REVIEW: The Found Footage Phenomenon (FrightFest 2021)
Next to gory horror, found footage is my favourite horror subgenre. It’s one of the most unique looking film styles that is difficult to create. Because of this, I am not above admitting that the subgenre hasn’t always been done correctly and has gained an unfortunate reputation of being a guilty pleasure. It’s a challenging subgenre to get correct but, when it’s done right, it’s fantastic. Whether you like the subgenre or not, it’s still hard to deny that they are unique in their presentation. So, when Frightfest announced that they would be screening a documentary revolving around the found footage subgenre, I immediately bought a ticket to the film.
The Found Footage Phenomenon is a documentary focusing on the origins of the found footage subgenre, why it become so popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s and the process that various filmmakers went through whilst making their own films. This documentary is a delightful love letter to the found footage subgenre, even with its slightly clunky first act.
The film features interviews from various directors (Ruggero Deodato – Cannibal Holocaust, Rob Savage – Host, Jaume Balagueró – [REC]) to carry its narrative along. It looks at its origins, with Blair Witch Project and the lesser known The McPherson Tapes, as well as other films to answer why people like the genre and what makes it work. Because the interviews are from people who have created different types of films within the subgenre (e.g.: [REC] is a zombie film while Megan Is Missing is essentially a ‘stranger danger’ film), it is able to give audiences various perspectives and opinions when it comes to answering these questions. However, they all agree that the key is to convince its audience that the film is actually real. While I agree that this was the point at first, with the marketing of Cannibal Holocaust and Blair Witch Project, that’s changed now thanks to films like Cloverfield and even Devil’s Due. But the subgenre objectively works better when it’s doing the former. The introduction of social media and new technologies also meant that the subgenre evolved with that, a recent example being the 2020 film Host which utilized Zoom effectively – a program that everyone was using last year and is still using, with so many people working from home. The Unfriended films are another example of this mechanic: if the audiences stop believing something is real, then tell the story using something that people recognize and use regularly to trick them again.
Another category that’s focused on is the idea of realism in terms of where viewers’ boundaries lie within the horror genre. While this may sound like a strange direction for the documentary to go in, it makes sense within the context of the subgenre: an example is during an interview with Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato where he says that, while the animal deaths in the film were real, the human deaths were not, therefore creating a strange desensitivity amongst viewers because the line between reality and fiction were blurred unknowingly to the audience. The way the subgenre is presented can also change people’s perception of what they see as ‘crossing the line’. This is a very interesting topic to discuss because it’s something that I’ve personally experienced: when watching a non-found footage film, I’m OK with seeing a slasher or zombie film where gore and screaming is expected. However, I found myself absolutely terrified during my first viewing of [REC], purely because it’s presented in a realistic way.
But the realism can come into the films in other ways: director Oren Peli explains that he filmed Paranormal Activity in his own house, while the 2014 film Creep was mostly improvised from an idea. The various directors talking about their own filmmaking process further highlights that, while these films can be cheap to make, they are challenging because of the way that the cinematography and directing has to be approached. The film also needs to have a reason as to why it’s being filmed and why that person hasn’t stopped filming (a reason that has become ridiculed by now because a lot of these films don’t get that crucial part right), so the way in which the film is shot has to be thoroughly planned out.
The one aspect I did appreciate, but did not expect, was the direction of looking at other mediums as found footage. Pieces of media like Orson Wells War of the Worlds radio broadcast and even Bram Stoker’s Dracula can arguably belong to the found footage subgenre: the radio broadcast is looking back at past events and even parts of Dracula are too. While these examples may stretch the meaning of the term found footage, it was still an interesting category to bring up.
The one critique I have with the documentary is that the first thirty minutes is a little clunky in its execution. The start of a film is always a challenge and that’s clear here. It doesn’t seem to have a clear goal as to what it’s trying to achieve at first. It isn’t until the film focuses on the subgenre’s origins and the psychology behind it that the film becomes comfortable with its narrative structure.
Even if you are not a fan of found footage films, I would recommend giving The Found Footage Phenomenon a watch. The film is very well researched in its subject matter and has some fantastic interviews from directors who have worked on these types of films and are knowledgeable about the subject. It also poses some interesting filmic (and wider psychological) questions revolving around the subgenre. While it does struggle to find its footing at first, the rest of the documentary more than makes up for that and is extremely enjoyable.