Ed told Nick and I that we’d been asked to review a horror film. I was excited.
They didn’t share my excitement. Instead, the following advice was offered:
"Look for the positives."
The film we were asked to review wasn’t a studio film and was clearly a ‘passion project’ so I set myself up, notebook in hand, and my positive pen (a blue pen*) ready to scribble down thoughts.
My notepad is still empty.
I won’t be unnecessarily negative about the film and I won’t go so far as to name it because I don’t think it serves any purpose. However, it did leave one question circling around my head, like Bruce in the water, unsatisfied and bloodthirsty.
Has interconnectivity killed the found footage subgenre?
Join me now I as we meander through the Found Footage horror sub genre like a clueless teen in the wrong house/forest /asylum to either find an answer or have the remains of my quest uncovered at a later undetermined date.
When talking about found footage, we’re looking at films with the key premise being that the events depicted have already happened and what we are seeing has somehow been recovered. We then get to watch as the mystery of what actually happened unfurls before us with one inevitable, unquestionable conclusion. The people involved have not escaped.
Before we look at found footage, let’s look at what I like to call found footage in history. Found footage in history, Matt; how’s that work?
I'm so glad you asked, let me show you my working:
In 1872, the good ship Mary Celeste sets sail from New York on its way to Geona. It has 11 passengers onboard, all ardent Sampdoria fans on their way to see the derby della lanterna.
Less than a month later the Mary Celeste is spotted 400 miles east of Azores (islands in the middle of the Atlantic) at full mast and with no sign of the crew or anybody else onboard. The last entry in the ship’s logbook notes that the ship was within sight of the Azores, but nothing more sinister than that.
Questions were asked: Where had the crew gone? Why would an experienced captain abandon a perfectly good ship? Is the ship cursed? Did Sampdoria win the derby that year?
Okay, I made the football bit up, but the rest is the basic premise for almost every found footage film you or I have ever seen. Normal people in normal situations becoming isolated from the wider world and meeting a mysterious fate that the rest of the world experiences vicariously through reports and footage.
The Mary Celeste is not the only example, there are plenty of others that fit the bill. For instance, the American Colonists who disappeared from Roanoke Island leaving only the word Croatoan carved into a tree. There’s also the Dyatlov Pass Incident where nine experienced Russian hikers disappeared on a trek through the Ural Mountains, later all were found dead in mysteriously naked circumstances.
All that is missing from these historical events is a camcorder ‘narrating’ the fates of the missing and you’ve got yourself a found footage film.
Why have we gone for our little meander in history? Well because I like a long winding meandering story and because it highlights how found footage works in horror and where the scares can be found. From the first reel of any found footage horror we should be aware of the following sinister points:
o The footage was found….so where are the people that made it and feature in it?
o If the footage was found it means something awful happened and no one could call for help. If someone has found your footage then no one came to save you.
o One person lived long enough to make this footage, one person thought they might escape, one person had hope when there was none.
o These people, they could be you
The small problem with this, and where the true duds of the genre are often to be found, is that you’ve created a story that is generally beholden to a predestined conclusion. In the same sense that prequel films and TV shows can suffer from being limited to an already established world and ending, found footage tells you from the off that these people you’re watching, they ain’t making it outta here alive. That means that your mystery has to be damn engaging, unusual, relatable or preferably a combination of the three. I realise this is a stick you could wave at any film but in found footage if you’ve not got a gripping and intelligent mystery then odds on that you’re relying on a very quick build of empathy with characters who your smart horror loving brain will have registered are not long for this world.
Well, Matt, that’s all fine and dandy and you’ve talked…. at length... about what the genre constitutes, but do you have any films in mind that back up these claims? Well, yes, Other Matt, yes, I do. I’m sure others (Hallo, Ed, I see you ready to put an editor's mark against these) will disagree, but look upon my works ye mighty and despair.
A found footage Horror that is ‘Damn Engaging’, well that would be Rec. ‘Relatable’, well that would be Paranormal Activity. ‘Unusual’, well I’ll give you two: Troll Hunter and Monsters. On a side note, I love Garth Edwards’ Monsters and if you’ve not seen it, that’s your takeaway from this article (now watch it).
And then there’s The Blair Witch Project. The genre figurehead. It’s saviour. It’s ruin.
It was brilliant, shot on an incredibly low budget and with a DIY aesthetic that was both endearing and hit all our key markers with aplomb. And if you’re reading an article about found footage and haven’t seen The Blair Witch Project you might as well be reading a car repair manual having never seen a car.
