Electron Dance
28Apr/1718

The Farfield: Found Footage

The Farfield is an occasional series where I write about something other than gaming.

The Dyaltov Pass Incident

The Dyatlov Pass Incident

I’ve been increasingly focused on junk television, likely because both work and play - in the form of Electron Dance writing - tend to be mentally taxing. Firing the trigger on a new, engaging series with multiple storylines is tough. If you want to know how bad it is, I’m still watching the execrable Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Confession time: I watch a lot of horror, a lot of rubbish horror. I also have particular dislikes, such as when people are being victimised just for someone’s kicks - I feel exhausted and abused after an experience like Ils, in which a French couple are terrorized in their new country home, or F where school staff and children on detention are terrorized and brutally killed by hoodies. While I like the sense of dread that hangs over the first half of In Fear in which a new couple are lost in the Irish countryside, it eventually degrades into a game of unexplained sadism. In these type of films, the antagonist or antagonists often appear to have superhuman powers to be in the right place at the right time to maximise impact.

The horror film is much more of an audience game that many other film genres; the art of the thrill is the art of designing an intricate roller coaster. Good horror is intensely aware of context and audience expectations with films like Scream and The Cabin in the Woods deliberately exposing the game with a knowing wink to the audience.

I could easily write a whole essay on how I feel about horror but, look, I don’t do much critical pontification about what horror means or why it works. See, I disliked The Bababook which got critics applauding. That shows you my credentials. Even worse, I remain fatally attracted to the “found footage” subgenre, where the film is based on “real footage” recovered amidst mysterious events like a documentary crew gone missing or a spate of murders.

As an accidental connoisseur of this derided subgenre, I've decided to list every found footage film I’ve seen with a little bit of commentary. I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum. Here we go.

The Blair Witch Project. Three people go looking for the origins of a local legend in the woods. Rating: MEH. While not the originator of the found footage horror film (I think that award goes to Cannibal Holocaust) this is the one that gave birth to the modern craze. I finally got to watch it on a return flight from San Francisco and my memory of it is coloured by the passenger who sat beside me, getting increasingly drunk, kept making fun of the film, throttled another passenger during descent. I had to talk to the police about what I knew. This was all a lot more terrifying than the film.

Paranormal Activity. Couple set up cameras around the house when they suspect something spooky is going on. Rating: NOT BAD. Quite liked this one. As per usual for the found footage, it’s slow burn, but some truly outstanding moments like when protagonist Katie sleepwalks: she gets out of bed and stares at her boyfriend Micah for hours. The damn psychic they bring in looks like he’s trudging through a wad of writerly exposition compared to the more natural style of the protagonists, though.

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity 2. Couple related to couple who set up cameras around the house when they suspect something spooky is going on also have something spooky going on. Rating: MEH. A diluted version of Paranormal Activity where one of the spooky events, I kid you not, is a pool cleaner being taken out of the swimming pool at night. I decided I did not need to watch any more PA films after this.

Trolljegeren (Trollhunter). Documentary crew accompany a disgruntled troll hunter that the government supports yet disavows knowledge of. Rating: GOOD. This Norwegian film is quite the surprise, offering a very different take on found footage. This is not about the slow deterioration of what the protagonists acknowledge as reality; the team confronts the truth that trolls exist early on yet the film continues to extract suspense from every encounter.

As Above, So Below. Documentary crew go in search of the philosopher’s stone in the Paris catacombs. Rating: OKAY. It’s a little slow and I don’t like it when characters start doing things which are obviously crazy: Scarlett, the lead, rips an ancient tablet off the wall in a museum and sets fire to it because it might lead to a clue. This also suffers more egregiously from the “no rules” problem that all horror films wrestle with. To make things spooky, spooky things have to happen, but there’s rarely any explanation why things happen other than IT’S SPOOKY YO. You go from subtle weird to crazy shitstorm because the writer/director needs that kind of a rollercoaster arc for a horror film to work.

Europa Report. Footage from the first manned voyage to Jupiter’s moon Europa edited into a documentary. Rating: HMM. Not strictly a horror film but I watched it wondering what the “secret” of the film was going to be. Problems: there’s a certain arbitrariness to how people get bumped off; it's in dire need of better editing, as the naturalistic conversations are just too naturalistic with long ponderous pauses while people gawp at monitors; it’s slooooow; there are too many budget-saving shots of astronauts’ faces inside helmets instead of showing them in their surroundings. The film does manage to fool the audience with one particular twist and I had to give it points for that.

