Often unfairly dismissed as an amateurish way of making a horror film on the cheap, this relatively recent addition to the canon has been responsible for a number of genuinely unnerving movies over the last decade or so. It's interesting to note that the growing popularity of the sub-genre directly correlates with the impact of YouTube on popular culture. Think back to the major tragedies and disasters of the last decade - chances are, your recollections of them take the form of grainy hand-held smartphone footage, captured on the fly by would-be documentarians, even as they ran for their lives.
At first, this was seen to be the biggest flaw in any 'found footage' scenario - surely the moment we encountered danger or threat, the lens cap would be replaced and we'd run for our lives? But the reality is very different - fight or flight has become a triptych, with 'film' now the third, preferred option. Many people have attested to the fact that, when confronted with real-life horror, the view-finder offers the witness a comforting distance, as well as the illusion of control over the terrors that are unfolding. To paraphrase the strapline for Wes Craven's seminal exploitation film 'The Last House On The Left' - leaving the cameras rolling allows us to keep telling ourselves it's only a movie. Only a movie. Only a movie...
These films are not to everyone's taste, and certainly unsuitable for anyone who loves an artfully composed mise-en-scène. But if you can handle the occasional bout of motion sickness, and dialogue that wouldn't feel out of place on Made In Chelsea, there are some gems out there worth revisiting.
The Blair Witch Project
Filmed in eight days for around $25,000, The Blair Witch Project was a genuine phenomenon. Featuring an unknown cast of three, who were all listed on IMDB at the time as 'deceased', the film's greatest strength was the sophistication of its marketing. Its creators, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, created an entire mythology around the town of Burkittsville, and pioneered the use of the internet to drive word-of-mouth.
Although the film went on to gross almost a quarter of a billion dollars, it was in many ways a victim of its own success. Promised one of the most terrifying movie-going experiences of all time, audiences were disappointed to find themselves watching a trio of unlikable students stumbling around in the dark and getting freaked out by a pile of twigs. They could get that at Glastonbury. More than a decade after its release, the film itself still stands up to repeated viewing, particularly the closing scene set in the ruins of a house that belonged to child killer Rustin Parr. Even now, the final shot of Mike standing in the corner, facing the wall and awaiting his fate, is enough to send chills down the most cynical of spines. Heather's still an annoying bitch though.
In the last few years, Spain has replaced Japan as the source of some of the best modern horror films. And Hollywood has responded by dutifully buying up all of the most interesting properties and remaking them for audiences who have an issue with reading. Remade the following year as 'Quarantine', 2007's REC is a nerve-shredding twist on Night of the Living Dead, only this time our protagonists are stuck inside the building with the zombies. OK, technically they may not be zombies, but they're definitely infected with something that gives them a taste for human flesh.
What starts out as a late night news segment following an inner city fire crew, becomes a battle for survival as a reporter and her colleagues are locked inside a tenement block that's placed under quarantine by the military. To be fair, the mid-section of the film becomes rather predictable and repetitive as the background characters are gradually chomped and infected. But by the time our plucky heroine finds herself switching on the night-vision in a locked apartment, you'll be chewing your nails down to the wrist.
Not all found-footage movies are low budget, they're just designed to look that way. Cloverfield, for instance, applied the techniques of the format to a much larger-scale story, as it attempted to depict the impact of a Godzilla-style attack from an everyman perspective. It doesn't get off to the most auspicious start, as we're introduced to the main characters at a party thrown for the most obnoxious person in their social circle.
You just want to be able to turn a corner without staring into the dripping mandibles of the inscrutable sea monster laying waste to Manhattan.
Thankfully, just as you find yourself wishing a gruesome fate to befall all of them, the attack comes without warning. Appropriating the clouds of dust and debris, as well as the blind panic, of 9/11, the film cleverly puts your preconceptions on hold. Witnessing the chaos through the viewfinder of a video-camera, the viewer is caught up in the action. You might not care about the characters you're with, you just want to be able to turn a corner without staring into the dripping mandibles of the inscrutable sea monster laying waste to Manhattan.
Diary of the Dead
For over forty years, George Romero has used his zombie cohorts to address every major cultural and philosophical issue facing society. Racism, consumerism, military aggression - they've all been slowly disemboweled by his lumbering, unblinking hordes. So it was probably only a matter of time before he turned the cameras on, well, the cameras themselves.
Skewering the YouTube generation, as well as the fine line between news and propaganda, Diary of the Dead offered him the chance to reboot his entire series and start back at day one of the undead outbreak. Although far from a masterpiece, the film shows that George still knows how to push society's buttons and give us something meaty to chew on, as his grey-faced army does exactly the same thing.
On the surface, Oren Peli's breakout hit is as dull as it sounds - 90 minutes of watching CCTV footage. If that's how I wanted to spend my free time I'd get a job as a security guard. Another low budget triumph of ingenuity over expertise, Paranormal Activity once again presents us with an unlikeable pair of protagonists, who set up a video camera to try and capture the weird goings-on that take place whenever they go to sleep.
The filmic equivalent of a spot-the-difference competition, Peli's movie invites us to scrutinise every inch of the screen looking for something out of place or unusual. It's the classic magician's trick of misdirection - the moment we take things for granted, he presents us with something new and it shocks us out of our complacency. Ordinarily, the idea of a door opening of its own accord would be about as terrifying as Saturday Kitchen. But once the film has drawn you into its static, wall-mounted world, the slightest movement might just launch you from your seat.
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