Editorial: An Apologist’s Rant: In Defense of Found Footage

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In the four-plus years that I have been reviewing films, I’ve gained a reputation among my friends and fellow critics as someone with strong – and often negative – opinions of horror movies. My opinions about horror are often met with disdain, as the majority of my reviews within the genre tend to lean toward the negative.

Editorial: An Apologist's Rant: In Defense of Found Footage

This isn’t due to any sort of innate desire to be contentious, or become notorious a la Armond White; it just sort of happens. I have high standards, cultivated over years of immersing myself in the genre and discovering what I truly like within it. It’s worse with found footage. As an unabashed and rather vocal fan of the increasingly popular first-person format, I often find myself defending the sub-genre while writing scathing reviews of the majority of the found footage films that have been released over the past few years.

Believe me when I say that it’s difficult to reconcile my love of the sub-genre while simultaneously dismissing many of the films that fall under its umbrella; I can count the number of found footage horror films I truly enjoy on one hand, and two of them contain the words “paranormal activity.” For that alone I’m often the target of criticism, especially when it’s revealed that I consider the first film in Oren Peli’s popular series to be one of the best horror films of the past decade.

Editorial: An Apologist's Rant: In Defense of Found Footage

It’s also difficult to ignore the fact that Peli is arguably the progenitor of found footage as a popular and, perhaps more importantly, profitable medium. Despite receiving widespread negative reviews, the recent release of The Devil Inside simply reaffirmed that low budget + high marketability = profit for studio. The film cost an estimated $1 million to make, yet due to a strong marketing campaign brought in almost $100,000,000 at the box office. This formula, of course, is keeping found footage horror alive, much to the chagrin of many horror fans.

Found footage is a major bone of contention among those who take their horror very seriously. You rarely hear from those who take a neutral approach, as the extremes on either end are quick to voice their opinions on blogs and forums. The most common complaint lies in the approach most of these films take–namely, sacrificing a cohesive story and compelling characters for cheap scares, coupled with an “it’s so easy anyone can do it!” attitude. If you look at most of the films that have come out over the past couple of years, it’s hard to not agree. Paranormal Activity took a different tack, preferring instead to focus much of the story on the couple while they sleep, giving the viewer a more standard narrative-based approach. It’s here where we’re treated to the more frightening aspects of the film (save for one scene toward the end that blew my mind); in a way it’s emulating the traditional narrative style while still giving it a more personal touch.

Editorial: An Apologist's Rant: In Defense of Found Footage

It’s here where we first see just exactly what Paranormal Activity does right and, ironically, most found footage horror films after it have done wrong. If you’re going to carry around a camera, have A) a reason to be doing so, and B) the foresight to put the damned the thing down when your life is danger. Given the frequency of this complaint, it’s surprising most just simply don’t accept it and move on. Alas, this trend tends to pigeonhole a great many found footage films, compelling the filmmaker to employ the common setup of “someone filming for the sake of filming.” Even after the chaos starts, the filming continues, defying logic and common sense in an effort to create a movie. Suspension of disbelief is almost always necessary in a horror film, but the egregiousness to which this is employed is almost unforgivable.

Paranormal Activity managed to skirt these issues by confining the danger not to a location, but to a person. Micah’s decision to film everything can be explained away by comparing his fascination with the camera to that of a young child and a new toy; he wants to use it whenever possible, even if the situation doesn’t necessarily call for it. Furthermore, as a skeptic, he’s less inclined to feel frightened or threatened by the demon that haunts Katie, which in turn makes his camera use all the more realistic. While this does change toward the end of the film, it’s a minor moment in a film filled with plenty of good ones.

In the end, however, Paranormal Activity works not because it’s got a great story or because it adheres to made-up rules regarding found footage (though it certainly helps), but because it represents real fears and portrays them in a way that the audience can relate to. It’s the very real notion that you’re not safe in your house, compounded by the fact that you can’t even leave. Whether or not you believe in ghosts or demons is irrelevant; the fear of the unknown, of the darkness, is universal.

Editorial: An Apologist's Rant: In Defense of Found Footage

And that’s precisely where found footage succeeds. By giving a narrow viewpoint of what can be seen, we’re forced to become a character in the film. What they see is what we see, and it’s something that lends itself to horror in a significant way. Not every film is going to lend itself toward this sort of fear – Cloverfield, for example, is more thrilling than genuinely scary – but with found footage, the possibility is far greater. It represents the fear and uncertainty of actually be in a haunted house; it represents the confusion of being lost in the woods; and it represents the intrinsic fears found in all of us. Some work, some don’t, but when it comes to fear, found footage is the front runner, and I hope the trend never dies.

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Brad McHargue

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  • RingoJ

    Found footage films are pretty much all i’ll watch these days when it comes to horror. I personally find the majority of them to be interesting.

  • Vanvance1

    Found Footage Films or ‘Give the Retarded Child a Chance to Hold the Camera!’

