Found Footage movies get a bad rap. Sure, yes, okay, I’ll be the first to admit that most of them are steaming piles of crap, however the very idea behind them just makes me too giddy to not hope that every new release of them will be great. Usually I am disappointed. Okay, I’ll get out of my denial, almost always I am disappointed. I have a theory behind that though– really it’s more of a statement: Hollywood is using Found Footage as a gimmick and not as a style. Yes, maybe that doesn’t really make sense but hear me out. We’ll dig deeper together and uncover the mystery of my thesis.
A style of a film is how it feels or how it operates, the look and life of the film is its style. Refer to the Stuck Up Cinema last week where I talked about Wes Anderson, Wes Anderson has a very specific style to his films. David Fincher is another director whose style can be seen and recognized immediately. A gimmick is a feature added onto a movie to try and hide the fact that there’s no story. Story is the most important part of film, without it you’re just watching a bunch of pretty actors doing unnecessary things. Hollywood takes a very thin idea, like exorcism in The Devil Inside, and try to make that one hook last a whole movie using Found Footage. The audience will see through the gimmick they’re using and see what’s underneath it all: a piece of crap movie that lacks any real story or style.
Let’s establish some Found Footage movies I like, some that are only okay and some (a lot) that just suck.
Paranormal Activity 2
Paranormal Activity 3
The Devil Inside
The Last Exorcism
Now we’re on the same page, and, yes, I can foresee some disagreements between us. And trust me, I know there are a few that I am missing (such as the big one, The Blair Witch Project) but it’s not like I am avoiding them, they’re just sitting on my list to watch and have been for a long time.
We’re going to start with The Last Exorcism. It sits on my ‘liked’ list but that’s mainly due to the performance by the actors and the compelling story that went along with it. My big issue with Found Footage movies, and made incredibly apparent by even The Last Exorcism, is that Hollywood makes it so they all have to die at the end. It’s become almost a staple of Found Footage horror movies. The Last Exorcism was generally unsettling and engaging up until the end where the shit hit the fan and everyone was running around like idiots. All the mood, tension and pacing built to this? Why not have a movie where one of them survives? Or hell, how about one where they just drop the camera and run, I know that’s what most of us would actually do. Even more so when the cameraman would realize that they are creating their own Found Footage horror movie as it is…
This is where Found Footage being a gimmick comes into play. There seems to be a check-list for making a Found Footage movie and if every little bit of it doesn’t fill in the cliche then the producers think it won’t make any money. They don’t want to take any chances with their movie, they’d rather just throw the gimmick on their already drab and uninteresting story. Look at the Paranormal Activity movies, they are all the exact same movie, even the gimmick of Found Footage doesn’t change much between them. The couple, scared of weird shit happening in their house, sets up a bunch of cameras and then see more and more proof that shit is actually going down and they don’t do anything except continue filming. This happens in every one of the movies and there is very little deviation in the actual ‘style’ of the gimmick. Paranormal Activity 3 probably saw the biggest step forward by placing the camera on a rotary fan. Other than that this is pretty much the scenario behind every Paranormal Activity movie.
Chronicle, released this year, is probably the biggest step forward for Found Footage movies. It’s also the only one I’d say is actually a good movie, stepping beyond the realm of ‘just enjoyable’ to ‘hey, you should check out this movie.’ This is because Chronicle does what every other Found Footage movie doesn’t; it accepts the genre as a style as opposed to a gimmick. The movie plays out through cameras and, yes, ‘found footage’ but it really goes beyond that when you dig deeper. To understand what I’m getting at we need to look into the climax of the film. Trying to be as spoiler free as possible (because this one is actually a good movie) it ends with a huge battle between two characters that takes place across an entire city…
…now just knowing that even I would have a hard time trying to wrap my head around how this stays as a Found Footage movie. It’s not like District 9 (which I technically don’t consider a Found Footage movie) where the first half is all in the style and the second half turns into a balls to the wall action flick. No, Chronicle sticks to its genre’s style throughout. This is what separates Chronicle from its competition and why, to me, it was the first true success.
As everything is going down we catch the action through numerous cameras. These range from security cameras, to people on the street filming with their phones, to people filming the action from their apartments. These are all spliced together and the through line of action for the fight scene is covered masterfully. To take it one step further with this I am going to propose a theory that I read online and took as my own thoughts behind the climax myself. The entire movie is a tape cut together by the government after confiscating all of the cameras and trying to comprehend what happened that night. I believe Cloverfield does something similar but only with one camera, so it’s a cheap trick with no real weight to it. Chronicle has an actual weight to it because this is an event from multiple perspectives all gathered together to observe as one.
If you haven’t seen Chronicle I highly suggest doing so. It’s nothing that will make you rethink your life or anything like that, but, god damn, it’s good. The climax itself is worth it, as the movie is just a slow build up to it. It’s the first Found Footage movie I’ve come across that actually made me feel like it did something new with the genre. It was more than just an addition to an idea to try and exploit it and make it better or sell more tickets, it embraced its style and made love to it. That’s the road block that Found Footage movies need to get over to truly succeed, they need to start standing up for themselves and speaking out in the crowd. They need to start yelling “This is why I’m unique and why you need to watch me!”
Without all that, they’ll just continue to suck. I mean, I don’t blame Hollywood for going lowest common denominator with Found Footage. They’re cheap as hell to make and make SO much money at the box office. The Devil Inside seemed to make an almost illegal amount of money considering how terrible it was. I never saw it in theatres, thank Christ, but if I did I probably would’ve swung a few punches at the poster of it outside the theatre. Chronicle is proof it’s possible and I hope it happens agains soon.
I’m going to watch The Blair Witch Project and Trollhunter as soon as I can get my hands on them. I’ll probably post a review of those when I see them to provide a follow up to this post. Thanks for reading, I’ll see you Wednesday for Zero Lives Left!
I did have a hidden motive for this post. This post was a sleeper hype post for the film V/H/S. You may not have heard about it but it is currently ripping through festivals right now and some of the reviews I’ve read seemed really enticing. It’s an anthology of Found Footage done in a really unique way. One of the five shorts is done through a Skype conversation of all things. Watch the trailer, it’s a Red Band, but I’m sure most of you have seen boobs, violence and heard swears before.