Thursday, October 31, 2019

A History of Found Footage Horror

I've written plenty of times (and probably will again) that one of the major cinematic stories of the last decade has been the New Wave of Independent Horror. While major studios have been content to put out the same demonic possession movie every year and spin-offs of The Conjuring, the focus has been on an impressive influx of powerful and well-made independent horror films from all over the world, often with resonant social commentary. The Babadook, It Follows, Get Out, Most Beautiful Island, Cold Hell, Tigers Are Not Afraid and many others have taken the first steps in the long, arduous process of restoring mainstream credibility to the genre. But as a new era begins, an old one ends. This Halloween, I decided to take a look back at the "found footage' subgenre.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, "found footage" typically refers to films where the story is told through in-universe cameras. The premise is often that something mysterious has happened and watching the footage shot by one of the characters may help us unravel what's going on. It can also take the form of a "documentary," with interviews and archive footage mixed with the main storyline. More recent examples have tapped into the video streaming boom by telling stories that unfold on a single computer screen. It's a storytelling style with huge potential and you can see why it attracts filmmakers working with a small budget. The lack of professional polish is an advantage when you're trying to convince an audience that what they're seeing really happened.

While initially acclaimed, the format became as ubiquitous as the slasher movies were in the 1980s. So many uninspired examples were shoveled into theaters that fans grew tired of it. The time was right for a new direction. In many ways, the new wave's attention to vivid production designs and elegant cinematography seems to be a reaction to found footage and its adopted amateur style. There will be much more to say about them but for now, let's look back at the history of found footage and highlight the best movies done in the style.


Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Yeesh, I always regret doing a google image search for this movie. One of the most notorious horror films is also one of the most influential. The apex (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of the Italian cannibal subgenre had an innovative structure that spends the entire first half with an anthropologist searching the Amazon rainforest for a missing film crew. The viewer expects him to be attacked by the natives, but he is respectful of the cannibal tribe and trades some modern world goodies for the crew's film reels. The second half of the film is comprised of that handheld-camera footage and it reveals that the film crew tormented and provoked the natives for the sake of more sensational footage. They're ultimately torn to pieces in the hideously violent finale that is still disturbingly realistic.

In fact, it was so convincing that upon the film's release, director Ruggero Deodato was arrested by the Italian police and the actors had to show up in court to prove they weren't actually killed on camera. Part of the reason it fooled the authorities was that animals were killed on camera in lengthy nauseating detail. It's unforgivable, especially for a movie that often criticizes the exploitation of violence, and it's the albatross that will always keep this film from being recognized as one of the greats. Several "animal cruelty free" cuts exist and prove how unnecessary it was - the movie still packs a nasty punch without them.

Morality aside, this is the granddaddy of the entire found footage style. But only hardened viewers should consider seeing it. And if you're not hardened, you will be.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)
This is obviously not a horror film. However, many directors were experimenting with the "fake documentary" idea in the 70s and 80s and this is the most prominent example. While poking fun at glam rock and hair metal, the film alternates between interviews with actors in character and staged "concert footage" of Spinal Tap performing songs like "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight." The techniques used have been copied by many other films in a number of genres.

Prince of Darkness (1987)
John Carpenter's ambitious tale of the apocalypse is mostly in line with the typical 1980s horror style...except for its most frightening scene. The characters dream of a transmission from the year 1999 where a dark figure emerges from a church on scratchy videotape footage. The sudden introduction of realistic imagery in a film otherwise full of elaborate effects is chilling and a great early example of what the style was capable of.

Tales From the Crypt - "Television Terror" (1990)
One of the best episodes of the popular anthology show is still being ripped off decades later. Talk show host and demagogue Morton Downey is basically playing himself as an obnoxious television host who explores a haunted house during a live broadcast. Nobody in the crew believes the place is actually haunted but the viewers know better. It's a brilliant half hour, filled with crass and cynical fun up until its show-stopping ending. Other episodes of TFTC played with this format but this is definitely the most dramatic example.

Man Bites Dog (1992)
Three directors from France and Belgium shot this hugely influential film entirely on black and white handheld cameras. A serial killer named Ben has allowed filmmakers to follow him around on his daily business of murdering people and hiding the bodies. The crimes get more depraved and the crew gets more involved, but eventually Ben messes with the wrong people and the walls begin to close in on him and his new accomplices. The abrupt manner in which the film ends is just as important to this subgenre as any scene in Cannibal Holocaust and was copied in at least a dozen movies in the years since.