    We must begin by looking at the motivation for a found footage film (FFF). The primary, indeed the only real motivation is making hot dity love to the C word. Thats right: CHEAP! FFF, like 50 year old AIDS infested prostitutes are remarkably cheap. This is what made reality tv a staple of the airwaves and it’s why the the FFF trend will be around forever regardless of the endless turds it churns out.

    Now we have to ask the question: Is cheap a bad thing?
    The obvious answer is not in and of itself; but when it becomes the primary goal — motivating factor — limiting issue, yes it is bad. Thuroughly fucking awful.

    The above article holds up ‘Paranormal Activity’ as a paragon of virtues. This writer found it to be a dull, barely passable and fear free exercise in embracing the C. There really isn’t much story or character in Paranormal Activity. In truth the film would have benefited from a more conventional film making approach and this is true of most every FFF. Cloverfield is a prime example of a film where you wanted to see a lot more than FF gives you.

    Here’s the thing: Film is a visual and auditory medium. When you impose limits on these things it’s like asking a painter to do all his work with fingerpaints. Sure Picasso might come up with something passable, but it won’t be as good as what he’d have done with his brushes and oils.

    Look at the brilliant visuals in film classics. i.e. The opening shot in Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’. You will never achieve these amazing moments of visual artistry in a found footage film.

    Sound is another issue. For the found footage film to be realistic it can’t use proper dimensional surround sound (perhaps the greatest modern cinematic innovation). Consequently you wind up with an aurally flat and boring flick. When the director divirges from this (i.e. Cloverfield) you wind up with a sophisticated soundfield at odds with the visuals of the film it’s paired with.

    FFF are an ongoing series of failures. There isn’t a single one that couldn’t be improved with a more conventional approach. Those defending this crapfest aren’t doing horror fans any favours. It just means the studios will laugh at the idea of giving a horror film a decent budget and shooting time. Why bother when critics can be convinced that found footage is just as good?

    Death to the FFF!

    • Terminal

      Vavance, you sound like my uncle who still refuses to listen to MP3’s because they aren’t as good as records. The fact is it’s a new way of delivering an artform, and while I’ll always prefer conventional filming methods, found footage has its place in modern film and can be as artistic as conventional filmmaking. “Cloverfield” was an astounding achievement in the FF concept, and there are scenes “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Blair Witch” that are still so iconic and imitated by horror auteurs to this day, and shocker: both films happen to be a part of the found footage bonanza. I loved the “Paranormal Activity” series because it’s stark and horrifying and the found footage sheet adds to the atmosphere. FFF are here to stay.

      • Vanvance1

        Your uncle is a wise man. The quality of an MP3 can vary depending not only upon bit rate but how it’s ripped. Regardless I far prefer FLAC lossless audio.

        Real progress isn’t a new format, it’s a BETTER format. i.e. Blu ray brought lossless audio to home movie viewing. Anyone with a good sound system (and average to good ears) can tell the difference between a lossless track and the lossy DVD original.

        Would you like to give up modern game graphics and play all your games in 8 bit spinach Apple 2 green? That’s what FFF are. Only it’s not just the primitive visuals that punish the viewer but the loss of story and character complexity as well.

        The films you mention are gimmick films. Simple stories with a tiny twist and paper thin characters hanging on the gimmick of found footage. It was fresher back in the Blair Witch days but it really wasn’t any better.

        So yeah, a lot of people may embrace poorly ripped, low bit rate mp3s and listen to them through crappy Apple earbuds. But popularity has never been the definition of quality. Just because you’re used to shit doesn’t mean the rest of us should have to get used to it too.

        • Terminal

          3D is a gimmick. It’s a way to bring prices up. Smellovision was a gimmick. Found Footage films allow the director to tell a story in a new a unique way, that’s not a gimmick, that’s merely flexing the boundaries of film. Like creating films through phone cameras, or through black and white lenses, or rotoscoping, it’s a new wave of cinema. And as we’ve seen since the introduction of “The Blair Witch Project” it’s here to stay. I don’t think it will die out any time soon, because voyeurism has become an American past time and found footage films have something to say about that habit:

          Alone with Her
          Cannibal Holocaust
          My Little Eye
          Diary of the Dead

          All are films that have something to say about our insatiable appetite to peek in through the window and spy on things happening before our very eyes. This is a generation of DIY filmmaking, and found footage films appeal to the people who want to observe reality through a camera unfiltered and unedited.

  • Terminal

    Found Footage films have a long shelf life and movie geeks just need to get over the fact that there’s a lot of creativity to be mined from this concept. Sure for every great found footage film there are three bad ones, but that’s the case for every sub-genre. There have been some excellent films of the found footage sub-genre, and audiences want more of it. “Chronicle” and “The Devil Inside” were big successes, and the “Paranormal Activity” series keeps bringing in the cash. Get used to it, found footage is here to stay. In the age of voyeurism and reality TV, audiences have an appetite for the experience that makes us feel we’re intimately witnessing events from a real world perspective, like they’re the voyeurs, so the concept isn’t going away any time soon. I for one welcome more found footage films, and hope we see more creative twisting of the concept. Bring it on.