With the release of Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones recently behind us, and with upcoming found footage movies like Devil’s Due and Paranormal Activity 5 on the horizon, there seems to be no end for this subgenre in sight. From a studio standpoint, why should there be? Found footage movies are often cheaper to make, they can be tremendous financial successes, and the gamble factor is much lower – but for ever properly executed first-person POV film cranked out The Blair Witch style, there’s ten other films made by a group of ill-advised get-rich-quick filmmakers who brought a handheld camera into the woods. Hollywood – if you’re going to keep making found footage movies, can you at least do it right?
As cinema fans, all we want is to be entertained. Is that too much to ask? So many found footage films trick us into watching a boring, uneventful affair that could double as some family’s vacation footage if someone randomly died at the end, yet there are other found footage films taking groundbreaking steps towards keeping the subgenre fresh, inviting, and exciting. While I wish every film was of the latter nature, it’s just too easy to create low-budget versions of the better movies and watch the money roll in – no matter how bad the product.
Thinking about this ongoing trend, WGTC staff members Isaac Feldberg and Matt Donato decided to take a look at the best and worst found footage films from recent memory, outlining why each one either sinks or swims. First join Isaac as he runs down some of the best examples of found footage material, while Matt will lead you down the devastating path of no return – those found footage movies who got the better of us. Why do some work? Why do some fail so mightily? Read on to find out!Next
Best – Paranormal Activity
No found footage list would be complete without this 2007 fright fest, which sparked a major resurgence in the subgenre. Though [REC] came first, it was the disturbing fates of young couple Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) that both transfixed and terrified America. Shot entirely on a camera purchased by Micah in order to document freaky happenings around their house, Paranormal Activity is a compact, utterly spine-chilling horror movie, and one of the finest examples of how grimly effective the found footage format can be.
The genius of Oren Peli’s barely-there direction is how every still moment takes on a sinister, foreboding edge. The devil is in the details with Paranormal Activity, because the scariest part about watching the film is waiting and observing, scanning every inch of the frame for signs of something scary… and then finally freaking out when something horrifying shows up in Micah and Katie’s bedroom. The documentary feel puts the audience right there with the couple, and so their terror becomes ours, perhaps more impactfully in Paranormal Activity than in any other found footage film to date.Previous Next
Best – [REC]
Before Paranormal Activity swept the globe, this Spanish horror flick scared the pants off just about everyone lucky enough to discover it. Following a news reporter and her team who are quarantined into an apartment building by the US government and must survive the zombie outbreak that is occurring there, [REC] has few peers in terms of sheer, pulse-pounding terror. It’s furiously paced and scary as hell, turning every dark corner into a place filled with unimaginable horrors.
Part of what makes [REC] such an affecting experience is that the found footage angle locks the audience into the apartment building alongside the characters. The quick-tempo feel and sympathetic characters draw viewers in, allowing director Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza to manipulate the scares for maximum mental scarring. The pair use the found footage format brilliantly, positioning [REC] as a horrific roller coaster ride packed to the brim with jump-out scares, shiver-inducing sound effects and just enough suggestion for viewers to fill in the blanks with their own worst nightmares.Previous Next
Best – Cloverfield
Matt Reeves’ found footage creature feature forced audiences to experience a monster attack (à la Godzilla) from the confused, terrified perspectives of NYC civilians suddenly caught up in the destruction. The shaky-cam format may have alienated some viewers, who complained that the effect was disorienting and sometimes queasy, but no one could deny Cloverfield’s staggering impact. Following a group of friends struggling to avoid the mysterious monster and vicious parasite creatures prowling the streets, Cloverfield doesn’t let up or even allow its audience to take a breath.
As such, watching Cloverfield is an exhausting, nerve-wracking, armrest-shredding experience. In one scene, the characters venture through a subway tunnel in search of shelter, only to realize that something is lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce. Thanks to Reeves’ involving found footage format, which focuses more on the horrendous things that Cloverfield’s characters don’t see rather than what they do, it’s also one of the most intense and effective monster movies in years.Previous Next
Best – Europa Report
Found footage movies are usually resigned to the horror genre, so the hard sci-fi Europa Report deserves some credit simply for existing. The film, which follows a crew of astronauts on a mission to the titular moon of Jupiter in search of life, is one of the most painstakingly accurate sci-fi flicks in recent memory. That accuracy, coupled with a faux-documentary format that heavily utilizes on-board cameras and crew interviews, sells the film as a highly realistic movie about space exploration.
