Found Footage or How Youtube Helped Kill Horror

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Cultural Studies essay I did a while back and totally forgot about. It’s a topic I’d like to go back to.

It’s hard to ignore horror movies, particularly around October, but nowadays there aren’t classic franchises in theaters we’ve all heard of, like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. There have been only two large horror franchises in the past decade: Saw and Paranormal Activity. Saw is very much a progression of the natural trends of the horror genre and isn’t that appealing to a mainstream audience, but Paranormal Activity is widely known by most and is completely different then most horror before it. It’s what’s called a “found footage” movie, or a movie that is compiled from “discovered footage” supposedly recorded by our protagonists. It’s a relatively new format and one completely different from most horror. Why is it that this format emerged and why is it so popular? Looking at the society we live in today, it’s clear that found footage emerged to compete with the “hyper-realism” of events like 9/11 and the amateur, but still authentic, internet videos we’ve become used to.

To understand why trends in horror occur, one must look at the society in which they were created to see what fears the people had. In the 1950s we were still reflecting on World War II and the use of the atomic bomb. We in America were terrified of the destructive power we had harnessed and feared the potential of science because of it. Thus the science fiction monster movies were born. Through miracles of science some creature would be created, unearthed, or mutated into some giant monster that would destroy a few cities before we could stop it. At the same time the McCarthy trials were going on and the country was in the midst of the Red Scare. While this fear of outsiders is epitomized in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it can also be seen in any alien invasion film like The Day the Earth Stood Still or War of the Worlds (Wilson).

The 1960s were a time of rapidly changing values due to sexual, social, and drug liberation. We began to fear ourselves, uncertain of where the future would lead us and the War in Vietnam only added to the pressure. We saw films like Psycho, which was shockingly violent for the time, that showed us that the kind Mama’s boy Norman Bates was actually an insane killer. Night of the Living Dead is a film thats had many interpretations but it’s radically new story in a way reflects many of the tensions at the time by cooping up a variety of people (including a black man) inside a house with a deadly alien force trying to get in (Wilson). Sound like quite the metaphor of America to me.

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If we flash forward to the 1990s we see that our culture’s fascination with serial killers reaching a climax through films like Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. The ‘90s were unusual in that there was (relatively) little going on in the world for us to be afraid of. The economy was sound and we weren’t wrapped up in a big war since the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course social issues were still there, but they were extensions of previous issues so there was little new to make horror out of. Thus we saw a rise in high concept horror and meta-horror, which played on the horror genre itself to get a reaction out of us. While there were successful entries like scream, the increasing pandering toward the teenage audience left horror dull and lifeless.

In the 2000s horror got its punch back, coinciding with one incredibly horrific event. 9/11 made everyone in America essentially wake up and realize that any day the world could come to an end. Horror films since then have struggled to have the impact that a real life horror like that had. It’s tried to do this in several ways, one being found footage, which can recreate “realism” unlike any horror film and in a film like Cloverfield or Chronicle can even play on our society’s memories of that day. Playing off a more broad feeling of “the end of the world,” zombie films like 28 Days Later exploded in popularity(Wilson). Another way horror tried to be more effective is through increased violence. Filmmakers felt they needed greater violence to make an impact and they succeeded, sparking a debate that only recently has died down.

The other landmark event that occurred in the ‘00s was the popularization of the internet and more relevantly, Youtube. The debut of Youtube in 2005 has had an obvious effect on the current generation. Now you can find clips of anything and everything. From crazy stunts, to “hauntings,” to actual murder. Thanks to the internet our generation has seen it all. However, due to the spread of information, everyone has seen the same things and this has given us a weird fascination with finding rare things in the corners of the internet that nobody has heard about. Creepypastas and other internet urban legends are a manifestation of this, punishing digital explorers the same way classic legends abuse those who venture into the woods.

