unrelenting roller coaster that is easily in my top five scary movies. So far it has spawned two more sequels and a US shot for shot remake under the title, Quarantine, which in turn spun off its own sequel, which was strangely not filmed in a found footage style.

So if you’re wandering through your local spooky woods, keep an eye out for stashes of film reels or video tapes left behind by missing filmmakers. There are fortunes to be made in those haunted hills.

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