Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Countdown to Halloween Day 2 -- Enjoyment Modifiers: Found Footage

ModifierFound footage

Although the Found Footage sub-genre is not technically limited to Horror films, they do seem to be where the format has found the most traction.  Which is understandable; when a film's premise is built around the fact that all the footage shown was "real life" video later discovered by a third party, there has to be a reason why the found footage was lost in the first place, and reasons don't get more convenient than "everybody dies," which in itself is a pretty Horror-friendly idea.

Although Found Footage films have been around for a while, in the years following the break-out success of The Blair Witch Project they have become an increasingly popular vehicle for Horror filmmakers to utilize.  Only a few have managed to capture lightning in a bottle like Blair Witch, but it's easy to see the appeal of the format to both filmmakers and audience members.  On the production side, a Found Footage flick can be relatively cheap to produce; all you need is a camcorder and an actor who doesn't mind being mostly an off-screen voice, and you're good to go.  Sure, they might need to pour some money into makeup or special effects, but the grind of trying to set up a full camera crew and crafting intricate, precise shots is largely absent; half the point of a Found Footage experience is that it's like watching a home movie, so having an amateurish quality to the camerawork can only enhance that.   And it's that home movie aspect that can be appealing to the audience; for some people, it's just easier to get sucked into the tension and suspense if they feel like they're watching something that they themselves could have shot on their own video-camera. 

One of the problem with the Found Footage format, however, is the need to construct a narrative that explains why someone is constantly videotaping while horrendous things are happening.  Some films build that into their plot fairly easily by making their films center around documentarians (The Blair Witch Project, Trollhunter), newscasters (REC and its remake Quarantine), scientists (Apartment 143),  Reality TV stars of the Ghost Chaser variety (Grave Encounters, Episode 50), or everyday victims of supernatural happenings who just want some proof (the Paranormal Activity Found Footage franchise).  Others, however, rely on the problematic "this person refuses to put down the camera even while running for their life" strategy, which often involves lots of people screaming "WHY DON"T YOU PUT DOWN THAT CAMERA WHILE YOU'RE RUNNING FOR YOUR LIFE?!?!?!?!"  -- both on-screen and off.  Cloverfield is a prime example, but it is not alone in its lazy handling of motivation (Skew, Area 407).

In the beginning, I was fairly neutral towards Found Footage films; even after the initial novelty wore off after the fourth or fifth Blair Witch knock-off, I didn't mind when one would pop up.  But in the last few years, it has felt increasingly like the format's tendency to make people uneasy by over-identifying with its pseudo-realism has become a crutch the filmmakers lean on in lieu of constructing a solid script. While I don't tend to write Found Footage films off automatically, I have found myself rolling my eyes a bit with each time a film starts up with a "This footage was discovered . . ." scroll of text.  There are some quality Found Footage films out there, but more and more they are becoming the minority.

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