Found Footage Nightmares

The Blair Witch Project was a groundbreaking film when it was released more than sixteen years ago. People actually believed the movie was real. Why wouldn’t they? The footage looked real. The people on the screen seemed like people we knew. The commercials even told us the footage was found after the college kids went missing. There was even a pseudo-documentary TV special tied in with the movie.

Except, it wasn’t real. It was just a movie. A “found footage” movie. The “real people” were actors. None of the events depicted in the movie had actually happened outside the world of the movie. The Blair Witch Project was a student movie turned into one of the most successful independent movies of all time.

Found footage of Blair Witch

What made Blair WItch the found footage movie of the year was pure marketing and a great advertising campaign. It’s difficult to say if the movie came out today if it would have been a mega success. Today’s internet, media savvy folks would have exposed it as a mocumentary, found footage movie it was.

What’s not in doubt is the influence the movie had on future filmmakers. “Found footage” films are cheaper to make than traditional, straight-forward movie. Anyone with a limited budget and a camera can make one. Even big name directors (Barry Levinson- The Bay, M.Night Shyamalan – The Visit) who can get a big budget can still make a found footage movie or a “documentary” or any other name you want to give it. However, the found footage movies that have come out since Blair Witch have ranged from really bad to pretty good.

One of the first found footage movies to follow Blair Witch was Cloverfield. Thanks to J.J. Abrams, and a rather large budget, Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield debuted to a lot of fanfare. The trailers made Cloverfield seem like it was going to be the scariest movie that had come out in years. There was plenty of screams and the sounds of monsters packed into the trailer.

cloverfield-found footage

However, the movie itself turned out to only be screams, shaky cam shots, and a bunch of screaming yuppies for two hours. Movie goers were disappointed that the monster promised in the trailer wa absent for most of the movie. Even worse, it was shot all through the lens of a video camera. If shaky cam shots make you sick Cloverfield will have you puking before the first act is over.

It may have been worth spewing over  if the story had been better. However, there aren’t too many way to make a group of screaming yuppies running through New York City interesting. Especially when character development takes a back seat to the video camera.

As bad as Cloverfield is there are even worse offenders in the category.

THE REVIEWS

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THE GALLOWS

Most found footage films rely on the viewer’s suspension of disbelief to be much higher than in other types of movies. The Gallows asks a lot of its viewers. First, we’re suppose to believe that the movie was cobbled together from video shot on cellphones. At two different times we’re shown cell phone batteries dying, go black because of the dead battery, and then continue to record images. How? Movie magic, that’s how. Movie magic would also explain how video taken from a police officer’s body camera was spliced into the end of the movie.

The movie is about a high school drama department who wants to put on a production of “The Gallows.” The rub is that a high school kid was accidentally killed during the school’s original production of the play. Why a school would let a production that killed a student, even 20 years ago, be put on is a mystery in and of itself. But, as they say, the show must go on.

As The Gallows moves on the high schoolers are attacked and chased by the vengeful thespian. However,  bouncing around hallways, the gym and watching a recording of a school play (A recording of a recording?) doesn’t have the frightening power the director was hoping would come across the screen. When the fright (Yes, you read that correctly) does come it comes so late in the third act it’s too little too late to save this movie.

MEGAN IS MISSING

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Another criminal in the found footage genre is Megan is Missing. The two main characters, Megan and Amy, are like most high school kids (and most stereotypical movie teens). Megan is the popular party girl and Amy is the geeky girl. The movie doesn’t do anything more to move these characters, or the surrounding characters, past their stereotypical roles- none of Megan’s friends can understand why she hangs out with Amy, Amy tries to be cool and Megan defends her. You’ve seen these characters in a dozen other teen movies.

Through various cam cuts and internet chats we learn Megan was abducted by a man known only as “Josh.” Later, Amy also falls prey to Josh. Josh turns out to be a murderer and a rapist. It’s not difficult to figure out what happened to the girls. 

Instead of concentrating on the more evil aspects  of the internet and teens (How internet predators can easily manipulate and lure young children), director Michael Goi is more interested in how he can weave video from cam chats, cell phones, and security cameras into a movie.

We discover, through the footage Josh takes, that Megan was murdered and raped. He’s done, or will do, the same thing to Amy. Megan is Missing has been criticized for the rough, gory scene in Josh’s basement. In any other movie the reveal would be truly horrifying. However, the camera work is shaky, quick, and shot in a dark basement. It almost makes it difficult to see what is happening in the scenes. Viewers almost have to pause and slow fast forward to see the action on the screen.

Before the credits roll we see Josh put Amy in a barrel with dead Megan and bury them in the woods. The question shouldn’t be if Megan will ever be found, because if they ever were found we wouldn’t have a movie. The question should be how was the last part of the footage found? Wouldn’t it make sense if  the footage was found the killer would be found too? 

Megan isn’t the only found footage movie to use video chats, cams,  social media, and other tech to make a movie. Unfriended also follows this theme, but with slightly better results than Megan.

UNFRIENDED

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Unfriended revolves around a group of friends who tormented a classmate to the point where she committed suicide.  We wouldn’t have a horror movie if the dead girl’s spirit didn’t come back for a little revenge from the grave.

