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