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Found footage as a genre has its origins in documentary filmmaking, as that is the format it’s trying to mimic. Some of the earliest found footage movies stirred up major controversy because they created situations that one couldn’t get with a normal documentary. The most notable early found footage movie was Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which had many people convinced it was real. An Italian film about documentary crew who go to the amazon to research cannibal tribes before getting eaten themselves, Cannibal Holocaust was banned in over 50 countries. After an article in a magazine accused the movie of being a “snuff film” where the actors actually died, Ruggero Deodato, the director, was forced to appear in Italian court with the actors to prove that they weren’t in fact dead and explain how he pulled off certain effects. Every found footage film since then has to varying extents tried to mimic the realism that Cannibal Holocaust pulled off a little too well (Jensen).

Found footage remained relatively unused until in 1999 when a small independent film called The Blair Witch Project was released by Artisan pictures to an unsuspecting public. One of the first movies to be marketed using the internet, the Blair Witch website featured fake interviews and police reports, playing off the aforementioned internet exploration to attract audiences. People were still convinced that it was real walking out of the theaters, despite actors being listed in the credits (Jensen). Found footage became widely used in independent film after this, but nothing ever hit the mainstream the same way that Blair Witch did, until 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Unlike Blair Witch there were no false claims that Paranormal Activity was a real movie outside of the typical confusion from misinformed people, however Paranormal Activity did bring massive success to found footage and was one of the first rental hits at a new service called Redbox. The ability for mass distribution through the internet and services like Netflix and Redbox has allowed for the flood of independent movies inspired by Paranormal Activity to get attention from audiences and keep the genre going.

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Found footage films are unique by definition, defying standard cinematic conventions for the sake of realism. How close they are to real life or to a “real” documentary actually varies, as most documentaries are usually more carefully shot and edited then the typical found footage movie (Frappier). There are more similarities to home videos and youtube vlogs then actual documentaries, by nature of us following the protagonists around be they running or not. We’re so used to seeing amateurly shot videos thanks to these formats that we now interpret that as “real” over essentially anything else, making the way most found footage films are shot actually more effective.

We have a growing obsession with movies being “real.” This can be seen through many trends in culture but mostly in our media, which strives for immersion in order to be effective. One of the most popular comedy franchises of the past decade was Jack-ass, which had not plot or story, but was rather just footage of guys doing stupid stunts. The audience can find it funnier than the average comedy because we “know” it’s real.

In action movies there’s been the rise of “Chaos Cinema” where the film tries to disorient and over-stimulate the audience to get them excited. In a film like Transformers the action scenes are characterized by an overactive soundtrack, quick cuts and angles that limit your point of view. While one might think that limiting point-of-view would be counter-intuitive to film, our tolerance to online videos where we can’t see everything allows us to accept that we can’t understand what’s going on. I’d also argue that we’re increasingly becoming literate in amateur video, allowing us to interpret what’s going on in more chaotically shot movies better.

There are almost no movies that come out these days without some form of CGI to them. This is partially because CGI and special effects in general are heavily emphasized in society. With superhero movies you’ll hear about how good the CGI was, or at least you’ll hear how bad it was if it was poor quality. Cinema has become more of a spectacle as of late and that’s partially because we like things to look good and realistic. There are nominees to the Best Picture category of The Academy Awards almost every year solely because a film’s effects were really good.

Reality TV, while its rise can be traced to several other influences, is as effective as it is because it feels “real.” The characters on the show are supposedly real people and since it’s shot poorly, we believe it. There are several shows like The Office and Modern Family that try to mimic this, creating a documentary-like feel to their show that’s never actually acknowledged by the characters, but makes us feel like the show is more real nonetheless.

Another extension of Reality TV is the “Ghost-hunting show” which has become extremely popular over the past couple years. It’s a safer, but even more realistic form of the found footage movie, where the viewer can genuinely believe in what they see because so little happens in the shows. The use of handheld cameras to capture the small little unexplainable events feels real and intrigues us. Our own struggle with mortality post-9/11 has lead to a fascination with the afterlife and by extension ghosts.

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By limiting our perspective as a viewer to just the camera/main character, instead of the omniscient third person camera, we become completely immersed in the events unfolding. Cinema has been trying to achieve this immersion since its inception and is now succeeding thanks to the proliferation of point-of-view shots, tracking shots that follow the character, and a closely related technique of what’s called “Shaky-cam” or using handheld cameras to film simple dialogue or action scenes so it feels (again) more like a documentary (Frappier).

