Exhilarating Genre Or Washed up Gimick? The Two Faces Of Found-Footage Films

Are the glory days of the found-footage genre dead and buried or ready to rise up and scare us all over again.

We all have our tastes and preferences when it comes to movies. Some of us enjoy the heartfelt dramas, some enjoy loud and explosive action films. Sometimes there are just too many films to choose from. This is where we begin to dig through a genre finding more specific sections, all the different avenues to enjoy and love. Subgenres are there for fans to pick and choose their favorite little corners to enjoy. We all have our favorites and those that we can’t stand.

The horror genre has probably the most subgenres of any category. From zombies, vampires, supernatural to Asian torture romance horror. One of the most divisive subgenres is the found footage sect. It has only become a main stay subgenre since 1999 with the release of The Blair Witch Project. The movie was a game changer for not only bringing this subgenre into the mainstream but also changing the way a movie is marketed. This marked the beginning of new way to promote films and a new, profitable, way to make films. The question is did we, the fans, benefit from this new era in filmmaking?

The Blair Witch Project was certainly not the first found footage film. That title belongs to the controversial 1979 film Cannibal Holocaust. This film is still regarded as one of the most controversial films of all time. Its premise and how director Ruggero Deodato set about filming it would pave the way for a new era of movies 20 years later.

Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick would later use Ruggero’s guerilla style of filmmaking to create The Blair Witch Project. Whether you think it is an exceptional horror movie or just a horrible piece of low budget filmmaking, there is no denying the impact it has had on not only horror films but all films in general.

There is no denying that there are some truly great found footage films, however there is no denying that there is plenty of those films that are simply not good. There is something different and unique about this specific subgenre. It has the ability to truly capture us and place us directly into the action and story. This specific genre offers a level of realism that is extremely hard to come by with a traditional film. These aesthetics all help the audience invest themselves but one of the most beneficial aspects to this subgenre is its profitability. These make the found footage subgenre a unique medium where passion and profit cross paths that doesn’t seem to happen often in this day and age.

One of the reasons why found footage films has become so prevalent in all genres is because of its ability to be made cheaply and garner huge returns. The Blair Witch Project was made for about sixty thousand dollars and had an outstanding gross of over one-hundred and forty million dollars. This is certainly not just the only stellar performance, it has been done many times over. The Devil Inside was made for about a million dollars that went on to make over fifty-three million dollars. One film, however, towers above all others because of its success is Paranormal Activity. It had a budget of only about fifteen thousand dollars and made over hundred and seven million dollars. This is made even more impressive when it was only screened in less than a hundred thousand theater. On top of its success, it created an entire franchise that has spawned a total of six movies so far.

The found footage subgenre has always had a home with a horror, it was born into it and it fits like a well-worn glove. This subgenre really lends itself to horror because of the atmosphere and since of realism that it exudes. Take one of the most popular found footage movies, The Blair Witch Project, it has the look and feel of a student filmmaker setting out to make a documentary on a local legend. The actors are unknown and the dialogue all create a sense of believability that these are real people. The regular faces that we go to school with or run into at a store. Where the film really excels is its overwhelming successful marketing team.

In the months before its release in 1999 we all had heard of this “true story” that we couldn’t wait for. We had seen the trailers, we heard the news and seen the websites about these three filmmakers who had gone missing. It was everywhere and it built this cathedral of hype that was everywhere. It was so pervasive, that even when it came out that none of this really didn’t happen, people still believed it was true. I think the film would have been a failure that would not have had the box office success it did, if it didn’t have that stellar marketing team behind it.

Around eight years later another film followed nearly the exact frame work of The Blair Witch Project and ended up being just as successful, Paranormal Activity. Piggybacking off the idea of normal people trying to document creepy events, Paranormal Activity upped the ante by placing us in the world of an everyday couple. This couple didn’t go out into the woods to find something or put themselves into a dangerous situation. Within the mythos of this series, this couple did nothing and sadly was just cursed to experience the demon that torments them (well mainly because of a demon worshipping grandmother, but that’s another story).

There was very little marketing done for the film due to its very modest release. What it lacked in traditional marketing it made up for it with a huge leap forward with viral marketing done by the fans themselves. Using a website for fans to “Demand” that the movie be played in their city, word quickly spread and soon it was demanded everywhere. This is a filmmaker’s dream, a film of theirs is being demanded by fans everywhere that may have never received distribution. If The Blair Witch Project lit the torch of this new subgenre, then Paranormal Activity took the torch and set the forest ablaze.

There is a dark side to this level of profitability; the success of really terrible movies. Chernobyl Diaries was garbage but yet made around eighteen times its original budget. The Visit is one of the worst in the found footage genre it had a budget of only five million dollars and ran away with over sixty-five million dollars. These two films highlight the Mr. Hyde that all the good this genre’s popularity and returns has earned.

With this level of success comes the inevitable clones and terrible movies that begin pouring in. From 2011’s Apollo 18 to 2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan are just a few films to spawn from its predecessor’s success. These aren’t outright terrible films, they have some redeeming qualities but overall they are just substandard. Which maybe begs the question, would these films have been made if they were more traditional films? Hundreds of cheap and, all too often, poor horror films are made each year. It certainly is possible that these films would have still been made; but does the found footage subgenre make it more acceptable to produce substandard horror films?

