I stumbled across a trailer today for the upcoming horror flick, Skinwalker Ranch.
And, as I watched it, I was torn, almost scene by scene. Part of me rolled my eyes. The handheld IR footage shot, running through the night. The screams. The setting up of DVR cameras in the corners of rooms to capture “ghosts.” People getting blown across a room. The tagline “Inspired by True Events.” But the other part of me was gleeful.
Much of that response comes down to the found footage aspect of the movie. Found footage being the hand-held, shaky, everybody-dies-and-someone-later-publishes-the-footage type movie.
The Rise and Goal of Found Footage
What made found-footage brilliant was in the way it minimized the line between reality and fiction for the audience’s experience. Which, particularly as it applies to horror, is instrumental in milking the visceral response to a movie.
This advent was primarily due to the movement toward smaller, digital cameras. Though designed first for the public, and sneered upon by much of Hollywood (who produced high quality movies on film, firmly establishing the difference between amateur and “PROFESSIONAL”), many more avant-garde filmmakers were dabbling in the wide possibilities that shooting on digital cameras could open up in terms of creativity, particularly in terms of breaking down the separation between audiences and films. The goal was to make the experience as immersive as possible, to not only translate ideas, but to translate experiences. This is more specifically explored in Keanu Reeve’s documentary film Side by Side.
It was arguably 1999’s Blair Witch Project that brought a household awareness to the found-footage style, which offered the perfect blend of reality and fiction. Releasing the movie independently, with some early internet hype further confusing the lines between the produced nature of the movie, audiences were utterly thrown as to the reality of the movie. How much more frightening, that this could be real?
The Goal of Horror Movies
Now, the horror genre falls into two main categories of intention: to challenge a viewer intellectually, and to scare the shit out of people. The latter is usually the goal. Which is unfortunate because horror provides opportunity to introduce us to new ideas, new extremes: to unsettle us, to challenge us, to stretch the human condition to its limits.
As we explored before, the found-footage style makes a movie seem more real because it feels like it could be a home movie that anyone we know could have filmed. It could have happened next door. This helps scare the shit out of people.
Many people love to harp on found-footage because it doesn’t scare them. As with any popular fiction that plays with this reality between lies and truth, people are fairly desperate to assert themselves in the midst of controversy. It’s very important to people to not be wrong, and to not be scared.
Manly, right? You have to be tough. You have to be hard. You can’t be scared at a movie. And you knew what was real. You weren’t wrong. You were right all along.
I’m widely generalizing, but that’s the layer of our society that horror films provoke as a reaction. This is exactly why so many horror movies are so widely received, with some people loving them, others hating them. Everyone has different fights that make them tick, and many people like to bad-mouth them because the movie either didn’t make them tick, or because they want to sound tough.
Ever been to a midnight horror flick with a bunch of college kids? They talk the whole way through the movie because they’re trying to be too tough to shut up and engage: to be scared.
So, with any challenging way of telling a story as true, there’s going to be backlash that one: it wasn’t scary, and two: i knew it wasn’t real all along.
Because found-footage now is associated with a kind of truth, but no longer seriously pretends to be true, audiences are very reactionary, finding it more annoying than inventive.
The Nuance of Found Footage
This is where the nuance comes in. Some people can very easily get motion sick, staring at a large screen, too immersed. Like 3D movies, some people physically can’t handle it. Which is fine. For the rest of us, we can experience that okay, so long as it’s done right.
One of the popular lines of critique in the found-footage style is an easy backswing against the original intention. Because it originally felt so real, because it felt like it could have been made by any Joe on the street, now people think that, seriously, any Joe on the street could make such a movie.
Which, of course, is relatively inaccurate.
Not everyone can make a movie. It’s hard work and there’s a ton of technical know-how.
This is not to confuse the fact that many people can make a bad movie. This is altogether common.
But the fact that so many bad found-footage movies exist is not to be confused with the found-footage style being inherently bad. That’s what they call a logical fallacy.
The nuance comes in that found-footage movies can still be artistic. They can still have beautiful shots, even if that footage is “accidentally” or “unintentionally” captured by some bamboozling character. The cutting and filming of the movie can be done in a way that looks haphazard, but is intentionally filmed in a way that doesn’t upset the audience until the filmmaker wants it to.
One of the great nuances of film is in where and when to cut the film. Many times in a poorly cut piece of video, you find yourself annoyed with the camera for lingering on one shot when you’d rather have it on another.
A recent example: this IGN interview from Comic Con this year, in which Jane Levy and Fede Alvarez discuss the magnificent Evil Dead remake.
At around the minute forty mark, the interviewers ask Jane Levy their first question, while the trailer plays. Inserting a trailer into an interview is fine, but the viewer has a few ingrained expectations. There are certain elements that need to be established. The first time Jane Levy speaks, I want to see her speaking (and not just because I find her insanely attractive). It grounds the audience in an association, and we can learn how the nuances of speech relate to action and presentation. We get a complete picture. But in this clip, when we finally get done with the trailer, we linger uncomfortably long at 2:00 on the interviewers, who aren’t speaking, and we still haven’t gotten a shot of Jane speaking.