The set up is rather weak. The friends are trapped in front of their computers and forced to play drinking type party games if they want to live through the night. Why they don’t unplug the computers and walk away is never really explained. The movie wouldn’t work if the characters were smart. Instead, we have to sit through a movie where characters are being forced to sit in front of computer monitors.

We also wouldn’t have a found footage movie without the found footage. The “found” footage is captured from monitors which means the viewer is watching someone else’s computer monitor for 2 hours. Unfriended relies too much on Skyping, performing Google searches, watching Youtube videos, and searching iTunes to be anything but mildly amusing. The movie tires very quickly after the second time we see a Facebook page and the many, many times someone screams that their computer has been hacked.

THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN

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Anyone that has had or has a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s knows it’s a scary disease. Family can feel like they’re helpless while they watch their loved one disappear in front of their eyes. This feeling is what The Taking of Deborah Logan tries to capture, but fails to achieve.

The Taking of Deborah Logan is a “making of” documentary movie, but it has all the trappings of a found footage film. There’s plenty of shaking camera movements, bad angles, extreme close ups, and running scenes where the camera is pointed at the ground. The scares and frights are limited to the last act of the movie and when they come they’re not that scary. The “big reveal” at the end of the movie is a blink and you missed it moment because of the whirlwind camera movements at all angles.

Deborah’s affliction is even more sinister than just Alzheimer’s. Something has possessed Deborah, something evil. Taking could have been more than what it turned out to be. There was an opportunity to show the affects of Alzheimer’s at the same time having a horror movie. The effects and the possession could have paralleled each other. Unfortunately, any real story (Including a murder mystery), is lost in shaky cam shots, security camera footage, and bad acting.

V/H/S

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Some found footage movies take the term literally. In V/H/S a group of thieves are hired to steal a rare VHS cassette. It’s not an easy smash and grab for the thieves, because the thieves find a whole cache of VHS cassettes. The movie is the thieves watching the tapes in search of the correct one.

V/H/S attempts to be the Tales From the Crypt of found footage horror movies. Like the Crypt Keeper, the segments with the thieves is the story ties all the other cassettes together. Between each “story” the movie cuts back to the thieves who, for some reason, are also recording the burglary. 

As cool as the concept of a found footage anthology may seem, V/H/S suffers from the same thing most “found footage” movies suffer from. There’s very little production value, the amount of shaky cam makes most of the stories unwatchable, and the acting is mediocre to average at best. It’s a shame too. Given the chance some of the stories in V/H/S could have been better than the entire movie.

CREEP

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Creep stars Mark Duplass (The League) as Josef. Under the pretense that he’s dying, Josef hires Aaron to record his last days so he has something to pass onto his child. Josef  isn’t “all there” mentally. Unfortunately for Aaron, he learns this fact a little too late.

Creep works for a couple of reasons. First, the acting is natural. It’s obvious in a lot of found footage movies the actors are acting like people trying to act naturally, but it’s rarely believable. Duplass and Patrick Brice, who also directed the movie, come off as believable. For his part, Duplass is truly creepy. He may not scare you, but Duplass will leave you with an unsettling feeling in your stomach.

The low budget may have something to do with the natural feel of the movie. There’s no gloss to the movie, no effects to make the movie feel like a home recording. The natural feel of the movie actually works to draw the viewer into the movie. It’s more of a character driven movie than your average found footage movie.

Creep also works because it has story structure- there’s a well defined beginning, middle, and end. A lot of found footage movies, and horror movies, are missing character development or what we would consider a movie structure. Creep doesn’t suffer from these problems. You’ll be invested enough in the movie right up to the end withat will leave you speechless. You won’t be disappointed in Creep.

THEY’RE WATCHING

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Some directors have found a way to have fun with the found footage format. 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows captured the found-footage-documentary style perfectly while adding an element of comedy with the scares. They’re Watching is just as fun.

Maybe you’re not familiar with some of the home improvement television formats. Some shows will find a family to follow on their search for a house. A few months later the show will do a follow up with the family and the house that was painstakingly found (Read a little sarcasm into that because most of the time it’s pretty apparent there’s been a lot of editing and script changes in finding the “perfect house.”).

They’re Watching is about a production crew on such a show. However, they’re not traveling around mainstream America or Canada. They’re heading to Eastern Europe to catch up with Becky Westlake. Former Soviet Bloc countries have become prime filming ground for low budget horror movies. Sure, it’s because filming there is cheaper than filming in the United States. However, Eastern Europe offers some creepy locales and the culture is widely unknown by your average person in the West. Directors Micha Wright and Jay Lender use both to their advantage in They’re Watching.

Although the various shots from different cameras gets old half way through the movie it seems more legitimate than in most found footage movies. The movie is about a production crew being attacked by an ancient witch. However, in most found footage movies the camera seems forced and out of place. 

More importantly, They’re Watching is a fun movie to watch. Yes, there are some questionable scenes (Like how Greg and Alex try to teach Sarah how to operate a camera just to keep the found footage foramt going) in the movie, but the mix of low budget creativity, a witch, and some creepy locales makes it a must watch.

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It seems the minds behind The Paranormal Activity franchise keeps pumping out sequels on an annual basis. Blair Witch, a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, was released earlier this year. There’s even a found footage movie with the honest title of Found Footage 3D being released soon. Whether you like them or not, found footage movies are here to stay.

What are your favorite found footage movies? Which ones do you avoid like the plague? Let us know on our Facebook page and on Twitter.

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