Article written by Sam Stashower.
Change comes gradually, especially in movies. It’s a generally accepted truism that Hollywood is always late to the uptake, always hopping on trends years (decades, even) after they’re relevant (hi, The Angry Birds Movie!) Only rarely does a single film come along and draw a line in the sand; a clear “before” and “after” point. The result of which is a completely transformed movie landscape. Star Wars, Citizen Kane, and The Blair Witch Project are great examples.
I remember a time, not too long ago, when you couldn’t turn your head without seeing a new “found footage” release. Especially in October in the spirit of Halloween. There was a period of a couple of years where this faux-documentation style was the dominant format for any new releases; mostly horror, but a couple of other genres too (remember Chronicle? Yeah, it’s kinda horror, but it’s also pretty superhero). Well, you can blame The Blair Witch Project for that. It’s a film with a complicated legacy, where even its most steadfast of fans will probably agree that it did more overall harm than good.
The found footage genre, to put it mildly, is largely considered trash. If you don’t know what it is, they’re movies specifically made to look like they’re real, raw footage, shot from a single camera source. Think Paranormal Activity for the most well-known U.S. response to Blair Witch’s success.
The problems with the genre are manyfold. It’s a style that seems to breed laziness and bad filmmaking. It’s easy to skirt on things other horror films need, like good characterizations and coherent visuals, because the excuse that “it’s all for immersion!” is right there.
Even The Blair Witch Project— a film I generally like, or at least respect– can’t escape its own shortcomings unscathed. In a sense, The Blair Witch Project is a film ruined by its extraordinary success. Back when it was released, people thought this was real. There was a brilliant marketing campaign, the center of which was a website that insisted that three amateur filmmakers really did disappear somewhere in the Maryland woods. There was an entire TV special that aired on Sci-Fi about the “urban legend” at the film’s center. The movie was populated by no-name actors, all of which use their real names. There was no official press promotion. Combine that with the fact that this was one of the first films to be shot entirely via the “found-footage” technique (the first ever, Cannibal Holocaust, was only half found-footage), and you’ve got a recipe for total immersion.
See, I should love this movie on principal. It does everything right. It never cheats with its format, it begins as the uncut recordings of a faux-documentary that never got made, and it certainly sticks to that for the entire film. It’s a Cosmic Horror Story, one of my absolute favorite horror subgenres. And I do love an immersive marketing campaign, that website is still legit terrifying.
The problem is, I’m someone who grew up in a world where we got a new Paranormal Activity knockoff every other month. I came to The Blair Witch Project already wise to its tricks. And, unfortunately, that kind of soured the immersion for me. Aspects of this movie work very well. It is still very realistic, with the three main characters all feeling like people I might actually bump into on the street. And the segments where they’re getting lost in the woods are still very claustrophobic.
The main contention I have with the film is that the characters are very annoying. Now, this isn’t a mistake by the filmmakers. They’re clearly written and acted to intentionally be this way. The film has a very deliberate undercurrent of “hell is other people” going on, with the Blair Witch’s absence growing more and more conspicuous as the group destabilizes. Still, the constant bickering about the map gets very aggravating.
Unfortunately, while I do think The Blair Witch Project is worth seeing, I was ultimately unable to divorce it from all the offshoots that came later. Ib my opinion, there are only three very good found-footage movies that came out of mainstream America post-Blair Witch: Cloverfield, Chronicle, and The Visit (movies like Sinister don’t count because they only have found-footage segments). They’re by no means perfect. Cloverfield’s characters are lame and The Visit suffers from many of director M. Night Shyamalan’s worst instincts as a filmmaker.
Still, when talking mainstream American found-footage movies, they’re the best we’ve got. The rest…oh boy. Whether you’re looking at Paranormal Activity, which has characters instantly more irritating and despicable than the trio from Blair Witch, or As Above, So Below, a movie with a premise that screams out for traditional filmmaking, The Gallows, which might be the worst-scripted movie of the past decade to say nothing of the filmmaking, or They’re Watching, a movie you really shouldn’t watch…yeah, it’s safe to say there’s a damn understandable reason found-footage on the whole is regarded with such high derision.
So is that it? Is the genre just fundamentally broken? Would all that footage have been better off staying lost? No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. There’s a wealth of brilliant found footage out there…you just need to broaden where you look.
To start, we need to go across the pond. We’re kicking off with The Borderlands, a British horror film I’m willing to bet not a lot of you have heard of. The Borderlands (or Final Prayer, as it’s known to us Americans) has something of an underground reputation as “the scariest found-footage movie you’ve never seen”, and you know what? It kinda totally is that. This is an X-Files-ish investigation into a possible supernatural occurrence that slowly but surely turns into a Lovecraftian horror story of cosmic proportions. By the end, I was shaking.
A miracle has taken place at an old church on the Devon countryside, and this miracle was caught on film. This has summoned three members of an Vatican-based organization that investigates this sort of thing; Deacon, a skeptical man of faith (basically he’s Scottish Scully), Gray, the true-believer tech expert, and Mark, the main representative of their organization.
Here’s what this movie gets absolutely right (to an extent even I didn’t know was possible for this sub-genre): all the characters are fantastic, funny, fully-realized and genuinely enjoyable to be around.