Ghostwatch (1992)
This British made-for-TV movie upped the ante and created an entire fake news broadcast. Actual fake news, not today's "fake news." Like "Television Terror," it was a live exploration of a haunted house that frequently cut back to the hosts for commentary. A malevolent ghost terrorizes the reporters and eventually the TV station itself. Although it was produced in advance, it was presented as a live broadcast and starred actual newscasters familiar to the public. Much like the Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, British viewers were completely fooled and the BBC reportedly received 30,000 calls from people freaking out just after it ended. The tabloids and talk shows had a field day and there was much condemnation thrown at the producers for scaring the crap out of the UK. These days it's more fondly remembered.

First Wave

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This low-budget phenomenon was the moment that found footage came into its own as a subgenre rather than just the occasional gimmick. Three filmmakers wander the woods of Maryland to explore the local myth of the Blair Witch and are never seen again. A revolutionary viral marketing campaign convinced many moviegoers that this "lost footage" was in fact real, the last time a feat like this could be pulled off. This movie is sometimes credited with inventing the found footage concept, but hopefully by now it's clear how influenced it was by earlier films. As a movie, it demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of this format. The hair-raising ending is very effective but the film itself is padded out to feature length with repetitive scenes of the characters bantering and arguing.

The Last Broadcast (1998)
It actually beat Blair Witch to the punch by several months, but went almost unnoticed in its initial release. Made on a budget of $900, there are superficial similarities but the releases of the two films were too close together for one to have influenced the other - just one of those weird coincidences in movie history. The hosts of a popular public access show disappear while wandering the woods in New Jersey and the only remaining crew member is charged with murder. While the protagonists pore over the missing footage and try to restore other corrupted data, the real truth is revealed. Unlike Blair Witch, this one ultimately downplays the supernatural elements in favor of a commentary on narcissism and the pursuit of fame. The super low budget was made possible in part by shooting in digital video, one of the first films to do so.

Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Japan took a shot at the found footage idea and the results were pretty magnificent. Once again, a paranormal investigator disappears and another character looks over the footage for clues. Several disparate threads of the missing man's work are all tied together by appearances of a strange presence with a distinctive mask. The formula was already getting worn even at this early point, but the movie is still terrific - rich in detail, intelligent and very creative, even replicating Japan's insane game shows for a key scene. Despite its European origins, the found footage era has unfolded primarily in the United States. We may have missed out on some intriguing possibilities because of that.

Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
The influence of Man Bites Dog is very clear in this witty parody of the slasher genre. Leslie Vernon is hoping to become the next great masked killer and invites a local news crew to follow him around as he prepares for his big moment. In fact, most of the movie is meticulous preparation, with funny explanations given to the silliest cliches of slasher films. This one has a bit of a twist - once the final confrontations begin in earnest, the style shifts back to a more traditional cinematic approach.

REC (2007)
The first found footage movie to apply the format to a zombie movie, which would be done many more times in the years since. Reporters doing an otherwise routine story on the local fire department find themselves locked inside an apartment building where a viral outbreak is turning the residents into crazed monsters (it's one of those movies that doesn't want to use the word "zombie," but come on they're zombies). It's taut and suspenseful with a pants-shittingly terrifying final scene featuring a hideous monster played by human special effect Javier Botet. REC proved to the world that a scary creature can look even more frightening filmed in blurry night vision.

Second Wave

Paranormal Activity (2009)
This one again. I've written about it in detail before, but you can't do a history of found footage without the low-budget hit that brought forth a tidal wave of imitators once studio execs saw the box office returns. For now, we'll just note that it displayed a new level of ingenuity when it came to working with almost no money. The audience stares at the surveillance footage of the young couple sleeping in their haunted condo and gets worked up over even the slightest movement. The marketing campaign was also pretty brilliant, with one-off screenings in various places for years before the official release and commercials that showed audiences in night-vision jumping in their seats.

"Marble Hornets" (2009)
Found footage and YouTube are a match made in heaven. God only knows how many amateur productions are in the site's library but this series is stunning in its effectiveness. While filming a student film in a seemingly nondescript forest in Georgia, the presence of the mysterious Slender Man upends the lives of everyone involved. Hollywood has made two unsuccessful attempts at a film featuring this beloved internet character, but this series understands that less is more. Over the course of numerous brief episodes (some are less than a minute), the viewers are trained to start searching every frame for Slender Man, whose appearances are often extremely subtle. "Marble Hornets" received acclaim that isn't typical for a YouTube show, even getting props from Roger Ebert.