Europa Report

Europa Report

Cloverfield. A farewell party turns into a desperate race across a city under attack from a monster. Rating: OKAY. I was excited for Cloverfield and actually went to the trouble of seeing it in a cinema, only to discover the constant shaky cam made me feel ill. This compounded its many issues. Because one big monster is easy to escape (run the other way) the writers were forced to add Half-Life-esque critters that also grow inside your body, and had the protagonists put themselves in danger repeatedly. In addition to being wholly unlikeable, they were also extremely unlucky. Sigh.

The Bay. Footage from various sources edited into a documentary about an ecological catastrophe. Rating: GOOD. I may be in the minority on this one. The Bay is B-movie horror at its core, but the way it’s dressed up as a serious documentary works well. It overdoes the horror angle to give the film more to explore: a Cloverfield style not only do the critters eat you, but they grow inside you too. I found it a plenty more watchable than Cloverfield though.

The Bay

The Bay

Invoked. Teenagers play with Ouija board on a some island and nothing happens, more or less. Rating: ASS. Made on a shoestring budget, there’s nothing here to commend. Dreadfully slow, characters that suffer from Cloverfield levels of unlikeability, overly reliant on the camera capturing a brief glimpse of a something that the doomed kids never see. Also missing: one plot.

V/H/S. Anthology of found footage stories. Rating: GOOD. I enjoyed V/H/S because none of the ideas get to outstay their welcome, keeping it fresh throughout. I have not yet watched the sequel, V/H/S 2, which I’ve also heard good things about. The main downside was my depressing realisation that, despite having different directors, most of the segments fall back on women being used or humiliated.

Chronicle. Three teenagers develop powerful telekinesis through a strange incident. Rating: GOOD. Another entry that isn’t a horror film. This one has a higher budget than your typical found footage fodder and, while it isn’t outstanding, it’s a decent outing. It falls into the District 9 trap of being thoughtful until it’s time for an ACTION CLIMAX.

[REC]. A journalist and her cameraman shadowing firefighters on the night shift end up with more than they bargained for. Rating: HOLY SHIT. Jaume Balagueró’s film blows away the competition and I don’t think any other found footage film can hold a candle to the claustrophobic tension and dread that floods the film after everything goes off the rails. I often found my eyes drawn to the background (a la the superb It Follows) begging the characters not to turn their back on a dark room. This is real craft. (Quibble: there’s noticeable acceleration in what’s going on as the film progresses to the point where I can see rollercoaster design more clearly, but it’s a minor quibble. Happy to talk about this in the comments.)

[REC]

[REC]

Quarantine. A journalist and her cameraman shadowing firefighters on the night shift end up with more than they bargained for - but this time in English! Rating: NOT BAD. Quarantine is an English remake of [REC] which copies the original closely in some areas but makes baffling changes in others - like battering someone to death with a camera. Also the journalist, played by Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter, seems to collapse into hysteria at such an early stage I longed for her Spanish equivalent. This is a film which did not need to be made. Just go watch [REC].

[REC] 2, 3, 4. Rating: DIMINISHING RETURNS. [REC] 2 is a solid follow up although I was not too excited about the religious aspect and the addition of a Cronenburgish antagonist; it is a little like watching Half Life: Opposing Force - now here are some stories you didn’t see! [REC] 3 is from a different director and it shows because (a) it’s not found footage and (b) it has blackly comic elements and (c) it’s just an average horror film. [REC] 4 is back with Balagueró but it strays too far from the series' roots to become just another action/horror film.

The Last Exorcism. A Reverend makes a documentary determined to out his own profession - taking money for fake exorcisms. Rating: OKAY. The anti-hero at the centre of The Last Exorcism is different from the usual protagonists and the opening section where the found footage details his past is more interesting than most. But perhaps the best aspect is Ashley Bell who looks innocent and lost one minute - then downright demonic the next. Is she possessed or not? The story doesn’t have a coherent forward momentum and the ending is unsatisfying, but it was an enjoyable watch.

the-last-exorcism

The Last Exorcism

The Dyatlov Pass Incident (aka The Devil's Pass). Five students are determined to solve the mystery of the 1959 Dyatlov Pass Incident. Rating: OKAY. So the Dyatlov Pass Incident is a real thing - where nine hikers died in mysterious circumstances in the Ural Mountains. As it remains unexplained it is fodder for plenty of supernatural fiction - there’s even a videogame about it called Kholat. The production values aren’t bad and the film uses found footage tropes quite well. The gloriously batshit ending, though, is what elevates this to memorable. It is ridiculous on every conceivable level and I love the film for it. (Aside: Can directors stop throwing things directly at the camera? Using CGI to do this has never looked anything other than fake. Look, I hated it back when the BSG remake flew a Cylon raider straight at your face in the title sequence.)