Which I’m sure is a technical issue. They probably were trying to swing a camera to get her on the shot. It was a likely amateur mistake. Shooting live video is hard. The point here isn’t the poor quality of sixty seconds of interview footage. The point here is that audience expectation drives the shot, and if we don’t see what we have been taught to expect to see, it will drive us crazy. We want to see a character when they speak. Every shot has to be chosen against all other possible shots. We have to know that what we’re looking at is the most important component of the scene, whether that’s the character speaking, a character responding, or a shot that illustrates some kind of developing action in the background, we have to trust filmmakers, and most times we do.
But this can also be used to great effect when it operates against our expectation. How many times do you find yourself sitting in a horror movie, pissed as hell because the character is stumbling around in the dark, and we’re only give a tight shot of her face, and we can’t see what’s behind her — we can’t see what’s on the other side of the door — we, like her, don’t know what’s coming. But all we want to do is scream at the camera to pull wide and give us a bit of security.
That’s good filmmaking. It’s a bit of a standard example, but that’s one way of building tension literally through the shots that you choose.
And the found-footage style, particularly in that it’s becoming a facet of horror-films above all else, is extremely dependent on this type of thinking. What is seen and what is unseen, in terms of the shot, is crucial to building dread and tension. Debatably it’s even more crucial in this genre, because the camera shot is what the character is experiencing.
Genre or Gimmick?
“Gimmick” is one of those words that has layers of pejorative meanings. It can be spoken of as both positive and negative. Usually, we tend to speak of a gimmick as a bullshit device that has no purpose or meaning other than drawing attention.
In terms of found-footage, most people have concluded that it’s a gimmick because it’s a cheap way to make the audience unsettled and nauseous, and a cheaper way to provide jump scares (back to the idea about the nuances of shot).
Found-footage has become transparent. Singly, it’s because there have been SO many movies that employ this technique. What used to be clever (the lines between real and lie, the nuance of shot, etc) have now become expected and dry.
But I don’t think that makes something a gimmick. That makes it gimmicky in the sense that it’s a device that’s become meaningless, but you can make that argument about almost any aspect of film. Any genre can be overdone to the point of being predictable, dry, transparent, and only as an attention-grabber.
I’d argue that found-footage as a style is not inherently meaningless, and can be used as a very intentional device. And, if it can be used as meaningful, it’s not inherently a gimmick, and can be applied with skill and purpose.
See, found footage in its first incarnation was used to break down the lines between lie and reality, which is a big deal in art. As we go, it became a compelling device for a fresh take on presenting a story. It made its way to television, primarily in the comedy genre, manifesting as a blend of mockumentary in order to make the “real-world” situations as “real” as possible which in turn enhanced the awkwardness. The perceived reality of the footage has the exact same emotional effect as horror. JJ Abrams used found-footage as a storytelling device shockingly well in Cloverfield, cutting back and forth between “real-time” footage and old, recorded footage being taped over, which strung along a story in flashback and realtime deftly, and with meaning. The Last Exorcism, though going off the rails by the end, used the genre both for scares, but also as a way to illustrate artifice, to bring the audience’s attention to construction and truth while examining the “reality” of possession amidst fakery. Most directly, Grave Encounters used it — albeit shallowly — to play with reality and artifice on ghost hunting programs. The Fourth Kind used it to study truth behind lies (behind more lies) and the artifice of a Hollywood movie.
Despite being a perfect gimmick for jump scares, the found-footage style is a perfect device to illustrate possibility. And so long as you’re operating within a genre (supernatural films), a big recurring theme is possibility. “What if this could happen? How bad could it be and what would it look like?”
Paranormal Activity used it, brilliantly, to not pretend to be real, but to make a fake haunting feel like a “real” haunting. Though horror movies have moved so far beyond it (with their shock-scares and gore), many people are terrified in their own homes at the smallest sounds and sights. Paranormal Activity, instead of pretending to be real, employed the found footage device to emulate a reality that struck home much more effectively than a standard shot-by-shot movie. Paranormal Activity reminded us that even though we know the found-footage style is no longer real, it still feels more real, which is exactly why we’re seeing so many of these types of movies right now, from [Rec] to The Chernobyl Diaries to V/H/S to Troll Hunter to Chronicle and more.
It’s a Genre
To have so many movies operating under this one artistic style, a way of presentation, a form, a subject matter, and in doing so with such variety, found-footage has been too intelligently used, and with too much variety, to write it off as a gimmick.
And to suggest that there’s nothing original left to be done in the genre is to discredit the smart filmmakers out there. Sure, we’re going to get crappy, generic, found-footage movie after found-footage movie, but the same can be said of horror movies in general. Or RomComs, or dramas, or comedies.
So I don’t write off movies when I see from their trailers that they’re found-footage. I know they’ll probably suck. I know they’ll probably not do anything innovative with their gimmick.
But I’ll still watch them if they look good. I’ll still be on the edge of my seat in the theater, waiting — not for the next jump scare — but for that hint of brilliance that could yet change everything.
Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and occasionally contributes to the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog. He’s the winner of the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, he’s appeared on Ghost Hunters International, and he lectures across the nation about paranormal phenomena. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com