Lake Mungo (2010)
Australia tried out found footage with this fake documentary and the effect is so well-executed it would easily fool viewers watching it with no context. After the sudden death of a teen girl named Alice, her family begins to suspect her ghost may be lurking in their home. The story unfolds slowly with considerable restraint and after several unexpected twists and turns, the family discovers that the answers might be at the archaeological site of the title. It’s an involving film that’s difficult to classify, avoiding most of the hallmarks of the horror genre but delivering a handful of overwhelmingly frightening moments. Those looking for something more traditionally scary will be frustrated but those who are receptive to it have a powerful experience in store for them.

Trollhunter (2011)
It was Norway's turn and they opted to update some of their mythology with a story of a film crew following a grizzled man who hunts trolls for the Norwegian government. We're talking actual trolls here, not whiny babies pissed off about a Ghostbusters remake. As with REC, the low tech aesthetic actually makes the monsters look more convincing then they might have been in a typical Hollywood production. It's also funny to see even the silliest aspects of troll lore played straight, like how they can smell the blood of a Christian man (what happens if you decide to be an atheist on the spot?). The setting also helps the film avoid a typical problem with found footage. The scenes of mundane conversation that help make the footage convincing can also bore an audience, but in this case the breathtaking scenery of Norway steals the show whenever the trolls aren't onscreen.

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
The second Paranormal Activity film was a letdown, a fifteen minute story stretched to feature length by repetitive surveillance footage. The third one, however, struck gold by going back in time to an era before digital cameras. Like the first film, the characters want to document possible demonic activity in their home but in this case, they need to rely on cumbersome old technology. Dennis is trying to find a way to monitor the large living room/kitchen area and eventually gets the idea to strap the camera to a rotating fan. This leads to several scenes where the audience's point of view shifts from one side of the room to another. It's just so clever and could have supported a film that was completely independent of the series.

VHS (2012)
Concurrent with the found footage boom was a revival of anthology horror films, which have been a part of the genre since 1924. This movie, the first in a series with rapidly diminishing returns, showcases five tales all done in this style. It's more consistent than most anthologies, but the first and last segments are the clear standouts. "Amateur Night" is about a group of loathsome pick-up artists who cross paths with a deadly succubus. "10/31/1998" is a bravura tale of trick or treating friends who wander through a haunted house. It's primarily a showcase for exceptional special effects, all the more impressive because it's basically done in one take (or at least with the cuts disguised by static).

The Sacrament (2013)
The idiosyncratic horror director Ti West restages the Jonestown Massacre in the modern era, with journalists from the "VICE" documentary series traveling to South America to investigate a strange commune. The interview with the leader known as "Father" (the amazing Gene Jones) is tense but otherwise things seem okay. Well, everyone knows where this is going and when it turns bad, the results are utterly horrifying and unflinching yet you can't look away. The fact that it all really happened with only minor details changed makes it even worse. It's brilliant but painful.

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
There was a strange trend of movies featuring the full names of characters, perhaps to make it seem more credible as a "true story." Audiences were invited to witness the fates of Emily Rose, Molly Hartley and Michael King (among others) but the most memorable person to show up in the title was Deborah Logan. Played by Jill Larson (who honestly deserved an Oscar nomination), Deborah is a woman suffering from early Alzheimer's symptoms who agrees to have a graduate student document her condition for a thesis project. Her mind deteriorates with startling speed but the crew realizes there also may be something supernatural at work. The strength of the movie's themes is that it's hard to tell the difference. While there is some gnarly imagery near the end, none of the demonic possession stuff can compare to the horror of losing your identity.

Unfriended (2014)
The next major innovation in found footage was telling a story entirely from the perspective of a computer screen. A movie called The Den was the first one to try this, but it wasn't especially plausible and they really botched the ending. Unfriended was the one that nailed it. A group of friends is chatting via webcams when they're targeted by the malevolent spirit of a girl who killed herself after being brutally bullied. The format allows otherwise routine web browsing and instant messaging to become an ingenious method of conveying information to an audience and to set up some good scares. Whatever becomes of found footage in the future, I suspect that this approach will become more common. It's already been used in last year's missing person drama Searching.

