If you took a look at my Netflix account, you would discover that I watch a lot of horror movies, documentaries and… Colombo. I’ve discovered that documentaries have a surprising amount of similarities with horror movies: they keep me awake at night, they allow me to confront situations that I’d otherwise ignore, they are often censored by a people who worry they’ll corrupt their children, and, sometimes, they’re utter bullshit. A good documentary can be just as scary as a good horror movie.
I turn to horror films for the same reason I turn to documentaries—to face my fear. But my love of horror and documentary seems, on the surface, at odds with my utter distaste for found footage horror films. The makers of found footage films claim they’re creating a more realistic film experience, as the found footage makes it seem like it’s happening in our world. Yet as someone who watches a ton of documentaries, I’m often left wondering how this footage was found, why there are no narrators, why there are no interviews with friends and families, why there are no officials statements on the events, and why we are being shown this in the first place? In documentaries, the director usually has a clear purpose. Even if he or she is leaving it up to the audience to make their own decisions, the director at least has a reason for why this information should be known. This lack of framing is one of the big reason I don’t enjoy most found footage films, yet there are a few that are quite good. Below are my three favorite.
The Last Broadcast
Often when someone claims that “You have to give The Blair Witch Project credit for having a new idea,” someone else will respond with “The Last Broadcast did found footage a year before The Blair Witch Project.” Ignoring the fact that Cannibal Holocaust and Man Bite Dog were found footage films made long before those two, I rather enjoyed The Last Broadcast. In it three men are in the woods looking for the Jersey Devil—two die and the third is convicted of their murder. While there is footage of this event, the story is framed by interviews with locals on the Jersey Devil and with law enforcement on the crime. In the movie, some of the film from the night of the murder has been damaged, so dramatic tension is created as the filmmaker and the audience wait for the film to be restored. This film does not have an adrenaline rush, but rather it creates a slow sense of dread as we wonder what we will see in that piece of film when it’s restored. Unfortunately, the reveal did fall a bit short of the build up.
If Jaws and Cabin Fever had found footage baby it would be The Bay. In The Bay we see a small tourist coastal town succumb to a mysterious illness. What makes this movie stand out is rather than following a small group dealing with the outbreak, we see a multitude of people deal with it. While this means that we never really get to know any of the characters, it does create sense that this is a big event. It also allows characters who would normally drop the camera and run to do so. The story is framed by one of the survivors of the incident, and she is a reporter. Apparently after the outbreak there was a government cover up, and she is now leaking the information, so we can know what really happened. While there are a few moments of characters doing really stupid things and few silly jump scares, this film is rather fun and scary—especially if you just had some sushi.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Behind the Mask takes place in a world were famous slashers, such as Michael, Jason and Freddy, weren’t supernatural killers but simply mundane serial killers who used stage craft to create their legends. A documentary crew is following Leslie Vernon, an aspiring slasher about to make his first big kill. One thing that makes this film interesting is it is not technically a found footage film—there are moments where we see what is happening from a traditional point of view. Another way to view Behind the Mask is as a traditional slasher film, but, because some of main characters are a documentary film crew, we just happen to see the footage they shot for the majority of the film. Of the three films that I’ve talked about here, this one is the best. It is fun seeing the tricks that allow a slasher to seem supernatural to his victims, and it is terrifying to see charming Leslie suddenly start murdering people without remorse.
Ultimately, what I think these three films show is how framing makes all the difference. One of the many things that annoyed me with the Paranormal Activity films is that if we accept the conceit that this is found footage, why would any one show it. The moment someone claims that a camera was there to capture those events, I can’t help but wonder “who found the camera and why do they want me to see it the footage?” True, this is a common complaint, but I still think it is a valid one.