[9 September 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With a weak opening of barely $9 million, Apollo 18 stunk up the September box office this past Labor Day Weekend. Few had much faith in a film that was jostled around the release schedule in such a random manner, and the lack of a significant press screening more or less sealed the deal. But there’s another factor involved in the flop that few have mentioned - the significant struggle required to make a good first person, POV, found footage film. The list of pretenders to the throne - The Poughkeepsie Tapes, The Zombie Diaries, The Last Horror Movie - are many, and for every classic take on the material, there are dozens of desperate wannabes who can’t seem to create compelling characters (Paranormal Activity) or a suspenseful storyline (The Last Exorcism).
In a nutshell, here’s the inherent problem with the category - the audience has to believe they are seeing something real. They have to believe that there’s a reason for a constantly filming camera (even in light of impending danger). They have to believe in the images captured. And they have to believe that the threat will continue to grow worse. The viewer should want to avert their eyes, not permanently close them in bored out of their brain tedium. It’s one of the most delicate and deceptive balancing acts in all of cinema. Perhaps this is why successful examples are so rare. In the case of the ten titles listed here, more than a few have flaws. In fact, only a couple are close to perfect. What they all have in common is the ability to deliver on their promise - and in the first person, POV, found footage arena, that’s a major accomplishment.
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 which offered a few shocks and precious little else, this ghost story actually delivers the goods - over and over and over again.
Perhaps one of the first films to ever explore the “you are there” dynamic from a purely serious and dramatic standpoint, this look at Britain pre and post nuclear annihilation would become 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). With its grim subject matter and predictions of devastation, War warned of a world that, luckily, we have yet to see. It even went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary, highlighting it use of found footage to improve the authenticity of the storyline.
Ruggero Deodato did such a great job recreating the flesh feasting crimes in this savage goona-goona satire of 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. Nowhere is the dichotomy between reality and ratings played out in such a slick, sick way. 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.
Bears have been - supposedly - attacking the locals in the uncivilized wilderness of upper Norway. A group of college journalists head out to explore the ‘truth.’ What they come up with is a startling discovery: there are trolls in them thar woods - and a government sponsored hunter out to stop their destructive and deadly rampage. Suddenly, the tone shifts from an ongoing mystery to a subtle black comedy about the bureaucratic headache of being the country’s only legitimate sprite slayer. With some spectacular F/X and set-pieces, this low budget foreign effort really delivers on the promise of the overall POV premise.
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. In pure post-modern meta style, he showed the initial living dead outbreak from an amateur horror film crew’s accidental perspective. They then go on to capture some unsettling hints of the outright dread to come. Some felt the macabre master was showing his age (and desperation) with such an approach, yet the results remain undeniably unsettling.
At the time, it was the most recent entry in the always tricky “scariest movie of all time” department. Oddly enough, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s 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 just 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 with age.
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.
Producer JJ Abrams pulled off one of the rare creative coups 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. Many still complain about the logistics of carrying a camera during such a chaotic circumstance, but the result is something special.
As the last two films on this list, these superb Spanish thrillers show what can be done with the found footage idea. In fact, both are so good it’s hard to pick which is the best. Each one 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. The first [REC] is the movie all other found footage films 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. Then the sensational sequel came out and added to the macabre mythology. Indeed, there are few regular films as perfectly matched as [REC] and [REC]2. That they also happen to be part of the found footage subgenre makes the accomplishment even more amazing.