Top 5: Found Footage

Found footage films have always been a bit controversial. While many are quick to detract them as merely distracting and unrealistic (Why are they still filming this!?! The shaky camera makes me dizzy!!), there’s really no denying the sub-genre’s ability to draw you into the story and place you in the character’s shoes like no other narrative format can. While the method is still fairly young, there have already been a fair number of films that have utilized the technique to a wide degree of successes. Though not every found footage film satisfies, the fact that they prove cheap to make and popular to market means that we probably won’t be seeing an end to them any time soon (for instance, Blair Witch grossed a mega $248 million opposite a nothing $500,000 budget). Yes, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a large number of terrible found footage films, but for every two or three clunkers there’s usually one shining light to restore your faith in the risky genre. For me, these are those bright spots, the five best found footage films:

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5. The Blair Witch Project

The one that started it all. The original. Had it not been for The Blair Witch Project the phrase “found footage” wouldn’t exist today. While 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust may have predated it by almost twenty years, The Blair Witch Project was the first found footage film to captivate the nation’s attention. Shown at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, Blair Witch shocked from its first premiere, and even months after its release, fans continued to fight bitterly about the authenticity of the film they had just seen. Many believed it all to be true, that three kids really were killed in the woods by a witch, while others saw it for what it clearly was, a fake. Though we might laugh today, the fact that many believed the film was true is ultimately a testament to how effective and horrifying it actually is. While we may never get a good look at the titular villain, the real horror of the movie is watching our three main characters’ descent into madness. The majority of the film doesn’t even deal with witches or curses; instead, it focuses, slowly and surely, on the mental toll being lost in the woods can have on a human being. The movie runs a short 77 minutes, and it’s not until almost halfway through that the weird stuff starts happening. Instead of throwing scares at us left and right, the movie takes its time building up the characters so that once they have their individual breakdowns, it feels as if we’re watching people that we know ourselves. Once the witch does start to terrorize our characters, the filmmakers take an interesting and brilliant route, never showing us the physical witch, a move that only adds to our terror since it leaves the entire menace up to our own imaginations. While it may relay on shaky-cam a bit too heavily (a common complain in the “found footage” genre), the majority of the filming makes you feel as if you are lost in the woods with these kids and it couldn’t be more horrifying.

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4. Paranormal Activity

I can honestly say I have never walked out of a movie as terrified as I was after seeing the original Paranormal Activity. While this might be due to the fact that I pretty much ignored horror movies for the majority of my childhood, I still was unable to sleep that night. Even though the movie has lost some of its ability to scare the shit out of me over the years, it doesn’t make it any less of an effective and terrifying horror movie. What makes the original Paranormal Activity so frightening is its nearly perfect utilization of the found footage technique. It doesn’t use the format to push flashy cinematography or distract you from a lack of substance, all it does is make the terror all the more believable. The aesthetic is used to place you into couple’s world and feel their fear. The movie is also a fantastic representation of the slow burn. Rather than try and shock you with incessant jump scares, Paranormal Activity makes you wait and dread every time the couple goes to sleep. The movie brilliantly conditions you to be scared of the shot of Katie and Micah’s bed and the hallway outside their room, and, as a result, every time the camera cuts to that long, unending shot, you know something creepy or downright terrifying is going to happen. Even something as little as a door slightly moving on its own is heart pounding due to the audience’s anticipation for the eventual scare. While I could’ve done without the cheap ending (the idea that Katie becomes possessed by the demon isn’t a bad development, and killing the boyfriend was a great resolution to their story, but ending with a face coming for the audience was a cheap gimmick), Paranormal Activity was a frightening trip back to the found footage genre.

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3. Troll Hunter

While this film may not be as well known as the previous two, it deserves your attention nonetheless. Troll Hunter tells the story of three college students who are investigating a rouge “bear” poacher who turns out to be Norway’s only “Troll Hunter.”  What follows is the documentation of the Troll Hunter and his job. Right from the get go, it is easy to see the influences of The Blair Witch Project all over this film. While it follows three student filmmakers trying to document the supernatural, the real similarity is the way in which they employ found footage by using the camera as both a means of telling the story of the filmmakers and the hunter and as a way to intersperse the movie with segments of the supposed documentary they are shooting. Also, the way the camera interacts with other characters is similar in that it’s more of a participant than observer. Where in Paranormal Activity the camera is more there to try and provide proof, the camera and characters in this film, like Blair Witch, are actively asking questions and investigating. However, the similarities end there, for while both Paranormal and Blair keep everything serious and somber, the tone of Troll Hunter is much more comedic and light, even a bit tongue in cheek. The creators of the film clearly understand the comedic aspect of their premise and they don’t shy away from it. One particularly hilarious bit is the fact that there is an entire department in the Norwegian government called the Troll Security Service in which you have to fill out a Troll Slaying Form after every kill. Don’t let that all fool you, for the movie also has a surprising amount of depth lying underneath the troll killings. Wisely, the movie brings up interesting points about what the government could be hiding from its citizens, the lengths they would go to in order to keep it a secret, and whether or not the public has a right to that knowledge.