Hell House, LLC (2015)
As far as I know, this is the last great found footage horror film. It's nothing new in terms of concept but damn did they execute it well. Beginning with a mysterious tragedy at a haunted house where several people died, investigators attempt to figure out what really happened. Most of the movie is footage of the haunted house crew preparing their event as weird things start happening. The house they used is such a good setting and the scares are so clever that you're just as likely to grin as you are to jump. Good stuff. They made two sequels but they were both awful so don't worry about those.

Happy Halloween, everyone! If you're wandering an abandoned building with your digital camera and you start seeing a lot of static, get out of there!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Tales From the Crypt: Season Six, Part Two

Staired in Terror: A fleeing criminal (D.B. Sweeney) hides out with a mysterious old woman (Rachel Ticotin) in a house she claims has a cursed staircase. Meanwhile, the local sheriff (R. Lee Ermey) is determined to get inside. It's not scary but it's very clever and it's nice to get an old-fashioned ghost story after several more grounded tales of crime. B+

In the Groove: Miguel Ferrer returns for his fourth(!) appearance on the show as a pissed off radio host whose show basically consists of him pretending to have sex. Following a long ratings struggle, he meets an ideal co-host (Linda Doucett) who brings out his repressed anger to a potentially dangerous extent. Ferrer is brilliant and Doucett is subtly effective as the sweet little devil on his shoulder. Slash from Guns N Roses also has a small role as a rival DJ, for no other reason than it's the 90s and Slash has to appear in accordance with the showbiz laws of the era. A-

Surprise Party: Ray (Adam Storke) defies his father, who had tried to keep him from inheriting a farmhouse on a valuable piece of property. With the old man gone and the will unchanged, he arrives at the place to find that there's a party going on. But what's the occasion? Well it turns out Dad had a good reason for trying to keep him away. The writing is pretty bad but there are some nice makeup effects near the end. B-

Doctor of Horror: Two put-upon security guards (Hank Azaria and Travis Tritt) working at a mortuary make a deal with a mad doctor (Austin Pendleton) conducting some very unorthodox experiments. It's funny but also very dark and has a great cast. Pendleton gives a creepy and charismatic performance while Ben Stein shows up to call the guards "lowlife shitheads" before getting killed. Considering how uninspired much of this season has been, it was a delight to see the episode totally go for broke in the climax, where the Re-Animator influence becomes very clear. A

Comes the Dawn: Before 30 Days of Night, there was this episode about poachers hunting bear in Alaska and finding vampires instead. Michael Ironside plays a former colonel who enlists a mysterious tracker (Vivian Wu) to help find a grizzly, but someone...or something got to it first. It's effective and the vampires look good, but some of the acting is just strange. Ironside is a pro but Wu uses two or three different accents and I don't even know what to make of Susan Tyrell in a brief but bizarre role as a bartender. B

99 & 44/100% Pure Horror: Say what? Is this an episode or a wi-fi password? It's actually a play on an old advertising slogan for soap, which makes sense for a story about a wimpy executive (Bruce Davison) who runs a soap company and his spoiled bitch wife (Cristi Conaway) who designs the advertising. When the Board of Directors decides they want to go in a new direction, he's forced to fire her and I think we've gone through enough of these episodes to know what's coming. Still, there's a fantastic payoff, but gory and darkly humorous. Meanwhile, the Cryptkeeper is training himself for the "Diecathlon." B

You, Murderer: Like the comic it was based on, the season finale is shot entirely in first person. Director Robert Zemeckis changes the protagonist to a criminal who, to elude the police, had plastic surgery to make himself look like Humphrey Bogart. Although he had been dead for over a decade, Bogart shows up for a few shots via manipulated archive footage, the same technology that Zemeckis had recently pioneered in Forrest Gump (which the Cryptkeeper makes fun of in the intro). The director attracted an excellent cast that includes John Lithgow, Isabella Rossellini and Sherilynn Fenn. It's a gimmick in search of a story, but it's nice to see some true ambition in a season where that often felt lacking. B+

That's all for this year, kiddies! Join us next October for the final season!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Tales From the Crypt: Season Six, Part One

Hello kiddies! We all know October is the best month. Beautiful foliage, seasonal festivals, apple crisp...and for the purposes of this blog, Tales From the Crypt! Let's get right into it.

