October is my favorite month of the year, and with it comes my favorite holiday: Halloween. Every year I binge watch horror movies of all kinds, usually with some sort of theme. While some years I rewatch old favorites, this year I treated myself to a slew of found footage horror movies. This is a genre that feels very hit or miss, and – depending on the film’s scene compositions – requires plenty of suspension of disbelief. Among the dozens of movies I watched this month, I watched a stretch of five found footage horror movies that I will be discussing within the context of the entire genre. Fear not, there will be no major spoilers in this post, but I will be discussing some endings (in a vague way) so proceed with caution.
The first movie I watched was the original [*REC], a Spanish horror film about a zombie outbreak within a quarantined apartment complex. While many found footage horror movies drag on in the beginning with awkward exposition, this film had an effective setup of a reporter covering a fire station for a documentary series. We are able to meet some of the cast, and some extras, and the premise doesn’t overstay its welcome. Soon we find ourselves within the action as everything slowly unravels. Like many found footage movies, there is some occasional use of a night-vision mode and some light camera/mic damage that is used sparingly and effectively. While this film might have the best use of the found footage genre, the movie itself falls apart at the end with some disturbing elements that do not fit in the wider context of the story. The final, and arguably creepiest, encounter disregards the plot and turns into something much different. Thankfully the acting of Manuela Velasco holds the film together for an overall enjoyable experience.
Next on the list is V/H/S, an anthology of found footage short films of varied quality an execution. The overarching narrative is also a bit of an incoherent mess and honestly could have been omitted. An effective found footage horror movie requires a baseline quality of acting to be effective, and unfortunately this requirement is lacking in most of these shorts. Acting aside, most of the shorts circumvent boring tropes of the genre and actually have fun with the format. The footage as presented generally feels plausible and the reveals at the end of each are unique. The uses of first person head cameras removed the “why are you filming this?” problem in most found footage intense action scenes. The special effects really shine, and make up for the stilted acting. One effect in particular involves a creature that can’t quite be captured on film and causes video artifacting that was very inventive and impressive in both its execution and its effectiveness.
It would be a stretch to call this a horror movie, but Trollhunter was my favorite film of the bunch. Trollhunter is a Norwegian mokumentary about “Hans the trollhunter” and the less said about this film, the better. The movie slowly reveals the plot over time, and makes many fun references to troll lore throughout its story. Unlike most monster movies, this movie has consistent payoffs. The special effects don’t hold up quite as well as I would like, but considering the budget, what is shown is usually very effective. The acting is also consistent, even at its most ridiculous. The writing, acting, production, and editing all came together for an entertaining ride. Thankfully, the film students in the story making the documentary actually took a class in production and had equipment with image stabilizers, so it didn’t feel like a 90’s VHS recording that was unwatchable. The gorgeous setting also helped put me in the mood, and I’ve since moved Norway up higher on my places-to-visit list.
The last two movies I watched are essentially the same movie. I watched Willow Creek first, A Bigfoot found footage film. There was a lot to like about this film, but there was a lack of payoff. When you make a monster movie, and then don’t show the monster, you better have something extraordinarily haunting to leave the viewers with. The last movie I watched, The Blair Witch Project, suffers less from the same lack-of-payoff ending, because it isn’t a creature film, it is a ghost film. Besides these two different subjects, the films are nearly identical. Both start off with a determined documentary creator and apprehensive crew. There is a lot of filming of locals and each other. The documentarians forge ahead while ignoring dire warnings. Both crews end up lost in the woods with the thing they are trying to document hunting them. Both have very harrowing night-in-the-woods scenes. I applaud Willow Creek specifically for perfectly capturing what it is like to be in the woods at night while forest creatures (and other creatures) roam around the tent. The Blair Witch Project has better pacing overall and enough visual scares to satisfy. Willow Creek falls flat in comparison. Both movies are wonderfully acted, but The Blair Witch Project has more time to really explore the mental breakdown of its characters. Willow Creek suffers because it takes place over a few nights instead of a week. Having previously scoffed at The Blair Witch Project, I am glad I finally watched it, and it still stands as the most realistic of its genre.
Found footage movies are very difficult to get right. The progression of what is filmed, and what cuts are made, need to be logical or the suspension of disbelief is lost. On the other hand, the director needs to make the movie compelling, so leaving in too much of the “original stock” footage can lead to a wandering story. It is challenging to strike the perfect balance. Visual acuity is also important, if nothing else but for the sake of your audience. old 90’s VHS camcorders with no image stabilization should be avoided. Lastly, the film needs a strong ending with a satisfying payoff, otherwise I might as well be watching home movies of myself at eight years old. Even though I have seen Cannibal Holocaust, and others of the same ilk, over the years, I have a new appreciation for the genre, and a better understanding of what works, and what is better left buried out in the woods.