This is a debate that circles endlessly amongst horror fans on Twitter so I’ve decided to take to the blog to talk about it in more than outbursts of 140 characters. There are those who love found footage films for their ability to place us directly into the middle of terrifying situations (I’m talking about horror mainly) and those who find it an annoying, amateurish trend devoid of artistry. I must admit that I’m one of the latter.
I’m not saying found footage horror films haven’t been done properly. The Blair Witch Project was very effective and REC is absolutely terrifying. In my opinion, what makes these film stand apart from the rest is that recording the action was integral to the concept. The Blair Witch crew were filmmakers investigating a story. REC had a video crew following firemen on a late-night call. The cameras were there for a reason. The reason to continue filming had a reason. Many cheap knockoffs like to throw in the line, “The world needs to see this!” to justify the unrealistic need to record something when a character’s life is clearly in danger. Many times, they’ll drop the camera to give us another angle for a minute then go back and get the camera in the face of death for reasons unknown.
Suspension of disbelief can be an important element to storytelling so I suppose this sounds like nitpicking. However, it shines a spotlight on what makes the POV technique so frustrating. There’s no movie unless someone is acting contrary to common sense from the moment the shit hits the fan until the end. Recently, Compliance by Craig Zobel took a lot of heat for telling the story of a group of fast food workers who blindly follow the increasingly bizarre instructions of a man pretending to be a police officer on the phone. Members of the audience rebelled, “Oh please, no one would ever do that!”. Where Compliance is making a poignant statement about how we react to authority, most found footage films require an absurd level of disbelief without a message. The characters continue to shoot the action just because. Just leave it at that.
Independent horror has always created and followed trends based on limited budgets. How do you reach the most amount of people with the least amount of money and resources? We had monsters at one point before graphic sex and blood was the ticket. J-Horror remakes took the spotlight for a heartbeat before giving way to torture porn. Zombies hit the scene shortly after that before shuffling aside for vampires. Now we have found footage. It’s an understandable trend for filmmakers. It’s cheaper to shoot and fits in nicely with America’s addition to reality TV and voyeurism. That said, all trends run their course by definition. Filmmakers saturate the market with what’s currently hot until the bottom drops out and the fans’ need for something new hits a fever pitch. Eventually someone comes along with a new idea that exploits that need and rakes in the cash. Distributors and studios jump on the bandwagon and a trend is born.
It’s cyclical and that’s fine. It’s always been that way. What irks me about this found footage trend (other than the fact that it requires idiotic characters to continue recording) is that all these films look alike. This is a trend that doubles as a technique for shooting. A POV is a POV. We’ve all recorded home movies at one time or another. There’s a good reason why they’re usually boring to sit through. The view doesn’t change. It’s usually shoulder height, flat, and has one job: to capture as much as the action as possible from where it is. The camera’s lens is built to accommodate that function. It would be pretty frustrating to shoot your wedding with a camera that constantly needs to be focused due to a deep depth of field or other artistic storytelling techniques.
Imagine suddenly killer shark movies are all the rage. Every other film is about a group of people getting wiped out one by one by our favorite aquatic remorseless eating machine. There are certain things you can rightfully expect going into these films: water and a shark. You might have a boat or a submarine. Maybe a laboratory under the sea. The pieces will basically be the same after awhile but here’s the thing- they would all look different. The angles, the lighting, composition, lens choices, colors, etc. would all be individual choices made by the filmmakers to tell their story uniquely. It doesn’t matter how bad or good the film is, each one will look different because there’s a million ways to shoot a shark eating people. Tried and true film techniques exist to personalize films based on what a filmmaker would like to express to their audience. Found footage films utilize the bare minimum of tools in order to capture an image. Because it’s meant to look real, it’s meant to look amateurish regardless of whether how much the camera that’s shooting it is worth. Why would you pay good money to watch cheap-looking home movies?
I’m not saying it’s easy to shoot a found footage film. I’m sure finding just the right amount of cinéma vérité so that what you’re shooting isn’t an incomprehensible mess is a challenge. Still, one has to ask if the same effect couldn’t be accomplished with more artistic choices. A scene that immediately comes to mind is from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds when Tom Cruise’s character runs for dear life as martians lay waste to his neighborhood. It had all the feeling of being trapped within the chaos without the nausea-inducing handheld POV technique.
I don’t know how long it’ll take before the next trend comes along and filmmakers abandon the ideas of point-and-shoot feature films. A part of me fears that the found footage sub-genre fills too many needs to go away anytime soon. It’s cheaper to shoot, cheaper to buy, familiar to distribute, and compliments current trends in technology- people shooting everything all the time. The last time I went to a concert, more people were recording it with their phones than watching it. We’re living life through a lens so found footage shows us what we already look at every day. The thought of film being demoted from art form to a populist tool gives me the willies. I realize that sounds elitist but I think the beauty of film should be something you ascend to, not slide downward for. Take away the challenge, and you’ll discourage true artists who know that art isn’t supposed to be easy.
The variety of film is so incredibly important, even within the same genre. You wouldn’t want every pop song out there to be auto-tuned to death. You wouldn’t want every photograph to be corrupted by an Instagram filter…would you? I certainly hope not.
I can’t say I would never make a found footage movie. In fact, I have a pretty good idea for one that I hope I’ll never have to write up. Why? Because even if it’s made and enjoyed by horror fans, I wouldn’t feel like it’s me. My old school brain imagines Hitchcock’s, Psycho in the POV style. Could it still be terrifying? I don’t know. I do know that it wouldn’t be Hitchcock.