The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Found Footage Era

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Found footage films, we hate to love them, but they have become such an intricate part of modern cinema. Used as a technique in tribute to epistolary novels, the found footage film parodies a documentary-like method to convince the audience that what they are watching is within the realm of plausibility. This technique is milked constantly by the horror genre for the very simple reason that audiences who are immersed within a film, who can further relate to what they are watching and experience it firsthand will become more afraid, and fear generates revenue. Other genres have exploited this technique as well, but the biggest feat of this type of cinema is its marketing strategy. 

The first horror film to gain worldwide acclaim for the use of this technique was the gore fest, Cannibal Holocaust (1980). If you haven’t seen it yet, well, I wouldn’t watch it on a full stomach. It’s pretty intense. So intense, for its graphic violence and explicit scenes on sexual assault and disturbing animal abuse, that it was banned in certain countries. The film did not fully immerse its audience as this technique later would, but rather presented a film within a film. In it, a reel is recovered by a rescue team who, after watching the atrocities committed by an indigenous Amazonian tribe to a team of documentarians, are repulsed when an American television network decides to air the footage to the public. 

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) deemed one of the most disturbing horror films to date.

Was this type of genre effective? Evidently. The film’s immediate criticism and banishment from certain areas around the world led to an increase in demand, as many film buffs sought it out. Horror enthusiasts deemed it the founder of the found footage genre. As to not spoil the film for those of you curious enough to watch, I will choose my words carefully. Cannibal Holocaust reflects on western civilization’s self acclaimed superiority and its historical treatment of indigenous people, prompting violent retaliation. This is pretty heavy stuff for a horror film, but Italian director Ruggero Deodato tackled it masterfully by forcing his audience to witness the horrors of mankind through a POV perspective.. 

Shortly after, many horror filmmakers attempted to shock audiences by creating gore pieces that come across as borderline snuff films. The upside to all this is that it further developed special effects within the gore genre. The downside…it may have inadvertently inspired a few serial killers. In one case, the rather intense found footage film, Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985), which depicts an innocent woman being tortured and then dismembered was found among the belongings of notorious Japanese serial killer, Tsutomo Miyazaki, who did the same to his victims. 

Infamous Japanese serial killer, Tsutomo Miyazaki.

The found footage genre gained revitalized interest in 1999 with the release of The Blair Witch Project. It wasn’t just how intensely eerie the film was, with its uncomfortable close ups and dragged out suspense, it was the marketing strategy behind it that terrified millions of viewers. Shortly before it’s release, a website related to the promotion of the film, claimed that what would be shown to the public was raw footage, that the cast was real, and contained images of police reports, newsreels, and supposed case sensitive documents. The producers would pass out missing person flyers during the initial screening and verify that the contents of the film were indeed real. Even more disturbing, the actors were told to keep hidden from the public eye, and did so successfully until the wide theatrical release of the film. The internet buzzed over whether or not the contents of the film were in fact real, or just an elaborate hoax. This panic created a fear that affected outdoor supply businesses who claimed the movie had “scared off their customers”. Just as Jaws made viewers afraid to go in the water, The Blair Witch made its audience afraid to go into the woods. 

The Blair Witch Project revitalized interest in the found footage genre in 1999.

After The Blair Witch Project, it seemed the genre once again took a hiatus. This particular film seemed to be sitting on a pedestal, and some would argue that it still does. Then in 2007 a film was screened to select audience members in the Screamfest festival. A film that shook them for its simplistic practical effects, its realistic improvised dialogue, and the premise that we are not alone even if we think we are. This film would be passed along to a select few, eventually landing into the very home of Steven Speilberg, who claims after watching the film alone one night, he was locked in his bedroom from the inside and required a locksmith to free him. Terrified of the strange coincidence, he placed the film in a garbage bag and promised the creator, Oren Pelli, that his studio would green light the distribution and marketing of the film to the public. Thus, Paranormal Activity was released in theaters on September 25, 2009. 

