[12 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With its fourth place finish at the box office this weekend, $7 million-plus haul, and continuing buzz about its scary movie status (or lack thereof), Paranormal Activity has once again spiked renewed interest in the oddball combo category known as Found Footage/Mock Documentary horror. Used sporadically since the inception of post-modern era, this experiment in attempted authenticity has been rather hit or miss. For every proposed blockbuster, there are an equal number of mere busts. In fact, with the advances in technology, more independent filmmakers are trying their hand at such a stunt-oriented style. More times than not, it doesn’t work (see the crappy Chronicles of an Exorcism for further proof).
In light of all the hype surrounding Oren Peli’s limp haunted house saga, SE&L has decided to recommend 10 films it feels does a much better job with the cinematically sticky format. Not all of these movies succeed - in fact, more than a couple are just as underwhelming as Paranormal‘s dull demon attack. But when given over to proclamations and unnecessary superlatives, it’s nice to get little added perspective on what you’re celebrating. If the movies mentioned here are any indication, the current cause celeb will have a long way to go before it matches the menace generated by its commercial cousins. Let’s begin with one of the original attempts at combining fact with fiction:
The War Game (1966)
Perhaps one of the first films to every explore the “you are there” dynamic from a purely dramatic standpoint, this look at Britain pre and post nuclear annihilation would be the forerunner for later takes on the material, including NBC’s shockingly superb 1983 entry Special Bulletin (a TV movie that actually fooled many watching at home). War even went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary, highlighting it use of found footage to improve the authenticity of the storyline.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Ruggero Deodato did such a great job recreating the flesh feasting crimes in this savage goona-goona satire on the media that he was actually detained by Italian police, accused of helming an actual snuff film. Of course, it was all faked, but this didn’t stop urban legends and other conjecture from surrounding this sickening exercise in excess. While the bookend material is a tad hamfisted (it makes Network look subtle), there is no denying the impact of the supposed “real” depictions of death.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
The first in a long line of serial killer spotlights, this Belgian black comedy finds a film crew following around Benoît Poelvoorde, a monstrous maniac who murders people at random. Over the course of his conversations with his ‘witnesses’, he draws them into his world of violence and mayhem. Many have criticized this film for its cold and callous approach. But there’s no denying its impact on the next decade of first person POV productions.
The Last Broadcast (1998)
One of the lingering controversies in this new subgenre is which came first - The Last Broadcast or The Blair Witch Project. There are similarities between both that are eerily prophetic and some have suggested that the Burkittsville filmmakers caught a festival screening of this similarly styled effort, the rest being multimillion dollar history. Whatever the final version of the truth, this criminally overlooked thriller features a group of public access cable adventurers meeting their fate in a fabled wood. The rest of the narrative tries to unravel the mystery surrounding their death, succeeding in sending shivers up one’s spine in the process.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
As the most recent entry in the always tricky “scariest movie of all time” department, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez cinematic shell game was always meant to be a multimedia con. There was a no BS website, a lack of available talent for interviews, and early reviews suggesting that this was the first authentic example of a true found footage title ever. In the end, it was jus a really good ruse backed up with a slight, sloppy scary movie. The ending is still sensational. The rest of the movie has only grown more grating over time.
In the Dark (2004)
Undoubtedly, few have heard of this low budget independent offering, a movie that features several inebriated teens entering a supposedly haunted asylum to test their terror tenacity. Using a first person POV perspective as well as severally slyly placed surveillance cameras, this was the rare film that took the gimmicky premise and played it for as much misdirection and menace as possible. Unlike a low tech take such as Paranormal Activity, this ghost story actually delivers the goods - over and over and over again.
Diary of the Dead (2007)
George Romero jumped into the found footage fray after the less than enthusiastic response for his fourth installment in the Dead series (Land of the…). With a fan base still clamoring for more zombie goodness, he came up with a clever way of resetting the franchise, showing the initial living dead outbreak from a horror film crew’s accidental perspective. Some felt the macabre master was showing his age (and desperation) with such an approach, yet the results remain undeniably unsettling.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
A real “love it or hate it” entry into the subgenre, many will never forgive filmmaker John Erick Dowdle for wasting a good idea with such piss-poor execution. Following police as they pour over nearly 800 video tapes shot by a sadistic serial killer seems like a crackerjack idea for a fright film. But budgetary restrictions and a lack of experience meant that most of the gore was kept offscreen. Add in some terrible acting and a similarly hyped theatrical ploy by MGM (they ended up pulling the release at the last minute) and this stands as a decent decision with only limited cinematic returns.
Along with the last film on this list, this superb Spanish thriller shows what can be done with the found footage idea. It takes an inspired set-up, a perfected follow through, and an attic filled with ghoulish geeks and turns them into a living nightmare of authentic horror movie maneuvers. This is the movie Paranormal Activity pretends to be, a rollicking rollercoaster ride where you never know what’s around the next corner, where anyone can die at any time, and an ending that raises as many questions as it provides answer. Lucky for us [REC]2 comes out in a couple of months. Supposedly, it’s just as good as the original.
Producer JJ Abrams pulled off one of the rare creative coups two years ago when he began a compelling viral ad campaign to celebrate his gonzo Godzilla update. With Mark Reeves behind the lens and enough shaky cam complaints to make the Blair Witch seem like a dose of Dramamine, this amazing monster movie proved that POV filmmaking didn’t have to lack scope, intensity, or action. In fact, the best part about this movie was the flawless integration of oversized F/X into what was supposed to be a handheld camera capture.