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.
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.
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.
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.
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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