That’s all well and good, but the real strength of Europa Report is how, despite the confines of found footage, director Sebastián Cordero slowly builds an atmosphere of almost suffocating dread. It would have been easy to fall back on the hard science behind the story, but Cordero goes one step further, adapting the found footage format to subtly communicate the heart-in-mouth anxieties of deep space travel, dwelling on long silences and crawling seconds of uncertainty. Without the found footage aspect, Europa Report could have dissolved into another lame sci-fi flick, but the limitations keep it grounded, thrilling and utterly absorbing.
Being a smaller film, many of you may have missed it, so I’m including the trailer below so you can get an idea of what it’s all about.
Best – Chronicle
Just when it appeared that the format was on its way out, director Josh Trank broke out with this thrilling superhero origin tale. Innovatively utilizing found footage to tell a surprisingly believable story about three teenagers who gain telekinetic powers after exposure to a mysterious rock, Chronicle proved that found footage was good for something other than the horror genre. In crafting an effective and ingenious superhero found footage movie, Trank showed audiences that the genre need not be limited to gruesome fright flicks.
Terrific performances from Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan elevated Chronicle, but the real breakout star of the movie is Trank, who uses the found footage format to thrust the audience headfirst into the frightening power of the teens’ abilities. A flight through a lightning storm is heart-in-mouth terrifying, while the film’s heartbreaking finale, involving two of the teens battling throughout Seattle, sets a new standard for excellence in found footage cinema. Trank puts the audience in the line of fire, so every blow and every explosion lands with shattering force. As a whole, Chronicle succeeds simply because it’s unafraid to go dark, to experiment and to infuse its handheld format with the tortured souls of its winning characters.Previous Next
Worst – Apollo 18
There’s a huge different between being a producer and director, and no found footage film exemplified that ideal more than Apollo 18. Produced by visual hypnotist Timur Bekmambetov and directed by Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo López-Gallego, this outer space found footage flick provided one of the most boring horror experiences of 2011, showcasing everything wrong with found footage cinema. A lack of scares, a focus on the mundane, zero plot advancement, a sluggish pace, grainy quality, and absolutely none of Bekmambetov’s influence – much to my dismay.
Although there are about twenty billion reasons as to why Apollo 18 is a perfect example of what NOT to do in a found footage film, the most prevalent to me was a fading third act. Most found footage films end with a bang, but after sitting through numerous scenes of sleeping astronauts and meandering shots of moon walking, the final minutes of Apollo 18 injected no excitement or intrigue. What do we get? More astronaut space running, a silly escape attempt, and evil alien rocks. Found footage movies can be boring during the initial setup, but the best go out with a bang. I mean, I get it, in space no one can hear you scream – but that doesn’t mean a film taking place in space can’t MAKE you scream.
I really wish Timur Bekmambetov was the creative mind behind Apollo 18, because if you’ve seen films like Night Watch and Wanted, you know he’d have played around with alien action and isolated horror with intense fervor – instead of exploiting every droll found footage cliché in the book.Previous Next
Worst – Area 407
Area 407 is an inexcusably lazy horror movie, relying on nothing but your own imagination for entertainment. I might be wrong, but isn’t that the filmmaker’s job? To bring our dreams to life? To conjure up some fantastical world through the magic of cinema? Nope, not Area 407! Here’s the gist – a plane crashes in the middle of nowhere, there are survivors, one has a video camera, and the camera is left running while an escape (from wherever they are) is attempted. Here’s where a monster enters, and people start dying one by one. Don’t get excited – an almost entirely improvised production comes off as wooden, hammy, unfocused, chaotic, and most of all, unwatchable.
Again, glaring cinematic flubs aside, there’s a very specific reason why Area 407 is on the tail end of this list, and that’s because found footage filmmaking is used as a cheap ploy to mask their small budget. Don’t get me wrong, some indie films are able to mask low-budgets through creativity and pure talent, but all Area 407 does is turn the camera away from anything that would require special effects, taking the term “out of sight, out of mind” far too literal. Character deaths are reduced to nothing but disappearing acts, as anything worth value happens off screen – mostly involving the “monster” (inexplicably a dinosaur).
Proper found footage films display even the more gruesome, unbelievable moments on camera as to further the story and build a universe where people have superpowers, zombies run amok, dinosaurs chase people – etc.Previous Next
Worst – Paranormal Activity 4
While I thought Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was a brilliant return to form for Oren Peli’s franchise, the previous sequel, Paranormal Activity 4, was easily the worst. Many people put Paranormal Activity 3 on a pedestal, praising Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman for inventing a rotating camera that makes for easy jump scares – congratulations, you learned how to use tools and tape! Sorry for my snark, but I actually think the second sequel is when everything REALLY started going wrong, and our third sequel crashed and burned quicker than an airplane with no engines. We meet ANOTHER family, Katie shows up AGAIN, the whole Hunter angle is coyly teased and then exposed (c’mon, kids are way scarier than that), and we meet a whole coven of witches! Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Thankfully, The Marked Ones transforms a scareless story about shape-shifting witches into a fun B-Move about, well, so much more – but we’re not here to be positive.
