Hollow Horrors

By Josh Templin

Found horror “artifacts” now fail to frighten.

It was sometime during the eighty-five minutes of the movie Alien Abduction that something broke inside me. I remember watching the found-footage horror film and slowly descending into a kind of mild insanity. The film went from slightly boring to absolutely agonizing, in no small part due to its pseudo-documentary style. Unfortunately, the “found footage” device has become a tiring crutch for many horror and thriller films, and the madness needs to stop.

The first really successful found-footage film was, of course, The Blair Witch Project. That film, for all its flaws, effectively used its documentary approach to give us an unfiltered view from the characters’ viewpoints. What it traded away in cinematographic terms were things like composition and careful editing in favor of a visceral feeling of being right in the characters’ shoes.

But after 1999, there weren’t a lot of found-footage films gaining attention. Perhaps Hollywood thought that it was a risky move: any film with that premise might be panned as a Blair Witch knockoff. Another possibility is that the gimmick just did not seem to be a moneymaker: many viewers were turned off by Blair Witch’s shaky footage and mundane setting.

The real heir to the found-footage throne would turn out to be Paranormal Activity in 2007. That movie is something of a populist film: while critics were mixed, audiences loved the straightforward scares. Paranormal Activity replaced the young filmmakers of Blair Witch with an amateur cameraman named Micah and his girlfriend Katie. The movie also traded in Blair Witch’s more psychological angle with supernatural jump scares.

Paranormal Activity went on to be the most profitable horror film of all time, and suddenly studios saw the cash-in potential. But the gimmick was still somewhat fresh and audiences were happy to sit through more. Over the next few years, there were more found-footage horror films (REC and its remake Quarantine, The Last Exorcism, V/H/S, etc.), a found-footage monster flick (Cloverfield), and even found-footage sci-fi and superhero films (Project Almanac and Chronicle, respectively).

But as each new film cribs the same aesthetic over and over again, the flaws became more apparent. Firstly, composition is almost entirely ignored by these films. Composing good shots can give a film a unique aesthetic: cinematographers work with setting, color palettes, camera placement and movement to maximize a scene’s effect. Found-footage films can only be shot from believable camera locations and with minimal attention paid to aesthetic.

Secondly, found-footage films are often poorly edited. Again, only those shots which seem reasonably believable will be chosen. Instead of suggestive shots or contrasting views, we get one or a few cameras trained in exactly the same ways.

Finally, stories suffer in many found-footage films. While horror works best by only suggesting the real terror, it’s difficult to develop a coherent narrative when our chief window to the movie’s characters is so narrow. The problem here is twofold: we find it difficult to connect with the person behind the camera as a person, and that character’s limited view can be detrimental to learning about other characters.

All of this is not to say that found-footage films have to be inherently worse than traditional films, any more than epistolary novels are not inherently worse than traditional novels. But it’s the limits of these forms that are supposed to make them bold. When half the films that come out are in the same mold, they all suffer by comparison with each other. It’s Hollywood’s use of found-footage as a source of quick cash that makes it boring.

Circling back to Alien Abduction, I couldn’t help but wonder if that film would have seemed better had it come out in 2004 rather than 2014. But as any film savvy person knows, a movie defined by its gimmicks doesn’t stand up as well years later. By 2014, it became clear that this particular gimmick needed to be razed to the ground; perhaps after some time, a truly innovative found-footage film will emerge from the ashes.