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime: Catherine O'Hara plays an amoral attorney who gets arrested in a backwater town for a dispute over her license plate. With the help of her hapless public defender (Peter MacNicol with a ridiculous wig) she hopes to beat the rap because the sentencing in this town is very harsh. "Cruel and unusual" doesn't even begin to describe it. It's an irreverent take on crime and punishment that, because it's the 1990s, shoehorns in a reference to frivolous lawsuits. Thankfully, the infamous McDonalds hot coffee suit isn't mentioned. B

Only Skin Deep: Not to be confused with "Only Sin Deep" from Season One, this is the story of a serial abuser named Carl (Peter Onorati) who meets a masked woman (Sherrie Rose) at a party. He ignores all the red flags, including that she's in no hurry to take off the mask. You can probably already see where this one is going, but Carl is such a bastard that the audience is very excited for him to get what he deserves. Rose gives her character a nice spooky edge that sets the whole mood. B+

Whirlpool: Frequent Stephen King collaborator Mick Garris directs this meta episode, which unfolds mostly in the offices of EC Comics in the 1950s. After submitting a subpar story for Tales From the Crypt, the writer (Rita Rudner) is fired by her tyrannical boss (Richard Lewis) and finds herself in a weird time loop. It's a quick and entertaining half hour but it doesn't really make much sense. Is there any connection between the Groundhog Day stuff and the comics? Doesn't seem like it. I would have rather seen more of the Cryptkeeper getting frustrated during a house renovation and installing "scare conditioning." C+

Operation Friendship: Tate Donovan plays a meek programmer named Nelson who even gets pushed around by his hyperactive imaginary friend Eddie (Peter Dobson). As the phantom interferes with Nelson's romance with a psychologist (Michelle Rene Thomas), the first half of this episode feels like a totally different show. But then we get an idea of just how evil Eddie actually is. It's all pretty interesting if you try and determine exactly what's going on in Nelson's head, but despite having a psychologist character the episode isn't at all interested in that perspective. B-

Revenge is the Nuts: A facility for the blind is ruled with an iron fist by a ruthless tyrant (Anthony Zebre) who plays cruel games with the residents, even rolling marbles down the hallway when they're trying to walk. The group of blind protagonists (including Teri Polo and Isaac Hayes, who naturally gets to make a Shaft joke) is finally pushed too far and some righteous revenge follows. It's a good episode with interesting ambiance that casts most of the proceedings in an eerie dark blue light, but these more grounded tales of vengeance are getting a little old. Hopefully we'll get some more monsters at some point, that would really be "the nuts." B

The Bribe: Terry "The Stepfather" O'Quinn plays a straight-laced fire marshal with a grudge against the strip club that once employed his daughter (Kimberly Williams). He dismisses their bribery attempts but when that same daughter badly needs money, he heads down a dark path. It's well-acted and well-shot with a sensational double twist ending that is classic EC Comics. The Cryptkeeper begins this episode by doing a pretty good impression of Richard Nixon. I'd be curious to hear his Trump impression, although if we're being honest, he looks more like Kellyanne Conway. B+

The Pit: A dumb but somewhat amusing riff on Bloodsport. Mark Dacascos and Stoney Jackson play cage fighters who are constantly harangued by their showbiz girlfriends (Debbe Dunning and Marjean Holden) who were once fighters themselves. The guys are friendly rivals but the girls absolutely hate each other. So once they're roped into a "Malaysian death match," they wonder if maybe the women ought to be doing the fighting. The actual fight scenes are quite good (not something I thought I would say about a Tales from the Crypt episode) so it's strange that the finale is left unresolved. The episode doesn't so much end as simply run out of time. B-

The Assassin: Of the EC Comics stories I'm familiar with, this is not one I imagined would work for an episode. It's told entirely in first person narration and is essentially one scene. The writers must have agreed and so they wrote a completely different story while holding on to the name. It didn't turn out so well. In this version, a crew of asshole FBI agents barges into the home of a housewife (Shelley Hack) and are convinced her husband is actually a deadly assassin. It's a total mess with a twist that's easy to see coming (and far worse than the one in the comic). At least it gives Cam Clarke a chance to do another uncredited voice over so that's something. Maybe it was all because the Cryptkeeper was distracted, as the Grim Reaper (William Sadler) turns up at his tomb. "He drinks all my liquor and all he talks about is himself!" D+