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2. Cloverfield

Cloverfield seems to be one of the more divisive movies of the past decade. There are a lot of people who swear by it and proclaim it a brilliant, original piece of filmmaking while others dismiss it as a headache inducing mess. While the detractors have valid points, in my opinion, the movie’s successes heavily outweigh its faults. As I’ve stated above, the greatest strength of found footage is its ability to immerse you in the story unlike a typical narrative and it makes you feel like an active participant in the story rather than a casual observer. No other found footage movie achieves this quite like Cloverfield does, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. Part of it is the setting and the way the filmmakers explore it. Typically, monster movies are told from a third person perspective and usually focus on the movement to combat the monster. Cloverfield brilliantly goes in the exact opposite direction. Instead, director Matt Reeves chooses to focus on the typically ignored everyday citizen. Rather than seeing the monster movie from the perspective of the government or a special team designed to take it down, we get a view from the ground. Our eyes are those of some mid-twenty-something citizens who were happening to film a going away party when the monster decided to attack. This was an extremely original way to tell a monster movie and it’s executed perfectly. It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is expertly paced, taking its time to establish who these characters are and the different struggles they are going through in their normal lives, and its these interactions that establish the actions they take once the monster strikes. The characters might not make a lot of rational decisions, but they are believable from a character standpoint thanks to writer Drew Godard. The movie also keeps things suspenseful and intriguing by slowly dispersing quick glimpses at the monster. At first, he is no more than a faceless, destructive force, but as the movie progresses and our characters have more and more interactions with it, we get bigger glimpses, until finally we get a satisfying climax that features some of the most inventive cinematography of the found footage genre.

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1. Chronicle

It seems that found footage, as a whole, has come into its own in the last year. Many movies like Sinister and End of Watch are implementing parts of the technique into their more typical structures to pretty good results. However, no movie, past or present, has validated the technique quite like Chronicle. Probably the best thing you can say about Chronicle and the way it utilizes found footage is that the film would have been significantly worse if it was told any other way. While many movies treat found footage as a gimmick to trick people into believing their story as “truth,” Chronicle truly uses it as a way of putting us inside Andrew’s head. Rather than force a clunky and trite narration, screenwriter Max Landis and director Josh Trank use the camera as Andrew’s sort of journal – it’s the way in which he documents his, and his friends, amazing new abilities, it’s who he justifies his actions to, and it’s his way of letting people into his life.  He uses the camera as a way of interacting with the world, and therefore it gives us a truly believable window into this tormented kids life. It is because of how grounded and real these characters are that we becoming so emotionally involved with their struggles.  We understand why he makes the choices he does and we sympathize with him because of it. Had it been told any other way, Andrew would have seemed a more villainesque as opposed to a tragic anti- hero. Another tremendous achievement of the movie is its ability to overcome some of the inherent faults of the found footage sub-genre. As I stated before, many don’t believe, in such cases like The Blair Witch Project, that anyone would continue to film all of these weird happenings since it seems counterproductive and downright stupid. However, how else would the filmmakers be able to find “real” footage of the event? Chronicle manages to use this to its advantage; there comes a point in the movie in which Andrew has to stop filming and, brilliantly, Trank manages to avoid this problem by cutting to footage from security cameras or news choppers. This is an extremely clever work around the genre’s potential faults and it works in Chronicle’s favor.

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Well, there you have it! In the end, Chronicle stands above the rest by the strengths of its characters and story. While found footage can be a flashy marketing tool, we shouldn’t forget that it should be used first and foremost as a way of telling the best story possible. Trust me, it’s easy to tell when this isn’t the case, I’m looking at you The Devil Inside!! When used properly, found footage can be an extremely effective filmmaking tool, and these five movies are perfect examples of its ingenuity.

Paranormal Activity 4 opens tomorrow

Article by James Hausman 

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