The world of film-making, like most other art forms, is bound to put forth a new spin on genre every few years. Gangster films in the 40’s evolved into post-war noir stories in the 50’s. Independent films started to be produced decidedly against the trends of the movie studios in the 60’s. In the recession fueled 70’s, disaster films became the staple genre. We all know that the 80’s were swept away in waves of violence, between big budget action films and low budget horror films. The 90’s invented the direct-to-video hit. From the world of do-it-yourself low budget film-making came a movie like no one had ever seen: 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
Shot in Maryland for less than a million dollars, the movie went on to make $248 million at the box office worldwide, inventing a new genre in the process: Found footage. Sometimes called “Cinéma vérité”, the genre has stolen the label from documentary film-makers responsible for films like Gimme Shelter (1970) and Hoop Dreams (1994), where the makers are active catalysts in the film, rather than those who simply observe and record. Of course found footage films now are all fictional, but this style is used to frame the fictional story as a real one, further blurring the lines between what is real and what isn’t.
The “meta”, or self-referential nature, of the found footage genre lends itself well to the low budget bracket, the reality that goes into the films is something anyone can accomplish, and the established visual aesthetic for the genre has become common handheld video. This is another reflection of our reality, that cameras are everywhere, constantly in use, capturing things that would have quickly become urban legends, confirming their reality. With this proliferation of video capturing however, we turn again to our imaginations and the urban legends of the past. The direct qualification for existence today seems to be a video record. Therefore the confirmation of an urban legend, be it Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, can only happen with a video camera.
With the horror genre always striving for cheap, profitable films, the market itself created the found footage horror genre. With “micro” (the use of this term has become more expansive than what it means in found footage) budget films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity going on to make hundreds of millions of dollars. However, as with so many things in Hollywood, both of those hits were accomplished with extra money for reshoots upon studio acquisition, and a healthy (millions) marketing campaign behind each film.
As with any genre that becomes popular quickly, especially a low budget-capable genre like found footage horror, there is always going to be a backlash at some point. The fact that The Blair Witch Project 2 and Paranormal Activity 2 both got relatively larger budgets and the full studio treatment goes directly against the nature of the first films. The die-hards will see them, but everyone else smells the manufactured smell that has replaced the charm that made the first films feel real. For many fans, they gave up on found footage after George Romero made arguably the worst film in the Dead series.
However, as with any backlash, in the wake of the more successful films, there are bound to be the people that see the opportunity to make their mark. This is where the new, meta interpretation of the Joseph Cornell’s found footage genre goes back to its true independent roots. The past few years have seen the rise of lower budget found footage horror films like Long Pigs and [REC], the latter of which has become a full blown horror franchise, which was also remade as the mid-budget Quarantine. Do you catch the pattern? The ones that inspire the backlash are the ones that are simply milking a formula. Too many people perceive this to mean it’s a limitation of the genre. For every monster movie like Atrocious, there is a comedy horror take like The Locals , attempting to go in a slightly different direction. At the same time, many casual fans are probably already inundated with news about the mid-range budget films Apollo 18 and Area 51, they both prove there are different directions to go, if only sci-fi spins on a similar concept.
If none of these films interest you, that’s fine, there are many genres that many people don’t enjoy, but I only ask that people don’t write the genre off as a whole based on the output of a few. With cameras being added to literally everything these days, the possibilities for found footage movies only increase tenfold, with films like the Norwegian Trollhunter, a conceptual spin into the realm of fantasy. There is one film, however, that I have thus far neglected to mention, despite the large poster heading this article.
Evidence is another found footage horror film that I have been following since I first saw the original trailer for it, and the tagline “it’s not what you think”. If Uncle Creepy’s Review is to be believed, it is a relentless, voracious film, and literally every convention of the genre up to this point is shattered, which is exactly what the manufactured Paranormal Activity 2 was missing. If this is true it could represent the high water mark in found footage horror films for the next few years, which would only be a good thing, giving budding film makers a better challenge as they consider their found footage films. Arsenal Pictures is working on the release of the film, and once a date is announced, we’ll be sure to bring it to you right away, as I’m chomping at the bit to see what they’ve cooked up.
As a whole, I believe the genre will continue to do well, despite naysayers, and branch out into genres beyond horror films. Mocku-mentaries continue to proliferate, but I think a genre that is soon to explode once a successful one is made is the found footage comedy film. The truth is, what sells is what gets made. What doesn’t sell is quickly abandoned. So while you may hear someone talking about how they hate “those shaky cam home movies”, remember that they’re only made as long as they are relevant, and I have a feeling a large portion of this audience in particular feels it’s a “guilty pleasure”. For films that made hundreds of millions of dollars, I turn to the Chris Rock idiom “it’s like cocaine, nobody admits to it, but somebody’s buying it”. The difference is we have a choice to only watch the good films in the genre and ignore the lame ones, like we do in every other genre of movies.
If you’re curious about Evidence, you can view the trailer below: