My Kingdom for a Tripod

“Found footage” movies are one of those styles that never seem to die, no matter how much we want it to. Sorta like Rasputin (look it up). I’m talking about “Hollywood” found footage films here not actual found footage films which are very different. The idea is that the movie is actually real, unedited footage chronicling some series of murders/monster outbreak/particularly grizzly tea party, whatever. Think of it as a deviant cousin of the mockumentary.

You can expect that the camera will shake a whole lot, people will scream and someone will keep blathering on about how “people need to see this!!” as a flimsy excuse for why they don’t just drop the freaking camera and run. It’s an enticing style to filmmakers and studios, mostly for the same reason: they’re very cheap to make, usually. After all, the idea for most of them is that they’re being filmed on a commercially available camera, so all you need to do is head to Future Shop and you’re basically set.

The style has its ups and downs, to say the least. 90% of the films that use it are horror films, many of them not particularly good. Let’s take a look at some of the noteworthy entries in this style, for better or worse, shall we? Bring your motion sickness bags.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The one that started it all. Although some previous films (like the infamous Cannibal Holocaust) used the found footage style for some portions of their films, Blair Witch uses it for the entire thing. The film famously had motion-sickness prone audience members losing their lunch in the aisles, and it was rumored that some theatres refused to play it on these grounds or handed out air-sickness bags.

Is it a tad overrated? Yep. Is it still a neat idea for its time? Definitely. No matter how you feel about the end result, it was still a creative and innovative new way for the young filmmakers to stretch an estimated sixty thousand dollar budget into a film that grossed nearly two-hundred and fifty MILLION dollars worldwide, a feat that wouldn’t be equalled until Paranormal Activity a decade later. The film also spawned a godawful sequel that abandoned the found footage style and basically just sucked in every regard.

REC (2007)

Remade in the US as Quarantine, REC continued the style’s relationship with the horror genre. While filming a fluff piece on local firefighters, a plucky newswoman and her cameraman are trapped in an apartment building that has been quarantined due to an outbreak of a rabies-like virus. The actors were actually given only partial scripts, so their reactions would be as genuine as possible when something pops out of a doorway and goes “arglebargle.”

Unfortunately the film isn’t quite as scary as it wants to be…. until about ten minutes from the ending. I remember staring at the screen in awe at certain effects going “that’s not CGI…but no way it’s makeup…. either way I need new shorts.” Unfortunately that very last shot of the movie was basically spoiled by the American remake using it in almost ALL of their promotional material. Good job, guys.

Diary of the Dead (2007)

Even horror icon George Romero took a stab at this style with his entry into his second “Dead” trilogy. This time a group of student filmmakers’ amateur horror movie is interrupted by the zombie apocalypse, and running and screaming ensues. The acting, writing, production values and basically entire film are godawful and the heavy use of computer generated gore effects is a far cry from the more convincing practical effects masterminded by Tom Savini in Romero’s earlier films.

Romero’s touch for subtle social commentary seems to have escaped him, and here’s a good example. In one scene, some rednecks are hanging a young female zombie (evoking or recycling imagery from Night of the Living Dead? You decide) and Romero added a single tear of blood running down her cheek with computer imagery. Remember that old anti-pollution ad with the native fellow? It’s like that but with a zombie crying blood. Subtle, George. The film does feature voice-only cameos by some noteworthy names in horror, though, such as Wes Craven, Guillermo del Toro, Tom Savini and Stephen King. So…that’s something, I suppose.

Cloverfield (2008)

Sporting the biggest budget and scope of any movie on the list and probably any movie that uses the style, Cloverfield drops horror in favor of a bigass monster tearing up New York City while a group of twenty-somethings try not to get stepped on and rescue one guy’s improbably hot girlfriend. Some people rag on this movie but I actually dug it, if for no other reason than it took the found footage style somewhere NEW.

One thing I always found interesting was that when the first teaser trailer was released, there was no title attached, just a release date. All we saw was a loft party interrupted by far-off roars and explosions, people running from something and the Statue of Liberty’s head crashing into the streets. This set off a frenzy of speculation as to what this movie actually was and ideas ranged from a new American Godzilla movie to the long-rumored live-action Voltron movie. Am I the only one in the world who still thinks it would have been AWESOME if it had turned out to be Voltron?

The Troll Hunter (2010)

Ooohhhhhhh yeeeaaaaah now we’re getting to the good stuff. Honestly, I could talk all day about this movie. A group of Norwegian journalism students filming a piece on bear poaching discover the man they’re following is in fact a troll hunter in the employ of the government. You know what? Just go see this movie. Right now. NOW! GO! Stop reading, GO, GO, GO!

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