The found footage is a microcosm for the entire film industry, from top to bottom. There is a duality to it that shows the utopian dream that it could be while also revealing the dystopian nightmare that plagues us. This is a section of film that has been used to give incredible talent and amazing stories their chance in the spotlight. Sadly, this has also lead to cheap filmmaking that capitalizes on massive returns while serving sludge under an elegant silver top. Focusing on the successes and failures are the best way to shine a light on what is so special and damning about this type of film.

Look at 2014’s Unfriended and 2015’s Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, these films range from a budget of one million dollars to ten million dollars but the quality of these films are equally terrible. Where Unfriended is trying to capitalize on the success of those films that propelled this genre into the spotlight, Ghost Dimension is simply destroying its franchise by turning it into an ungodly mess of a plot. These are just two of the more recent high profile found footage films, but they act as mirror images of the past and future of the genre. Where Ghost Dimension is the past still trying to hold on, Unfriended is the future trying to breathe more life into the genre. Both of these films are cheaply made with very little effort put into plot and scares. They are simply trying to keep the golden goose alive when it is clear that it is a shell of its former self.

Even one of the masters of horror, George A. Romero has fallen prey to this genre. While he certainly did not make a terrible film but 2007’s Diary of the Dead is nowhere near the quality we have come to expect. George Romero is the man that created the zombie genre as we know it today, along with giving us some of the most introspective horror films we know today. It is unfortunate that Diary of the Dead, while trying to be something more, almost becomes a parody of his films and the genre in general. Romero tried to tell a unique tale about the power of documentaries but the power of media. Sadly, he gave us something mediocre that had no impact and is just simply forgotten.

While the found footage subgenre may be oversaturating the market there are still prime examples of its potential. For me two examples stick out in my head, 2011’s Grave Encounters and 2012’s The Bay. These two films are some of the best examples that this genre has to offer.

Grave Encounters really takes the tired and overplayed trope of the Ghost Adventures/Ghost Hunters formula that you see on basic cable and turns it on its head. Grave Encounters takes us on a train ride that heads off the rails and never lets up. In my opinion, it is really good with a solid premise and purpose but it also offers up some unique and creative scares. It is a great little gem that I nearly passed up on it just because of its look and past experiences.

When I first heard of The Bay I was excited due to its director, Barry Levinson, and could not wait to see it on the big screen. Sadly, this film was only maybe handful of theaters and it got such a small release on DVD that they are rare to find. The Bay was never given the treatment it deserves. It is an excellent film, giving us the right amount of documentary style that it needed to make the found footage not just a gimmick. It is sadly underrated and hard to come by but if you get the chance, I highly recommend it.

While there are more than just these two films that really shine, sadly most other films are just there and offer nothing compelling or interesting. It causes me to wonder about whether this has been good for our beloved film industry or just a new technique to be exploited, such as “bullet time” from The Matrix. These questions may never have a solid answer to them but I do believe that asking the questions allows us, as consumers, the ability to choose those films that are deserving of our time and money.

The found footage genre is a genre that will be with us for a long while. My only hope is that it becomes less of a gimmick and more of tool to enhance the experience of placing us in the shoes of real people in impossible situations. These are just the opinions of one man, but I want horror to rise out of the crypts and become something more than just shambling a corpse or a shaky college student with a camera. I want it to be a force that demands respect and is here to pulverize us.

Agree? Disagree? Comment below and let’s discuss. Film is a great medium for all things and discussion helps all of us decide what works and doesn’t. From one filmgoer to another, celebrating all the things we love about this unique form of entertainment.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • KS Higgason
    9 August 2016 at 12:18 am - Reply

    While I’ve never been much of a found-footage fan, I completely agree with your assessment. The Visit (or Sundowners, as it should’ve been called) was absolutely horrific, and not in the good way. I was impressed with The Bay, but then again I went it with very little expectations and just let the movie prove itself (which it truly did). In many ways the hype both sells and ruins the films. The monsters you build in your head will always be far more terrifying than what any director can put on screen. Blair Witch sort of ruined that for me, especially considering the end. You expect more, and maybe they could’ve done more, but I’m not totally sure that anything would’ve been good enough. I’m gonna check out Grave Encounters now; I actually thought it was another one of those ghost hunting shows!

  • Chris Kliewer
    13 August 2016 at 2:44 am - Reply

    YES!! I thought you might agree with me on The Visit. I hate that film, it is god awful! I completely agree the hype is the double edge sword that can either save or destroy a film. For me, I enjoyed The Blair Witch Project but this is why Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was so terrible it was really bad just because it tried to expand on it in such a way that was terrible and just nooooo! I do think Blair Witch was good because it didn’t give much of anything. They certainly could have given us just a little bit more but i don’t know how much more. There’s a fine line that can be crossed really quickly. You should check out Grave Encounters. I would love to hear your opinion on it!