The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found footage horror, but it is the blueprint for the sub-genre since 1999 and its biggest problems can all be traced back to this point.
What happens when the world changes and your justification for isolation is no longer there?
In 1999 you could easily believe that people could still become isolated in the world. Widespread mobile coverage wasn’t really a thing. Instant connectivity with people on the opposite side of the planet couldn’t happen.
Can you believe that now? When every notable event is livestreamed can you believe that footage was recorded and found after the event? How can you have a mystery when the whole world can instantly see what’s unfolding?
[Hi, Ed here! At this point on the podcast I would be asking Matt about the 'Inside no. 9' episodes Dead Line and Devil of Christmas- neither are feature length, but I think there's an argument to be made that these are found footage (definitely Devil of Christmas) and both are extremely successful at creating a mystery- especially as Dead Line was live streamed]
When I was watching the film that prompted this thought process and now mammoth diatribe, I couldn’t get past thoughts such as: why are they using a camcorder? Why aren’t they looking up what went on in that creepy house on their phones? Why do they have to split up, can’t they just facetime while they are splitting up? How have they not managed to contact anyone for help?
It would be harsh of me to suggest that this is a problem with this one film because you could easily apply this logic to the majority of found footage films of the past 20 years, which is the real issue: today’s standards and solutions for interconnectivity have made a lot of found footage horrors of the past harder to relate to which in turn makes them less scary.
This of course raises the only question left: How do you recapture those essential ingredients of found footage horror in today’s world? How you return isolation, engagement, and mystery to found footage.
**I should note that I began writing this piece before the outbreak of Covid19. Not only has it provided an answer as to how people can become isolated in 2020 but Ed tells me that there are already horrors in the work that play on this context. So, there’s one answer… Never
waste a good crisis aye… and stay at home, wash your hands, listen to our podcast, and watch the films we’re talking about (preferably before we spoil the hell out of them). **
Maybe found footage becomes consigned to the past, in where it’s set anyway? As we’ve discussed, there are plenty of historical examples that hold up, but then if the footage has to be found you’re really talking about a limited period or it becomes Found Parchment Horror, which has a much more limited appeal.
How about setting it in outer space? Well that’s a risky business too in that it’s already a trope. The premise for space based horror often has ‘found footage’. Alien finding the derelict wreck, Event Horizon with the ‘found footage’ of the missing crew or even Pandorum. None of these films work quiet as well without the ‘what happened to the people here’ element and it’s hard to argue that’s not meta found footage.
Perhaps it could focus on digital manipulation and plays into our fears about what we see digitally being ‘faked’. The isolation coming from a social isolation where no one believes what they’re seeing is real because of ‘deep fakes’ and ‘photoshopped images’. Maybe there is some play room in the concept of finding images or videos online that purport to show something that you don’t recognise as being real but unnervingly feels like it is but even saying that sounds like an update on Videodrome (a concept both horrifying and unnerving at the same time).
I asked a friend who suggested [REDACTED]**
Similarly my wife suggested an extension on the theme of being isolated on earth by going the Titanic route. Have your merry crew of victims afloat somewhere. It’s another idea I could see working on introducing an engaging premise where normal people have become isolated, and we’ve definitely got the Mary Celeste shaped precedent to call on (or Dracula if we’re looking at horror literature examples) but how do you avoid falling foul of the excuse for cheapness trap. What reason do you give your crew to be filming their exploits? These are questions for a horror writer to answer and when you do, we’ll review it.
So in true Betteridge’s law style the answer to the question ‘Has interconnectivity killed the found footage subgenre?’ is defiantly no. Good found footage films have been made since The Blair Witch Project, there’s a new world of possibility for the next generation of horror writers and maybe all the subgenre really needs is a spark of something fresh to wipe away the tropes of the league of The Blair Witch Project followers. Perhaps that was the positive the Hermanos were telling me I needed to find. The film I watched may have been less than satisfactory, but maybe we’re on the verge of the next found footage phenomena that connects with the world we have now?
*I was once told that only psychopaths mark in green pen, I have found no evidence to verify this but it’s stuck. Similarly, black pen is indistinguishable from other print and red pen in my industry says, ‘you done gone f*cked up’ and in the horror world needs no clarification.
**Nick liked that idea too much to share it and wants to save it for a future idea.