Paranormal Activity 4‘s big reveal was the XBOX Kinect camera usage, which when looked at through night vision, you can see every tiny motion sensor dot being projected into a room’s deepest nooks and crannies. The kids dance around and pretend they’re at a rave, but at night, when everyone is sleeping, we see an invisible figure following around the small children who are naughtily up past their bed time. Here’s the thing – it’s the third sequel. We know there’s a shady figure walking about the premises. He’s been doing it the last three movies. If you’re going to have a franchise surrounding the same found footage scares, you absolutely must keep things fresh. Choosing different cameras to present the same actions over and over again simply doesn’t work.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones succeeded by bringing lighthearted comedy into a franchise that was either too cheesy or too dull at times. There was an insertion of new life, and Christopher Landon created a better film for it. Paranormal Activity 4, on the other hand, seemed perfectly content exploiting the same old reusable material and tried to pass a disco ball off as innovation. No scares, no laughs – just boredom.Previous Next
Worst – The Devil Inside
You know what, I know I already discussed how a strong ending is necessary for found footage films, but here’s another completely different example of how a horrid ending can be like a negative exclamation point on any movie. The Devil Inside, your typical January horror dud, is the movie in question, bringing us on a religious journey to meet the Devil. Beelzebub. El Diablo. You know, not a nice dude. Despite a story that could have possibly gone somewhere, The Devil Inside can’t even pull off proper jump scares as it bumbles about interviews and priestly duties with a thin veil of danger, until coming to a SCREECHING halt completely out of nowhere. Boom. End of movie.
Where Apollo 18 just ended in wasteful fashion, The Devil Inside exploits such an unfair found footage trope – the ending title card. Seemingly mid scene, one of the characters goes crazy, causes a car crash, and a title card pops up saying she’s never been located since – but that’s not it. Then we’re directed to a website as so, “For more information about the ongoing investigation visit www.TheRossiFiles.com.”
We’re watching a movie. You can’t show us anything about the Rossi investigation? You can’t use your creative juices to crank out some more scenes or offer even a voiceover of the events? YOU TELL US TO GO TO A WEBSITE?! Here’s my interpretations of such an ending – you realized your movie dropped the ball hardcore, and in an effort to clear things up, you explained everything out on a webpage so everyone is less angry about your awful film.
Did I go to the website? No. Did I achieve more understanding? Nope. Was I scared to see what Ms. Rossi was doing or where she was currently? No way. Did I leave the theater feeling cheated, robbed, bamboozled, and used? Abso-freakin-lutely.
This is just one of the most disgraceful found footage films in recent memory, which is disappointing because the trailer (seen below) actually looked alright.
Worst – Paranormal Entity
Why did I throw an Asylum movie on here? To display one simple point: if you don’t know how to make a horror movie, found footage isn’t going to be your saving grace. If you don’t know Asylum’s schtick, let me explain briefly – they’re a production company that churns out low-budget copies of current famous movies hoping you’ll accidentally make the mistake of renting Snakes On A Train, Atlantic Rim, so on and so forth. Paranormal Entity is the obvious rip-off of Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, directed by Shane Van Dyke (Asylum mainstay). Yes, these films are typically bad, but it quickly becomes horribly obvious that Shane knows nothing about horror, as he simply films a female actress for about an hour and a half.
Here’s the thing, Paranormal Activity increases intensity until a major payoff. It’s simple horror. The intensity increases, thing are obviously getting worse, and we’re hit with an ending most don’t see coming. This is horror and it’s done rather well. Shane doesn’t understand this, and he stretches the duller build-up material out for an entire movie, just moving furniture around and turning TVs on. This demon is the equivalent of a immature prankster, wasting your electricity and keeping you up all night with incessant thuds. Do you know what we call found footage movies with absolutely no entertainment value? Home movies. No, actually I take that back – most home movies have nostalgic value that actually are funny and engaging, letting us remember better times. Paranormal Entity is not that. Paranormal Entity is not funny. It’s not engaging. It’s just a horrid bit of found footage cinema that not even our ghost wants to be a part of, which is noticed when the turns the camera around any time he wants to cause some “havoc.”
To make a found footage movie, you first have to understand what makes a found footage movie watchable. Granted, it’s Asylum, but that doesn’t mean Paranormal Entity isn’t the perfect example of blind genre idiocy.Previous