Found footage horror is extremely appealing to both studios and independent filmmakers. The Blair Witch Project was made for about $500,000-$700,000 and grossed $248 million. Paranormal Activity was purchased by Paramount Pictures for $350,000 and made $193 million (Jensen). Studios have always used horror movies as big money makers, but found footage allows for even less cost with similar or greater returns. Since Paranormal Activity there have been releases of found footage movies every year, with varying degrees of success, but few bombs. Like most trends in movies, the studios will milk it until it dies.

Before the studio fixed up the film, Blair Witch only cost around $20,000 to $25,000 to make and Paranormal Activity only cost around $15,000 even with re-shoots. They were both small independent films that were then picked up by studios and made enormous amounts of money. The idea of using so little to get so much is incredibly appealing to independent filmmakers and so the flood of found footage films were born. With the advent of digital technologies, not only can anyone make a found footage movie, but the premise is more logical. In a world where everyone has a phone or camera for taking pictures and news shows use whatever footage people have shot, it makes sense now for found footage movies to exist over even two decades ago when this technology was a lot more expensive and uncommon (Frappier).

Computers and smartphones have put our entire world behind a screen. All of our interactions with friends, our jobs, our bank accounts, our calendar, and even the world around us are in the context of a screen. So for us to be frightened by something behind that screen, like an average horror movie, is challenging. It can be done, but it won’t have that punch because we all know it isn’t real. Jaws wouldn’t scare people into never going swimming if it came out today, and the story of a few kids in the woods being chased by a ghost would never either. That is until you make that screen one with the audience, so they’re not watching a bunch of characters like a god, they are one of the characters. That’s what found footage has to offer if done right and why people are so enamoured with it. It allows us an experience beyond the screen, despite being nothing more than the same shadows of reality any movie is.

Found footage is a format that has limits, butcan be done incredibly well. It’s become quite popular in recent years and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It’s cheap to produce and makes high profits for studios, it’s an immersive and realistic form of cinema, and it’s both an expression of our fears and a way to stimulate us properly in modern society. While audiences may get sick of it, there will occasionally come along a movie like Chronicle that will breath life into the genre. However, I believe that the real innovations will come in the very medium that helped create this sub-genre: online video. Video series like Marble Hornets are sure to terrify people in new and interesting ways, but engaging us more by being hidden in the depths of Youtube, which forces us to seek out the horror and, ultimately, reap what we sow.

Bibliography
Frappier, Rob. “Interview: Why Are Found Footage Movies So Popular?”Screen Rant. Screen Rant LLC, 2012. Web. 1 May 2014.
Jensen, Thor. “Found Footage Film History.” UGO.com. IGN Entertainment, 21 Oct. 2011. Web. 1 May 2014.
Tudor, Andrew. “WHY HORROR? THE PECULIAR PLEASURES OF A POPULAR GENRE.” (n.d.): n. pag. Kapti College Database. Routledge, 17 Aug. 2010. Web. 1 May 2014.
Wilson, Karina. “Horror Film History.” Horror Film History. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2014.

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Devil’s Due (2014) Review

If there’s one bit of knowledge you should pick up from the following review it’s this: NEVER GO SEE MOVIES IN JANUARY. It’s a dumping ground of all the movies the studios didn’t want to release in the previous year or have no better time to release the rest of the year. Looking at the chart on Rotten Tomatoes there are only one or two movies released this year that have a score above 50%. So far this year we’ve had the Asylum-wannabe Legend of Hercules, the horrendously unfunny Ride Along, the hispanic bore-fest Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, the Godfrey-Hoed 47 Ronin, and coming up we have the doomed I, Frankenstein (which I’m sure will follow in the footsteps of Dylan Dog and Priest as being a not too bad, but horribly cliched movie that ruins a great premise) and That Awkward Moment where men act like assholes… like every other comedy these days. So Devil’s Due already has that going against it, let alone the fact it’s yet another found-footage film and that it seems to be a remake of Rosemary’s Baby. However, does it manage to scrap it’s way to excellence despite these handicaps? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. No.