The Borderlands (aka Final Prayer). The Vatican sends in a team to determine the authenticity of supernatural activity reported at a church. Rating: GOOD. Strange atmosphere to this one and a little sluggish in parts. However, the development of the relationship between the two main characters, Gray and Deacon, is fun to observe and the first strange incident, taking place outside the team’s cottage, is quite disturbing. You’re never sure whether some of the peripheral events are connected with the church… or simply coincidence. It doesn’t quite add up to the more than the sum of its parts but was not bored. Frankly, I found the final moments of the film terrifying.

And that completes the list. I think that’s every found footage movie I’ve seen. Let me know if there are any others that might be worth a spin!

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Comments (18) Trackbacks (0)
  1. The Blair Witch Project is underrated and much better than most found footage movies. Its horror is much more abstract and unnerving than the jumpy monsters of later films.

    Apart from the crappy, rushed ending, The Last Exorcism was surprisingly solid.

    The Dyatlov (the L comes after the T) Incident is also surprisingly effective, despite an unnecessarily complicated ending that doesn’t contribute much.

    Have you see The Objective (2008)? It had some truly terrifying scenes, without jumpscare bullshit.

  2. Great, I correct your spelling and then miss an entire word myself. Way to go, writer man.

  3. Oh, here’s another one: Diary of the Dead. Quite enjoyed that one.

  4. I think, Jonas, what I’m usually looking for is something solidly disquieting. I’m not a jumpscare kind of person which is why I have trouble with horror games. I guess that’s why I’m attracted to found footage because they’re usually far more about reality slowly degrading – although there are decent examples of bucking that trend in the list – and experiencing that degradation is what I find thrilling.

    I’ve always intended to go back to Blair Witch and watch it again because the original circumstances in which I watched it were, will, not ideal? But my memories are so negative I can never drum up the enthusiasm.

    Fixed Dyatlov! I haven’t seen The Objective, but noted for future reference.

    I did have Diary of the Dead on this list originally but couldn’t remember if it was actually found footage or was a hybrid. My memories of it are pretty vague.

  5. I’ve also received recommendations of The Conspiracy and Grave Encounters from @zarawesome in Twitter.

  6. Interesting and worth to be mentioned is the whole ARG thing around Cloverfield. Even if the movie itself is in my eyes OKAY as well, the transmedial storytelling behind it was amazing. It inspired thousands of people for craziest theories, for overwhelming discoveries and for mysterious experiences. It was my first ARG, and I was quickly under the spell of this genre.

  7. That feeling of reality changing is also very much what I’m looking for in horror; it’s usually also what happens in my worst nightmares. Go figure. (Also great in this vein: several of John Carpenter’s films, Sapphire & Steel.)

    A totally different found footage movie is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, which I adored. It’s very clever, at times extremely funny, and dark without being tediously sadistic.

    Not a found footage movie, but I fucking loved The Witch.

  8. Oh shit, dude, did someone just mention The Witch?

    Man, now that there is a god damn film.

  9. Is “fake documentary” included in the category of found footage? I’m pretty fond of Noroi (the curse), as well as Lake Mungo.

  10. You watched The Blair Witch Project on a plane. Oh dear. It’s definitely worth giving it another chance in better surroundings. I saw a midnight showing of it as an excited 16 year old, and was thoroughly scared. I watched it again a week later with some immature lads who made fun of it all the way through, and was glad my first viewing wasn’t marred by them.

    We will definitely check out V/H/S and The Bay, thanks for the recommendations.
    Banshee Chapter and Creep are great, and were both on Netflix last time I looked. Man Bites Dog is also worth checking out, but I think it’s more of a faux-documentary horror than found footage. Lake Mungo has found footage elements, and is a rare film that succeeded in creeping both me and Gregg out for months afterwards. Gregg’s brother loved The Taking of Deborah Logan, but we rated it more of a MEH. We didn’t like The Conspiracy either.

