Terror Cult: Found Footage

Devon Ashby takes you on a journey into the newest horror subgenre, and the most noteworthy films it has to offer.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

Each week on Terror Cult, CraveOnline focuses its wanton affection on a specific facet of the horror genre, dissecting its strengths and weaknesses and highlighting particularly strong, notable, stupid, and/or crass examples of same. This week, our subject of criticism is found footage horror, which is a cheap and affective way to create solid scares, as well as a reflection of the disturbingly rapid changes in the overall media environment.

Film, as an entertainment platform, is constantly evolving, moreso in recent years than at any other point in history. Media culture is everywhere, and it’s constantly becoming more complex, more interactive, more accessible, and more ubiquitous. For these reasons, current films are more inescapably defined by the broader context of visual media than ever before. High-definition footage can be captured, manipulated, and accessed by pretty much anyone, whenever and wherever they want. As a documentary format, film and video are less stable than they ever have been. Manipulating photography has become so effortless that any image is immediately suspect. The more accessible reality becomes through digital media, the more disturbingly unreliable it is.

Horror films that pretend to be real-time documents of actual events aren’t new, but in recent years, the subgenre has exploded. Partly this is for basic, utilitarian reasons. The cheapness and wide availability of digital video technology means that people shoot casual videos of their lives a lot more often than they used to. Obscenely gigantic cable packages with hundreds of channels have given birth to a corresponding flood of reality-based programming, so Z-grade documentaries are par for the course now too. The incredible reach of visual media is simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating.

Combining a genre as nightmarishly penetrating as horror with a matter-of-fact genre like documentary filmmaking creates an opportunity to augment both. A horror premise can seem more immediate and threatening if it’s framed as an actual event, and assembling an imaginary document of something unspeakable is often a powerful framing device to critique media culture itself. Found footage movies also call unusual attention to the relationship between visual storytelling and narrative. Films like Cloverfield and V/H/S, for example, both go out of their way to use the properties of home video technology to incorporate weird, creepy editing and distortion effects.

The following list comprises most of the significant entries in the found footage and mockumentary canon that are relevant to the horror genre… meaning these are the ones that are disturbing, gory, or otherwise jacked up. Some of them pretend to document the supernatural, others criticize the media’s obsession with violence by constructing elaborate fantasies about serial killers. Regardless of specifics, all of these movies tap into the uneasy relationship we all have with cinematic representation in all its mutated forms.

Man Bites Dog (1992)

Shot in black-and-white, this French film was one of the earliest notable entries in the found footage/mockumentary subgenre. It chronicles the exploits of a blithe serial killer who charms an increasingly complicit film crew into hagiographically documenting his crimes. In the classic French tradition, Man Bites Dog is subtextually all about social critique, pointing an accusing finger at television and news culture’s rabid obsession with real-life violence. It remains one of the most absurd, violent, and disturbing films of its type ever produced.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Blair Witch was the first successful found-footage documentary, spawning a host of straight-to-VHS imitators in the late nineties and early 2000’s. Some people really hated it, complaining that the acting was overdramatic and the jerky handheld camera work made them want to vomit. Love it or hate it, as an experimental exercise, Blair Witch was groundbreaking, not just because of the film itself, but because of its attendant marketing campaign. Obstinately positing itself as an actual documentary constructed from real recovered footage, Blair Witch was one of the first movies to creatively use interactive marketing and the Internet to generate interest about the film prior to its theatrical release. In an era before DVD made such companion elements standard, Blair Witch’s website included additional footage from the movie, background information about the movie’s mythos, fake police records, and fabricated “interviews” with family and friends of the ostensible victims. Though its ambiguity and deliberate amateurishness are sometimes frustrating, Blair Witch essentially holds up as an eerie isolationist ghost story, despite its occasional flaws.

August Underground (2001)

Not to be confused with its raucously repulsive follow-up August Underground: Mordum, the original August Underground was shot on a VHS camcorder by novice filmmaker Fred Vogel and distributed in incredibly limited release by mail order. Pretending to document the seedy exploits of a pair of chortling, aimless serial killers, August Underground is both eerily believable, and notably one of the least romanticized serial killer movies ever made. Mordum has become the more notorious film in recent years because of how unapologetically balls-out its gore scenes are, but the original, though visually more restrained, is definitely the more skillfully-crafted and affecting of the two.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal Activity was a theatrical hit upon its initial release, after being picked up from its independent producers by studio heavyweights with powerful distribution capabilities. Unfortunately, an otherwise creepy film about demonic possession ended up losing some of its impact thanks to a goofy, modified ending mandated by corporate interests. Aside from its needlessly over-explanatory final shots, however, Paranormal Activity is a strong low-budget entry that combines security camera footage with handheld DV to tell a story about a married couple terrorized by malefic supernatural forces.

[REC] (2007)

This real-time found-footage mockumentary from Spain initially appears to document a plague outbreak, which seems poised at any moment to break out into full-fledged zombie apocalypse. Instead, the filmmakers throw in a last-minute twist ending, allying the movie more firmly with supernatural horror than with the post-Romero zombie tradition. [REC] is a middling entry in the found footage horror canon, but if you’re a Z-grade gore fan, you’ll probably find it fairly watchable and entertaining.

V/H/S (2012)

Nostalgic for a less refined era of home video technology, V/H/S is an anthology horror omnibus featuring contributions from several notable filmmakers, including Ti West, and mumblecore hotshot Joe Swanberg. Narratively the segments are hit-and-miss, but what’s most fun about V/H/S are the ways each contributor discover of incorporating VHS distortion and erratic taped-over editing tricks to augment the storytelling. Swanberg’s segment is technically a cheat, since it uses digitally recorded Skype footage rather than the titular format, but other entries do some really neat stuff with VHS’s grainy color distortions and fuzzy transitional editing. Like a home movie, V/H/S is also good at telling parts of the story by leaving them out, so that what’s suggested is often as disturbing as what’s explicitly shown.

Cloverfield (2008)

Evolving from the Japanese giant monster tradition, Cloverfield is a subjective journey through New York City as it’s being besieged by a Godzilla-like kaiju monster. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield is easily one of the most riveting and accessible movies on the list, though maybe not the scariest. Its digitally-created monsters are featured a little more prominently than they perhaps should be, but the mood and atmosphere the film creates are still pretty harrowing and fun.

Lake Mungo (2008)

This surprising Australian ghost story is more tightly composed than most other movies here, but it also does a good job of balancing its austere intensity with the grainy ambiguity of found footage and photography. Lake Mungo is a ghost story about a teenage girl who died under mysterious circumstances, and whose grainy image begins subsequently appearing in photographs and video shot in and around her former home. Lake Mungo is the most haunting film on the list – no pun intended – cultivating an eerie, unresolved atmosphere that lingers like a traumatic memory.

Come back next week for an all-new introduction to the world of horror subgenre with CraveOnline's Terror Cult!

Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline and the writer of the weekly series Terror Cult. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby.