This past week October began, and in keeping with the season building up towards Halloween, my friends and I began watching horror and Halloween themed films. While there are many more classics to watch as well as some new great and interesting stuff, a lot of what we have watched so far have been in the realm of the “found footage” subgenre.
There is a bit of a stigma around the found footage genre because it is a tough genre to do well. Unlike the more standard ways of shooting a film, found footage requires the camera(s) to be a fixed point, which can hurt willing suspension of disbelief when you start wondering why these people are still recording. This method of filming can easily come across as gimmicky and disorienting, so it’s difficult to do right. They also have the more challenging task of making it feel authentic, as if what you’re watching could really be footage somebody just happened to find, and not an actual movie.
I want to talk about three movies we watched in particular — Chernobyl Diaries, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, and The Blair Witch Project. I will touch on each briefly, and why I think they are strong or weak found footage movies.
Chernobyl Diaries is an interesting example because unlike the other two, it is not technically found footage. It is shot to look like one, and the premise sets it up as one fairly well, but the director instead opted to have the camera perspective resemble somebody amongst the group holding a camera, without that being the case. It was a lot like the audience member is the extra person in their group, sitting in the car or running alongside them, except you are invisible and take up no space.
Although this was an interesting way to do it, which I’m ultimately pleased to have seen, it took me out of it a little to constantly remember that it wasn’t found footage, making the jarring movement of the camera sillier at times. It also ended up being a rather predictable movie plot-wise, leaving me wishing that it left some things more mysterious and open-ended.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was interesting — I usually find the Paranormal Activity movies interesting — but it also highlighted a lot of what’s now wrong with the series and the damage it may have done to the subgenre. The first film I found to be genuinely scary and a very compelling watch, as well as the second one, but things have gone downhill significantly three sequels later.
A lot of what they do in the film is played out — especially since we know the nature of what’s going on if we’ve followed the series — and in place of creepy imagery and events, the film instead relies far more on jump-scares that aren’t even paranormal. The Paranormal Activity series having done something great with the subgenre at first and then simply becoming startle-fodder for people who want a cheap scare is disheartening.
The Blair Witch Project — which I’d seen, but a friend hadn’t — helped to re-establish what I find so great about found footage films in the first place. In my opinion, the best way to use this style is not to show something and make it look like real footage, but to show something vague, subtle, or even questionable, while creating the illusion that what you’re seeing is real. This is what made Paranormal Activity effective, which degraded with each film, and this is what makes The Blair Witch Project phenomenal to me. You see very little in the movie, but the human element of desperation and anxiety is so strong, and it is clear that something disturbing and abnormal is happening, so it makes the experience you’re viewing all the more terrifying.
The strength of the subgenre is uncertainty, because unlike other films, the physical lens through which you’re forced to view the story is a lot more flawed. This became so apparent to me when I was trying to sell my friend on the movie, and I made a point of mentioning that it is not a jump-scare movie. This is true of the film, making it all the more interesting as a case study for the subgenre. The Blair Witch Project is terrifying because of atmosphere, emotion, and uncertainty. They are people in a desperate situation, suffering terrifying experiences. Nothing jumping out during a quiet moment, no big horrific monster. Just lingering uncertainty and dread.