Not only did this film breathe life in the dying found footage genre, but it became a platform for future horror films to come. It’s success was astounding. With an original budget of only $15,000, the film brought in $193.4 million in sales, proving that horror could be a cheap way to make a fast buck. Taking a page from Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, the creators of The Blair Witch Project, Pelli created a sense of realism with his opening and closing sequences, promising viewers that what they were seeing was footage found by the San Diego Police Department. More importantly, he created a scriptless dialogue in which improve actress, Katie Featherstone and cameraman Micah Sloat were given an idea of what each scene should contain but no actual script to follow, creating a “natural” dialogue. 

Pelli’s success opened up new doors, not just to a franchise, but to many other genres as well. Shortly after, Cloverfield was released, with JJ. Abrams at the helm, blending science-fiction and horror once more to present “found footage” of an alien invasion, though its other two films did not continue in the same format. Even the acclaimed superhero film Chronicle (2012) adopted the technique with its superb effects and fresh take on self-recording. Pelli’s Paranormal Activity franchise continued, but its success dwindled with the release of each film. Today, fans anxiously await the seventh installment, said to be released next year in 2022. 

While there have been some horror films that predate Pelli’s success, many horror franchises followed in Pelli’s footsteps, some more successful than others, such as Grave Encounters (2011), V/H/S (2012), Hell House (2015), and Creep (2014). Eventually this medium grew tiresome to audiences and its sales spiraled drastically downwards. As years progressed it became more and more implausible to relate a tale in which a character is walking around with a video camera (such as M. Night Shylaman’s The Visit (2015)). For a brief period of time action cameras such as GoPro were successfully used. Indie horror action film, Afflicted (2013) and the third entry to the Blair Witch franchise, The Blair Witch (2016) banked on the concept that strapped on camera would permit a POV shot with a plausible utilization that audiences could get behind. These types of films banked on the idea that the horror found footage genre should involve a heavy amount of action, misdirection, and disorientation to immerse their audiences. Some critics claimed that this method was often dragged out, as a lack of editing and direction led to running sequences being shot of the ground or sky, rather than the protagonists and antagonists of the plot.  

Afflicted (2013)

With technology constantly developing and expanding, creators were never shy of implementing these tools into their art. Thus a new concept was formed using the web as an access point to showcase up-to-date found footage. Everything from smartphones to web-based video meetings have been used to convey the sense that what we are watching is a recorded live session between a group of members as events unfold. This technique has become so popular we have even started to see it in some of our television programs (i.e. Modern Family, episode 16, season 6). To name a few films that have successfully attempted this new medium: The Den (2013), Unfriended (2014), and Host (2020). 

The Den (2013) offered new insight into the found footage genre.

This revitalized artform spoke of the dangers of anonymity via the internet, as well as the rise of cybercrimes such as sex and drug trafficking in the dark web. The Den spoke of these dangers most successfully, and though it is a somber, and brutally terrifying edition to the genre, it was the first of its kind to suggest using chat roulette and hacked webcams to give the viewer an insight into the POV of cyberstalkers and hackers. The Den involves a young woman’s journey down a dark and dangerous rabbit hole, as she is funded to prove that web-video communications are ideal for future generations and stumbles upon a snuff video and members of a dark web organization who toy with the life of her and her friends. This film can definitely stand on a pedestal in the found footage hall of fame. 

Eventually, this theme of internet security would be preached in the critically acclaimed film Searching (2018) in which a father searching for his missing daughter unravels a mystery by using her laptop and social media accounts. Though this film switches its platforms sporadically to best convey the story, sometimes pulling the audience out of the realism of the found footage experience, it does not deter its quality and instead refreshes the possibilities of this medium. 

The found footage experience has now been incorporated through various genres. From thrillers to science-fiction, there are no bounds for this type of art. Even though it becomes stagnant at times, creators will always find a way to offer a new take as technology continues to flourish. Skeptics would claim that eventually it would no longer be deemed profitable for these types of films to continue to be produced, however, due to its inexpensive budget costs, it remains a safe gamble for most production companies. There is rarely a sense of loss of revenue or profit, and it offers creators the chance to get their foot in the movie industry, as well as offer a new spin on a familiar subject. 

I predict the found footage genre, especially the web based footage which has come into recent light, will take a hiatus for a brief time, only until more technological advances to communication flourish (which, let’s face it, shouldn’t take too long) before making a huge, impactful comeback. 

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