    As for your particular dislikes, never watch the original Funny Games. It’s the only film I’ve nearly asked Gregg to turn off because it was so intense and hard going – even though it was very self aware. Don’t watch The Loved Ones either; Gregg had to watch it through his hands.

  11. Agree with you about The Bay. Great film. [REC] is also a favourite, and I’ve watched Trollhunter maybe three times now. I like Cloverfield more than you, but then I’m a sucker for monsters.

    Kholat, the Dyatlov Pass game, is sadly not very interesting. It is essentially a Slender game.

  12. “on a return flight”

    Bad Joel, bad! I loved Blair Witch and the same goes for Paranormal Activity. Didn’t see the sequel on account that it was terrible, but watched the third film, which had some great moments but was let down by a really dopey finale.

    Trollhunter is probably one of my favourites here. It’s tense, funny, smart, surprising, utterly intriguing and unique.

    Not seen As Above, So Below or Europa Report. But slow you say? Slow tends to work well for me!

    Cloverfield I enjoyed but not to the same degree as others seemed to. Now 10 Cloverfield Lane, that was great, though it’s not found footage.

    Not heard of The Bay but that’s going on the list. Not heard of Invoked and seems I don’t need to either! V/H/S is one I’ve looked into but for reasons unknown never pursued. Sounds like we should fix that.

    Chronicle I wasn’t that wild about. I don’t remember it being bad but perhaps it was the characters or something that rubbed me the wrong way? It’s been a while.

    Now [REC] is one Hai and I saw years ago and she loved it through and through while I went from enjoying it to loving it after the finale. That finale is just… holy shit. Quarantine we just avoided, almost on principle! We may give [REC] 2 a spin.

    “As it remains unexplained it is fodder for plenty of supernatural fiction – there’s even a videogame about it called Kholat.”

    Ohh, that’s interesting. I had no idea. I’m very curious about The Devil’s Pass after yours and Jonas’ words. Sad to hear Kholat is like a Slender game Shaun. I’m not good with jump scares.

    Man, The Borderlands we watched at my parents and wasn’t sure what to expect but I think it totally delivered. I love it when a horror movie has an inscrutable uneasiness to it and the direction the film goes in is totally unexpected, memorable and yeah, terrifying. Stuff of nightmares, really.

    Very interesting hearing your thoughts on all this Joel. Remind me to talk to you about horror in the future ;-)

    Keep the recommendations coming folks, LadyHazy and I will be watchlisting them as we go. I’ll second what LadyHazy has to say too: Creep is excellent, Banshee Chapter reminded me of The Borderlands and Absentia (not found footage but, again, uncanny and unnerving), and Lake Mungo haunted us. Ooof.

    Oh, and although I watched The Loved Ones through my hands, it was brilliant. I wouldn’t have watched it if I’d known what it was about beforehand though. I’m not great with torture.

  13. So here’s an update from the Twitter side of things. Chris Franklin (Errant Signal) offered Project Almanac which he says is absolutely terrible. Adam Smith (RPS) said Lake Mungo is brilliant, but he doesn’t know many that agree with him – but as my ratings match his opinions fairly closely, he thought it’s probably my kind of movie. Sam Barlow (Her Story) suggested Unfriended which is fine but Open Windows was not great.

    And Craig Lager was furious at my dismissal of Cloverfield and As Above So Below.

    And Ben Walker suggested Noroi (The Curse) being up there with [REC] which is title I feel I might have heard of, but perhaps it’s just because I’ve heard of the word Noroi before. I don’t know.

    Merzmensch

    It sounds like I missed out on something pretty cool! After I Love Bees ARG and the failed “What’s in the Box” ARG I felt like I was done. Maybe I shouldn’t have been :)

    Jonas

    I really liked John Carpenter’s older stuff – The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13 are masterpieces – but his later works just don’t have that spark. I haven’t seen The Visit nor The Witch so I’ll just wait until they turn up on Netflix or terrestrial :) And Andrew also seems to high five the latter recommendation.

    Neggy

    I tend to feel fake documentary is pretty close to found footage – The Bay, for example, is both – so I’m good. I’m happy to watch these two recommends (especially as you weren’t the only one to wave their flags) whenever I get the opportunity to!

    LadyHazy

    I was most definitely not a 16 year old when I had my chance to watch Blair Witch. I feel even older now :) I will probably give it another chance at some point in the future. But there’s always more Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

    I have seen Banshee Chapter – it was on an “honorary mentions” list I decided to delete at the last minute because it opens with some “found footage”. For me it was okay, not brilliant, but has some defo creepy vibes running through it. I guess the Creep you mean is the 2014 movie and not the 2004 one?