Devil’s Due is the story of a newlywed couple who finds themselves expecting after the wife is impregnated on their honeymoon by a mysterious cult. The next 9 months quickly become a nightmare as they’re plagued by the wife’s unusual violent outbursts, telekinesis and lust for blood. The conspiracy deepens as they seem to be followed everywhere and people in their lives seem to disappear, leaving the husband on a desperate search for answers (filming all the way).

Found-footage/Mockumentary is a style of filmmaking that has exploded into the horror community and very slightly into other genres, mainly through the independent movement. Found-footage is absolutely dirt-cheap to make and they turn regular horror movie profits, which is why studios love them so much. Many horror fans despise them for being slow and anti-climatic with terrible acting and effects. My argument back is that most horror movies have terrible acting, a good chunk have shitty effects, and for the first 50 years of horror the movies were slow-paced. I actually like a few found-footage movies, like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and to a certain extent Paranormal Activity 2 and 3. While I had great experiences viewing them for the first time they all have no re-watch value. Chronicle, which isn’t horror, but still a film I thoroughly enjoyed, is probably the only one I would go back and watch again for the purposes of actual entertainment. Mockumentary’s a film-style I can respect if a) it’s just a style and their are no in-story cameras (Chernobyl Diaries) or b) if they have cameras in the story and use them properly (Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity). Devil’s Due doesn’t fall into either of these, with a myriad of inaccuracies that on their own are the nitpicks of a film nerd, but combined create a lack of believability in the story (which is the whole point of found footage). There are tons of camera angles that shouldn’t exist, but do because the director said so. The cameras all look the same with maybe a filter thrown on, despite being radically different models. The husband even mentions that the tape is gone despite the fact the movie is clearly shot in digital HD. If you’re going to be found footage, make the effort to be found footage. There was no reason this movie needed to be found footage other then the fact that the writers couldn’t come up with anything original and scary enough for the studio to put more money into it.

Now since we can pretty much ignore acting or effects and just assume they’re shit, lets go to the scares shall we. The most important part of a found footage movie are the payoffs of all the build-up and suspense the relatively slow paced rest of the movie creates. At least thats how it’s supposed to work. Devil’s Due is slow paced alright, letting us watch the marriage and honeymoon of these fairly boring protagonists. I understand the theoretical purpose behind this as it’s intended to get us invested in these characters, however it’s completely ineffective as the only defining characteristic the guy has is that he likes to film stuff and while the girl actually has character and is interesting to watch, it doesn’t matter since she gets possessed and becomes the antagonist. Let’s contrast this with Rosemary’s Baby, where Rosemary is in a similar situation, except she has her faculties the whole time and it isn’t until the end where she loses it. The mother here goes bat-shit insane half-way through the movie and we might as well be watching The Exorcist from that point. Well except for the fact that The Exorcist was scary, and this movie is inept at building any tension or suspense to make it’s frequent jump-scares anything more then cheap tricks. The film relies almost entirely on jump-scares and the rest of it’s fear tactics involve breaking a window, eating raw meat and a hilarious scene where a bunch of kids get thrown around like a scene out of Chronicle. It’s hard to describe why there appears to be no threat here and yet there is in movies like Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch, but rest assured you have nothing to be scared of when watching this film except for when you look at your watch and discover just how little time has passed.

A colleague of mine who I frequently disagree with on movies stated that Devil’s Due is nowhere near as bad people make it out to be and that it’s actually worth a trip to the theatre if you’ve run out of December releases to see. While I think it’s true that this movie is not the worst thing ever made and that it doesn’t deserve the 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes it has right now, it’s nowhere near worth the current $12 movie ticket price. If anything this movie is just blatantly mediocre and with a different director it could have actually been an interesting take on the devil baby storyline. As it stands though, there are plenty of movies far more worth your time if you’re interested in these themes, but if you really are curious about this movie then just wait until it hits Redbox. If you do want a devil pregnancy story then I recommend the slow but effective Rosemary’s Baby or even the first season of American Horror Story and if you want a found footage movie then check out, if you haven’t already The Blair Witch Project, the oft forgotten The Last Broadcast, and if you don’t want horror then Chronicle. Before I resign my keyboard for this review I would just like to emphasize that you should really hold off going to the theatre until February as odds are your viewing experience will be less then pleasant. Thats not to say all January releases suck but there certainly is never an Oscar winner among them.