Is it time for ‘found footage’ movies to get lost?
After watching Blair Witch (2016), the sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, I began thinking of how many found footage horror movies have popped up in the 17 years since the first installment had been released, and how bad they’ve become. I was too young to see the original during its theatrical run but I recall how terrifying the shaky camera work was followed by the words, ‘Based on a True Story’. It would be almost close to a decade before the next big found footage horror film would hit theaters, 2009’s Paranormal Activity.
It was niche to say the least, having been filmed almost three years earlier and finally finding some traction to be released after a good round of film festivals. I recall having to travel past four nearby theaters to finally find one that was showing Paranormal Activity and after eighty-six minutes of terror escalating from slight door movements to the protagonist being dragged out of bed the screen faded to black and again the ominous ‘Based on a True Story’ appeared before fading again to black and the lights coming on as patrons exited a quiet theater. The success of the original allowed the producers to make sequels with budgets that make the original’s look like it was made with milk money. Even with bloated budgets none of those sequels were able to hold a candle to the fright induced by the original. In the years since Paranormal Activity’s release found footage has become an official sect of the horror genre. Dozens of movies have been released that use first person perspective in an effort to make your skin crawl. The problem is, they aren’t really that good.
What’s the scariest part of any horror movie?
The monster right? Wrong, it’s the soundtrack. Ask any connoisseur of the macabre what’s the scariest movie of all time and I will bet the house that you will get answers like Halloween, The Exorcist, Psycho, and Jaws. What do those have in common? Recognizable music. The trademark piano accompaniment to Halloween was added after test audiences didn’t originally find the movie scary. Found footage horror doesn’t have that. It instead relies on silence to draw you in, lull you, and jump scare you with a loud noise. Sometimes it works but it gets played out quickly. There’s only so many times you can fall for the family pet knocking over something before you get desensitized to it.
Found footage also breaks another tenet of horror movies which is showing just enough of the monster. Granted this is nuanced and difficult for the genre at large but found footage almost never gets this right. Often relying on limited peripheral vision the film maker is forced to put everything in front of you (the movie goer) and the characters in the film. Besides the music why does Jaws work? The dramatic tension of seeing the fin in the water inching closer to the characters who are blissfully unaware of how close danger is. When danger lies directly ahead of the characters they react too quickly and the tension is broken. The problem has developed the opposite way too though. Sometimes the monster is too subtly dropped and not everyone sees it. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve watched a found footage film and half the audience is gasping and the other half is asking what happened. There’s a fine line between too much and not enough with found footage never quite getting it.
Would you please stop shaking.
The most ridiculous piece of any found footage film, and the biggest mistake, is the camera work itself. Often shaky from characters running, stumbling, and tripping their way to safety you lose perspective. The scare is removed when you can’t see where the danger went. It’s disorienting and you are taken out of the film itself and back wondering where all the pieces lie. With a third person perspective you can see the distance between the prey and the predator and that’s important. Distance indicates safety vs. danger and can be a useful tool to manipulate the audience.
The time has come for horror movie directors to go back to the roots of evil. Bring back the eerie high pitched pianos. Rediscover that balance of enough monster to build tension with not enough to shroud the mystery. Let us focus on finding our safe zone again. My feelings are if found footage can’t do these things, it’s time for them to get lost.