    I have seen The Loved Ones and I think I winced a lot. It certainly wasn’t my kind of thing, even though it does have a sense of humour about it.

    Shaun

    I’ve realised I’m not that into monsters these days – there was a period in my teens where I loooooved monsters but that seems to have passed. Maybe I should get back into my Gojira films (which I also loooooved around my early teens). Cloverfield felt a bit like a Half-Life movie particularly the tunnel sequence, in the sense that a lot of it felt artificial, like a designer engineering new elements to give the sustain momentum.

    Gregg

    If you want to know what “slow” means in the context of Europa Report, it means I feel asleep a couple of times and had to run it back. For a film that purports to be a documentary it is dreadfully edited. I would definitely give As Above So Below a run though, it has some interesting moments and I really like the opening section.

    Yeah Chronicle just didn’t grab as much as I’d have hoped. But let’s [FFWD] to [REC] – that ending is brilliant, especially the “environmental narrative” way of explaining the whole movie. [REC] 2 is definitely worth a watch because it takes place in the same claustrophobic environment, retains the same feel. The only reason I watched Quarantine was for this very article!

    I like The Borderlands but it suffers from the same problem most horror has – the supernatural incidents can feel so arbitrary. But that ending! Gah!!!!

    I’ll just drop a quick bote for you regarding Absentia which I have seen. I like it but (a) half of the horror is misdirection – all those ghostly sequences are really disconnected from the meat of the story (b) for something that hasn’t bothered anyone for years, the “antagonist” gets really restless by the end. But, man, the outcome of the attempted exchange was horrifying, I did not see that one coming. Holy Christ.

  14. I mean the 2014 Creep. Quite aptly named too.

    I like that Banshee Chapter is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story (I’ve always meant to read some Lovecraft, but never seem to remember), and that it involves drug taking — lack of control through drug taking has always been a fear of mine, which is probably why it hit a note with me.

    Someone else also recommended As Above, So Below recently, so we’ll get it added to the list. I’m not sure about Europa Report though, it sounds like a snoozefest :-/
    I quite liked Unfriended. We had the perfect setup – through Gregg’s PC. Mark Kermode called it: ‘a Blair Witch for the broadband era’.

    We’ve watched quite a few Aussie & Kiwi films recently, and they always seem to have a great sense of humour (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Wyrmwood, Housebound, Bad Taste). We’ve decided to permeate our viewing with them more often ;-)

  15. I have a number of these waiting in my Netflix queue, but will never watch most of them due to overwhelming cowardice. Their presence makes me feel brave and cool, though, like “hey, that Steerpike is pretty courageous with those scary films waiting to be watched.”

    The Blair Witch Project had many shortcomings — talk about unlikable characters — but the last shot will stay with me until the day I die.

    Loved this article, HM. Also loved your rating system, from HOLY SHIT (good) to ASS (ass). Love it!

  16. I’m also afraid of the horror genre, but I’m very curious and want to see it. What a contradiction

  17. Oh, Cloverfield ARG was the first of the most ARGs to productions by JJ Abrams – and most of them great. I’ll drop a message when they’ll start again (I dedicated 70% of my Blog to all those transmedial gorgeousnesses).

    “What’s in the Box” was pretty interestkng video with some nice efforts to build an ARG post factum, but it was not really moving, since they hadn’t tried to mimic instead of something new. But again, the visuals are great. And btw. right now checked their account: they seem to making a movie “Kill Switch” (coming in June 20??). They uploaded the teaser some days ago (after 6 years silence).
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7TSEgT0pRc

    BTW, “Noroi” is a pretty nice “fake documentary” with some amazing cabaretists of Japanese Manzai genre (like “King Kong” and “Ungirls” (I think)). And this movie was accompanied by a pretty spooky viral campaign in Japanese web (only in Japanese though), where a anthopologist looking for hidden messages in children songs and nurse rhymes made such great efforts in his research, that his whole library was destroyed by somebody/something. It was made like a blog, and was really spooky. Especially if you know all those children songs (like Suzume, or kakurembo rhymes etc.), and see them now from another, creepy perspective.

  18. Great list. Mostly just here to belatedly chime in that I also did not like Cloverfield’s style. Cloverfield made me literally throw up. It’s a good thing I had that popcorn bucket to catch it.


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