Why the fake-documentary approach works so well, from “Blair Witch” to “Paranormal Activity” to “Last Exorcism”
The Found Footage Thriller
In the last decade, the movies have given us a whole bushel of new movie genres in the fantasy or horror genres. Most recently, "The Last Exorcism" outperformed expectations to snag the top spot at the box office. Along with the recent success of "Paranormal Activity," this cements the place of the Found Footage Horror genre in Hollywood.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re here to stay. So what are the characteristics of this new kind of scare machine.
(MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD — do not read if you haven’t seen "Last Exorcism" yet.)
First, a little history. Fake documentaries had been around since before "This Is Spinal Tap," but they’d mostly been used for comedy. "Cannibal Holocaust" (1980) was one of the first horror movies to stage some of its scenes using documentary film techniques. The movie was so effective that when it was first screened, the director was questioned by the police and had to prove that his actors were still alive and kicking.
"CH" was a cult classic, but it didn’t inspire a wave of copycats (probably due to it being banned in so many countries.) Then in 1999 came "The Blair Witch Project." This super-low-budget fake documentary was the surprise hit of the year. Almost immediately the backlash began. People credited the movie's marketing campaign (using this thing called the internet) for its success.
But despite the haters, the film had a Sutter’s Mill influence on the independent movie scene. After its release the market became flooded with cheaply made horror products.
This probably would have happened anyway, as high resolution digital cameras and editing equipment became cheaper and more affordable. But with "Blair Witch’s" $100 million take versus its $25,000 budget it became a flash flood. The results were mixed, between bad and worse. There were so many bad imitations of "Blair Witch" (and even worse spoofs) that they drowned out the few competently made offerings.
The genre wallowed as a cinematic backwater until the Spanish film "REC" in 2007. "REC" was well received by the horror crowd and was remade as "Quarantine" a year later. That same year saw the arrival of "Cloverfield," a departure in that it had a budget of over $35 million (still cheap by studio standards) and the action was large scale showing the utter destruction of New York City by a giant monster. But still it held true to the conventions of the Found Footage movie — it was just done with really good special effects.
That set the stage for "Paranormal" and "Exorcism."
While it may have taken a while, the Found Footage film is now firmly established and we can look at its conventions and characteristics. Again Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you want to be surprised.
The One With the Camera Dies Last
Unlike the slasher film, chastity won’t save the characters. The whole idea behind a Found Footage Thriller is that this is material shot by someone who did not survive the encounter with the Blair Witch or the Cloverfield Monster or the demons at the Sweetzer farm.
These movies have a mortality rate even higher than slasher films, where there’s usually at least one virginal survivor to tell tale. Of the five major Found Footage Horrors — "Blair Witch," "REC," "Cloverfield," "Paranormal Activity" and "Last Exorcism" — the TOTAL number of survivors is one. This isn’t a genre that judges the behavior of its characters, it just kills everyone equally.
One of the reasons "Exorcism" works so well and is getting so many positive reviews, I think, is because it’s the first Found Footage movie to really nail its opening. One of the main criticisms of the genre going all the way back to "Blair Witch" has been about the characters, that they’re not interesting enough or sympathetic enough to care about.
Even though I’m a fan of these films, I have to agree with the critics, the kids in "Blair Witch" were annoying, the twentysomethings in "Cloverfield" were bland (except for Lizzy Kaplan who is incapable of being bland). Only Micah and Katie from "Paranormal Activity" were at least likable despite what the internet haters may say.
"Last Exorcism," though uses the faux documentary set up to its full advantage (though it really does beg the question of who put edited the footage together and gave it titles!) The story opens like a true documentary focusing on Rev. Cotton Marcus. We are shown than Cotton is fascinating and if he had been real he would have made an excellent subject for a documentary. He is a far cry from those kids whose only motivation was to complete a project for film school.
Foreshadowing, Foreshadowing, Foreshadowing
This is where you see "Last Exorcism" is a true child of the "Blair Witch," and it gives us a “whenever” moment. As in whenever you’re in a Found Footage Horror movie, whatever bizarre tales the locals tell you, you’d better believe. In this movie as in the "Blair Witch," the filmmakers find locals and listen to their obviously tall tales of murder and satanism in the backwoods. Except it turns out not to be more than just local color.
For added measure, the possessed girl does a few arts and crafts projects from hell. Foreshadowing in horror movies has never been a subtle technique, but this is a slight step up from when the teens would sit around the campfire and tick off all the things they’re afraid of (Really, if you’re that scared of drowning why did you go skinny dipping?)
Right in Your Lap
The main reason these movies have been successful is because they deliver the shocks.
The documentary film technique acts like MSG for jolts. It increases the scream factor when the demons jump out of the dark or the dead body comes crashing down from the balcony. It also increases the atmosphere and makes things seem extra creepy. Just try not being creeped out when Rev. Marcus listens at the girl’s bedroom door.
The reason is simple — the documentary technique creates the illusion that this is really happening. In addition we have the filmmakers, the poor saps holding the camera acting as our stand ins. It puts the audience right there in the middle of the horror. That is why the really good examples of Found Footage have been so successful, they are excellent at delivering what audiences of horror have been craving.
Why Don’t They Put Down the Camera?
Every horror movie has a little something that the audience has to forgive; something they have to suspend in order to really get into the film. With slasher films that little thing is actually a pretty long list: Why don’t they call the cops, why don’t they stick together, why don’t they avoid dark basements and isolated sheds, etc.
With Found Footage Horror movies the main logical road bump is, Why are they still filming? And there is no good answer. Yes most of the movies are usually about documentary makers or TV crews, but still at some point you’d think survival mode would kick in and they’d realize they can probably run faster WITHOUT THE CAMERA.
But they never do. That was, along with the bland characters, the main sticking point with "Cloverfield." Why was Hud still carrying that stupid camera? In fact the other characters brought it up on more than one occasion. Well there is no good reason, but without that little bit of stupidity we’d have no movie.
So there in a nutshell is Found Footage Horror. Its low cost means we’ll be seeing even more of these. But we can dispense with the “it’s all the marketing” crap once and for all. You don’t get five separate successful movies just by marketing.