I get it. You hate found footage. You think it’s a tired gimmick. A cheap trick. Everything that’s wrong with modern horror.
But what about that all-time classic with the guy who finds the record his sister kept at her babysitting job, and she’s either being haunted or going insane? Or that more important one, in which a sailor and his sister swap messages about the mad scientist he found and his rogue experiment? Those are pretty good, right?
Of course, those aren’t movies, are they? They’re works of literature, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818), to be specific.
But they are found footage. Both operate under the premise that the audience is reading some artifact left behind from the events of the story, a model used to heighten the realism of the piece.
This framed narrative structure wasn’t a gimmick for early novelists — it was a way to give legitimacy to the structure they were using, to put their work on the same level as the more established genres of epic poetry and theater and make novels feel less, well… novel. These authors wanted to make even their fantastical stories more plausible and realistic, and therefore more respectable.
That concern isn’t unique to books, as cinema has its own history of rules and restrictions for a particular effect, such as the Cinéma Vérité and Dogme 95 movements. So why is found footage singled out for such scorn?
I suspect part of the ire comes from the fact that most found footage movies are horror, and not only does horror get less respect than other genres, but this subgenre has its roots not so much in literary psychology and philosophy, but in exploitative Mondo Cinema. As demonstrated by its most famous entries, Faces of Death (1978) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Mondo Cinema prides itself in shocking Western audiences with graphic images of murder and torture (sometimes staged, but often real when perpetrated on animals) presented as documentary material.
No modern found footage film goes nearly as far as its Mondo forerunners, but they do manage to shock and surprise. I’ll never forget seeing The Blair Witch Project (1999) in theaters, and watching people sit down and catch their breath after the lights went up. Nor will I forget watching [Rec](2007) in my own house and having to turn on the lights and pace around the room during the final act, scared to a degree that rarely happens to me as an adult.
Why do these movies upset people just as much Mondo movies, without having to kill an actual tortoise on screen? For the same reason that James and Shelley and countless others use found footage format: the realism.
I know some scoff at that statement, arguing that “there’s nothing realistic about watching a movie about zombies or demons”, that “realism” isn’t the highest goal of art, that an allegiance to it robs filmmakers of some of their most important tools, such as striking compositions or moving soundtracks. Found footage could never produce a Suspiria (1977), a Psycho (1960), or a Get Out (2017).
That’s true, because found footage directors aren’t trying to be as stylized as Argento (or Guadagnino), Hitchcock, or Peele. They’re trying to strip away the artifice and all the stylistic markers that we associate with horror. They’re trying to sit us down in the moment and force us to just… watch.
One of my favorite examples of this effect occurs in the highly under-rated Bobcat Goldthwait film Willow Creek (2013). Having dragged his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) into the secluded forest site of a Sasquatch sighting, would-be documentarian Jim (Bryce Johnson) turns on his camera to record the sounds of shuffling outside their tent. But as the sounds get closer and more bizzare, as they come accompanied with something scraping against the tent, Jim forgets that he’s recording and just grabs Kelly in terror. And we can do nothing but watch the 10+ minute unbroken shot.
That powerlessness creates a different kind of tension than filmmakers can do with a score or clever cinematography. In found footage movies, the characters always know about the camera and therefore always know about the audience. They frequently reach out to us, try to make a connection to us, thereby pulling us in. We become invested in the characters not as actors portraying people we know in real life, but as actual people in front of a camera and trying to communicate us.
When things go badly for these characters, we feel a type of helplessness different from any other type of film. Heather’s “I’m so scared” confession from The Blair Witch Project (1999), perhaps the most famous scene in the entire subgenre, works not just because of the minimalist cinematography or because of Heather Donahue’s excellent performance. It’s because she’s looking at us, begging us for help. And we can do nothing but watch.
The best found footage scenes all create this effect. When cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso) shoves the camera into a tunnel in [Rec] (2007) to get a better view, we scream “No, no!” Because he’s doing it to us. When the camera mounted to the oscillating fan in Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) moves away from a ghost in a sheet, we want it to stop but we have no control. All we can do is watch. When in Creep 2 (2017) serial killer Aaron (Mark Duplass) removes his clothes in front of videographer Sara (Desiree Akhavan), we can only watch. And when she tries to turn the tables on him by removing her own clothes, we want to scream that she’s putting herself in danger, that Aaron really is a killer and she’s exposing herself to him. But we can only watch.
More ambitious directors have used found footage to create this effect on a larger scale. Matt Reeves’s kaiju movie Cloverfield (2008) uses the conceit of new material recorded over existing VHS tape to intercut scenes of lead couple Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman) in happier days with them arguing and reconnecting during the monster invasion.
The trick allows Reeves to provide backstory and pathos without using the flashback format. Likewise, veteran director Barry Levinson presents the pieces in The Bay (2012), the story of a plague unleashed by a parasite in Chesapeake Bay, as materials from the event combined into a research document. He cheats on the formula by adding sound and clever editing, but it does all feel like real evidence from a real event.
This sense of realism combines with the powerlessness invoked by found footage to create a type of horror unique to the subgenre. It may not be for everyone, but it’s not new, it’s not a gimmick, and it’s not going away. Those who hate will have to do what the rest of us do: just sit there and watch.