The Polarizing Filmmaking Behind Found Footage Horror
Sub-genres in film are always guaranteed to be polarizing, but there’s a silver lining to each one. Someone who reviles the cheesiness and sappiness of the romantic comedy is most likely going to enjoy the bubbly charisma of The Apartment. Someone who hates the sleaze and camp of slashers is most likely is most likely going to enjoy the oppressive dread of Halloween. The gangster film, the heist film, the sports movie, the comic book movie, each subgenre has its fans and haters, but each one has a handful of films that both parties can enjoy. That is, every subgenre but one. One particular subgenre seems to divide people more than ever. You’re either a massive fan, or you despise it with every ounce of your being. That subgenre is… the found footage horror.
When discussing found footage horror, two opinions seem to dominate public opinion. The first opinion is that found footage horror is a brilliant and revolutionary way to present horror that blurs the line between reality and fiction. The other opinion is that found footage horror is a lazy way to garner cheap thrills with minimal effort or skill. Both opinions, while contrasting, deserve some merit towards their claims. But it’s strange how divisive this genre is, and I’d like to explore what exactly that quality is that makes found footage so controversial.
To start, a common criticism towards found footage movies is their cheapness, and there’s really no way around that. The most famous and revered found footage movie of all time is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and that movie had a microscopic budget. The movie was made with a budget of $60,000 and it ended up grossing over $200,000,000 worldwide. This ended up inspiring many young filmmakers to follow that same formula. Invest little to no money but make back millions. It was a low risk, high reward type of filmmaking that quickly dominated the horror landscape just as the microbudget slashers did in the 70’s. So, they were certainly cheap to make, but were they cheap movies? Depends on who you ask. Many found footage movies do feel cheap. This cheapness is reflected in the flimsiness of the narrative and the messy structure. These cheap found footage movies ended up flooding the landscape with Blair Witch knockoffs that did little to diversify the found footage genre. This is a main reason the criticism of cheapness is commonly lauded to found footage horror, but this cheapness isn’t always a bad thing. The positives of cheapness are wielded by good found footage horrors to create an atmosphere. Hell House LLC looks cheap and has one setting, but its magnification of this frugal filmmaking makes the story feel scarily authentic and vintage. Cheapness is a double-edged sword that can be a beneficiary to found footage just as much as it can be a detractor.
Found footage is also famous, or infamous, for the medium itself. Many people find the style of handheld cameras or security footage to be absolutely loathsome. This style is abrasive and kinetic. When done incorrectly, the result can be disastrous. There are very few sweet spots in found footage filming which means that most attempts end up missing. It needs to be kinetic, but not nauseating, and it needs to be coherent, but not precise. Most found footage horrors swing between the two, which shatters the immersion found footage is built upon. A film that does this well is Paranormal Activity. The static shots work within the film’s universe and the handheld camera is realistic pertaining to the characters and their situation. It revels in its medium rather than simply using the medium as an excuse to hop on the latest horror trend.
Within the horror movie specifically, found footage seems to be extremely polarizing in how it approaches fear. A trope that’s almost guaranteed in every found footage is the reviled jumpscare. Jumpscares, when done well, can be the highlight of a horror movie. Insidious, Sinister, Alien, these are movies that use their cinematic language to communicate well-crafted jumpscares. In found footage, you lose the cinematic language, and you must create a very raw and realistic fear. The issue is many found footage movies use jumpscares anyways. A loud sound, weird shape, shadow, or kill that comes out of nowhere is poorly done. Many found footage movies rely on these poorly done jumpscares because it is a daunting task to convey fear in a different manner when working within the confines of found footage. But that’s not to condemn the fear of all found footage movies. The third act of the original Blair Witch is the most terrifying segment in all of film, and that’s largely because of its medium. We see glimpses of the setting, we hear offscreen sounds, we see the aftermath of something horrific. If this was done outside of found footage, it wouldn’t work, the fear is rooted in the physical perspective of the audience.
Arguably the most polarizing aspect of found footage is the core of its filmmaking. Found footage is a staunchly anti-cinematic style of filmmaking. It’s a rejection of every technical element of filmmaking. Cinematography, editing, sound, acting, mise en scene, none of that matters. And that does not sit well for many people. If a movie discards everything that makes it a formal movie, does it even deserve praise as a motion picture? This disregard for classical film techniques can be seen as not only brash and obnoxious, but incredibly lazy. For example, V/H/S is a movie that I feel could function as a normal anthology film. But the found footage boom was in full effect, so it almost seemed like they decided to transition into this style for profit. As a result, the filmmaking truly feels very lazy, and the stories told do not benefit from the medium in the slightest. Meanwhile, the anti-cinematic nature of found footage is also its greatest asset. Found footage is rooted in authenticity, and found footage is the most authentic style of filmmaking. The visceral nature of the found footage is crafted through rejection of classical techniques. The improvisational acting and eerily naturalistic, point-of-view cinematography don’t create a cinematic experience, rather, we feel like we’re seeing something uncomfortably real unfold before our eyes.
This leads me to the point I’ve been wanting to make this whole time. A movie should not “have” the found footage style, it must “use” the found footage style. Found footage shouldn’t be a gimmick or a scapegoat for lack of cinematic experience, it should be inseparable from your film. If you can visualize a found footage film as something that isn’t found footage, that movie’s found footage aspect was not properly utilized. Chronicle, V/H/S, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, these are movies that did not need to be found footage but were anyways. As a result, I feel these movies feel very unprofessional and half-baked, completely wrecking any semblance of artistry they most likely possess. The Blair Witch Project, Hell House LLC, Cannibal Holocaust, [Rec], Willow Creek, these are inseparable from the found footage style. If they weren’t found footage, they wouldn’t justify their narrative or atmosphere. The third act of Blair Witch, the tent in Willow Creek, the basement in Hell House, the attic in [Rec], the sacrifice in Cannibal Holocaust, these scenes are inseparable from found footage as a medium and for good reason. They’re examples of smart filmmakers experimenting with a new medium, and the experiment panning out.
Although many perceive found footage as the "death of cinema," and many would defend it until their last death, I don't think there's a definite answer. The subgenre is filled with horror classics as well as some of the worst horror movies ever made. I doubt any genre has a quality disparity as monumental as horror, and found footage magnifies this quality a trifold. Found footage seems to be dormant now, but its run in the 2000’s was one of the most interesting events in cinema. I don’t know what trend will be next, but I doubt it’ll be as crazy, revolutionary, polarizing, or downright strange as found footage.