Upon being told that he needs to be wearing film equipment at all times, Deacon grumbles, “Great. I’ve been promoted to tripod.” When asked about the competency of his partner, Gray says, “I dunno, I didn’t do a breathalyzer or anything, but he seems sober enough. For a Scotsman, anyway.” The film is full of lines like that, especially in its initial movement. It can be unsettling for some, I can imagine, to watch a found-footage film populated with characters of actual depth and nuance.
It’s not just the dialogue that’s surprisingly on-point, there’s also some really good plotting here going on here. Enough so that the investigation the three characters are on feels like a legit investigation. Twists and turns feel organic to the situation and are always followed up on in intelligent ways. There’s always something interesting happening. I’m thinking specifically of a great scene of theological debate that very stealthily sets up the final conflict.
But more than anything, this is a genuinely terrifying horror movie. It sets an absolutely vicious trap right in plain sight. This is a film full of awful, punishing silence, never cheating with its premise as a found-footage film. There are no loud, Paranormal Activity-style CLANGS or any of that. This film’s too good for that. And on that note, the climax of this film stands with the ending sequence to The Blair Witch Project as one of the most terrifying horror movie scenes ever made. I dare not spoil the final outcome, but if you’re at all claustrophobic… good luck.
I really love movies like this. I’m a sucker for any story with ambitions of Cosmic Horror (there’s one specific Lovecraft story this refers back to, but telling you would constitute a major spoiler), and it must be said that as far as found-footage movies go, this is one of the best. The execution is wonderful, the characters and acting is stellar, and the atmosphere is just palpable.
Palpable atmosphere is at the heart of what makes Lake Mungo work the way it does. The ultimate refutation to those who believe found-footage movies are inherently bad, Lake Mungo stands as one of the most chilling, engrossing, and ultimately affecting movies ever made about ghosts. How much of it is about ghosts is, of course, open for debate.
Expertly filmed in a faux-documentary style, the film chronicles the sudden death of Alice Palmer (a definite reference to Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks, in more ways than one), and the aftermath for the family. Immediately, the film proves itself to be a cut above the rest, even more so than The Borderlands. The details of familial grief are so precise. We hear how the mother began to enter other people’s houses: “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong…I just wanted to be in someone else’s life for a bit.” From the very beginning, I BELIEVED in this family.
The filmmaking is so good. Again, I know some people will dismiss this out of hand, because so many found-footage films are utterly trash in that department, but really, Lake Mungo is excellently shot. It really feels like an honest-to-god documentary, and manages to execute some frightening sequences all while staying within the confines of that format. There’s this wonderful sheen of authenticity to everything. An authenticity that manages to never break, even when we are faced with the impossible.
On that note, the film is terrifying. It’s terrifying because it has patience and it trusts us to go along with the movie as it meticulously lays out its case. It painstakingly chronicles the grief of the whole family and slowly but surely draws us into its trap. There is imagery in this film that legitimately haunted me as I tried to sleep after I first saw it. This is a slow-burn film of the best kind. The “slow” parts are NEVER boring and it’s all ultimately worth the wait.
More than scary, though, this is a profoundly sad movie. It’s one that never forgets that, behind all that’s happening, a sixteen-year-old girl has died and she’s left behind a whole family who misses her dearly. At a certain point halfway through the film, we realize with a jolt just why we were all so desperate to believe Alice was back; not because ghosts are cool, but because we want the family we’ve spent so much time with to heal.
Lake Mungo is a low-key miracle of a movie. It’s a profoundly engaging mystery film, a nerve-jangling slow-burn horror, and a peerless character study, for both the living and the dead. There are those who will avoid it because, well, obviously all found-footage movies are terrible, right? Those poor, poor fools.
Still, my inner patriot won’t let me finish this column without at least one example of an American found-footage movie that isn’t utter trash. For that, we turn our attention to Hell House LLC, a VOD faux-documentary. It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the popularization of this subgenre. Good found-footage movies like this one going straight to VOD, while bad found-footage movies, like Paranormal Activity or The Gallows, somehow keep getting wide releases.
Like most horror movies, the setup is simple but effective. It is set back in 2009, with a bunch of young, camera-toting twenty-somethings set up a Halloween roadside scare attraction called Hell House in upstate New York, and… well, things go wrong. On the night of the grand opening, an unknown malfunction caused the deaths of fifteen guests, plus most of the staff.
But was it a malfunction…or was it…a g-g-g-g-ghoooooost?!?!? Well, years later, the lost footage resurfaces, and the film more or less follows from multiple different camera angles the various ways in which the attraction went wrong, from bizarre flickering lights, to a clown doll that won’t stay still.
This is a great example of a low-budget production taking advantage of their surroundings. The crew used a real ghost house for their setting, and trust me, that really works in the film’s favor. The film is very good at knowing how to unsettle you with little to no budget. It employs things like strange, inexplicable noises, things appearing and disappearing in the quick flashes of a strobe light, and the aforementioned clown doll.
Also, it has very few jump scares! Don’t get me wrong, they’re there, but they’re few and far between. For the most part, the movie relies on the atmosphere of the place and the mounting suspense of not quite knowing what around you is a prop, and what is…something else.
The basic idea of the film– people putting on a fake supernatural show, but oh no, real supernatural things start happening!– has been done before. It has to be said that this doesn’t bring anything new to the table, per se. But it’s executed so well, that doesn’t matter.
Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: the execution. The best found-footage movies aren’t good in spite of the restrictions of the genre, they’re great because of talented filmmakers who know how to take the blank spaces on the screen and suggest nightmares beyond all reckoning.