As part of some sort of Hallowe’en warm-up, I found myself watching The Blair Witch Project a few nights ago, for the first time in about ten years. It terrified me the first time round, and this time I was again impressed and unnerved. Blair Witch was responsible for codifying and popularising (though not inventing) the subgenre of horror known as found footage: films supposedly strung together from footage discovered an innocuous project has gone horribly wrong. The genre has gone on to be enormously successful, and with Hallowe’en here and the latest instalment of the genre’s new standard bearer, Paranormal Activity, now in cinemas and breaking box-office records, it’s worth thinking about where the genre came from and where it’s going.
The idea of found footage ostensibly originates in 1980, with Ruggero Deodato’s gorefest Cannibal Holocaust, in which a documentary team filming primitive tribes in the Amazon is butchered in tedious detail, with their own cameras recording it. The idea was so new, and Deodato’s special effects so convincing, that he only avoided being put on trial for murder by producing the cast, alive, at a special press conference (naturally, this functioned as amazingly good publicity that turned a relatively minor exploitation pic into a sensation). It’s a staggeringly unpleasant film that continues to generate controversy – the uncut version is still illegal in the UK. But it’s not a found footage horror in the sense we have come to understand it: as a claustrophobic chiller, one with occasional violence and action strung out between long passages of suspense and darkness.
Cannibal Holocaust and a few imitators circulated in the horror community for 20 years or so, only ever attracting mainstream attention in the form of tabloid denunciation. Then Blair Witch came along, accompanied by a canny marketing campaign, taking full advantage of this newfangled Internet thing to convince people that the footage, and the supposed legends that inspired the film, were real: it’s here that the modern concept of viral marketing began. The verisimilitude of the film itself was also taken to new levels: the actors had no full script, improvised much of their dialogue and were harassed as they camped at night: at least some of their fear is genuine.
The film was a sensation, making millions off a tiny budget and triggering a wave of imitators and successors, some much better than others. Amongst the best was the original Paranormal Activity, which gave the genre a huge financial shot in the arm in 2007, and [REC], a powerful Spanish film that brought zombies to the found footage genre. Notable too – but barely noticed – is The Last Broadcast, made and released a year before Blair Witch and with a similar lost-in-the-woods-with-a-camera-and-a-psycho premise. It’s a remarkably effective piece that offers a commentary on both the media and found footage films, despite being made before the genre really existed.
Obviously, such films are popular with studios because they’re absurdly cheap. Cheapness can actually add to a found footage film: Blair Witch made a virtue of having poor camerawork, grainy footage and, most powerfully, no cinematic lighting. Paranormal Activity proved that the camera doesn’t even need to move. This isn’t just a good thing for cynical execs who don’t want to spend any more than they have to: the extremely low budgets of these films ($15,000 for Paranormal Activity: about $25,000 for Blair Witch: barely nine hundred bucks for The Last Broadcast) allow directors to realise projects remarkably easily; films of this kind are a real way for new directors to get their work noticed.
What’s more, low budgets, like other restrictions, breed creativity. Indeed, increasing the budget has in the past been a surefire way of sucking the creative spark out of such films. Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows was a pathetic and soon-forgotten sequel to the original that upped the production values and in doing so lost the plot. Paranormal Activity‘s sequels have, as noted, been massive financial successes, but they’ve not replicated the shock of the first film. High-budget original ideas using found footage have also tended to disappoint, or at least not to replicate the visceral fear of their forerunners: 2007′s Diary of the Dead and 2008′s Cloverfield were satisfactory action movies but never really did more than aspire to horror.
Fortunately, there are ways to enliven the genre without simply pumping more and more money into it. The evidence for this is in cinemas right now, in the form of a Norwegian found footage mockumentary called Troll Hunter. Troll Hunter is a found footage film that purports to genuinely document the existence of monsters – trolls, obviously – but it’s not truly a horror movie. In telling the story of three film students who follow a local recluse and discover him to be secretly employed by the Norwegian government as a kind of park ranger for the creatures everyone had assumed to be mythical, the film is by turns frightening, funny and strangely sad: the lonely titular troll hunter has a deep respect for his quarry and a loathing for the government that employs him to hunt them. Made for a relatively extravagant $3 million,the film feels impressively real and intelligent, and will hopefully show that found footage in the future doesn’t just have to be about scares.
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Blair Witch Project Trailer