The Found Footage Phenomenon

The Found Footage Phenomenon (2021)

The Found Footage Phenomenon had its world première at FrightFest 2021

“The following is based on real events,” reads the glitchy, juddery text that opens The Found Footage Phenomenon, as though we were watching a VHS of one of the very films this documentary celebrates. That, of course, is a crucial point established early here: that there is a close relationship between the forms of found footage and the documentary, both of which make veridical claims about their content. Indeed, found footage films often feature documentarians as characters, in part to motivate the presence, and continued rolling, of the camera – and some films that at least loosely belong to the ‘found footage’ family, like Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poolevoorde’s Man Bites Dog (1992) and Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo (2008), adopt the formal guise of documentary (or ‘horror mockumentary’) to lend their harrowing events an uncanny air of mediated verisimilitude.

The word ‘phenomenon’ in the title is carefully chosen. For found footage is more a medium or format than a genre as such. It is a sustained reality effect whereby everything that we see on screen purports to be filtered through camerawork that is entirely diegetic, whether shot by the characters themselves, or caught on CCTV or other recording devices within the story world. This brings an intense immediacy – a realism – to events that tricks us into imagining that what we see is actually happening, recorded as reportage. It can be incorporated into any genre, and has been used in decidedly non-horror titles like Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007) and David Ayer’s End Of Watch (2012) – but it has proven a particularly effective vehicle for conveying the unsettling slippage between reality and fantasy that is such a mainstay of horror. Once Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) had popularised – without quite pioneering – the format’s potency as a frame for horror, and also brought a monumentally massive return on its low-budget investment, ‘found footage’ would become a staple of the genre, even if its full effect would not be felt again until the arrival of Oren Peli’s similarly successful Paranormal Activity (2007). By now, tropes had established themselves, whether to be followed or subverted, and found footage really had become a sort of genre.

Pieced together, not unlike Lake Mungo, from a combination of footage and interviews, Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott’s documentary traces the history and evolution of this format, from its early, influential appearance in the opening or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), through films like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Lesley Manning’s TV broadcast Ghostwatch (1992, written by Stephen Volk), Dean Alioto’s Alien Abduction: Incident In Lake County (1998), Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s The Last Broadcast (1998), on to the breakaway hits of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, and the many films that followed under their shadow. Those who contribute with their concise, sometimes contradictory commentary include not just groundbreakers like Deodato, Volk, Manning, Sánchez, Alioto, Avalos, Weiler, Koji Shiraishi (Noroi: The Curse, 2005), Peli and Jaume Balagueró ([REC], 2007), but also second-wave exponents of the form like André Øvredal (Trollhunter, 2010), Michael Goi (Megan Is Missing, 2011) James Cullen Bressack (Hate Crime, 2012), Richard Raaphorst (Frankenstein’s Army, 2013), Derek Lee and Clif Prowse (Afflicted, 2013), Jennifer Handorff (producer of The Borderlands, 2013), Patrick Brice (Creep, 2014), Doron and Yoav Paz (JeruZalem, 2015), Steven DeGennaro (Found Footage 3D, 2016), Aislinn Clarke (The Devil’s Doorway, 2018) and Rob Savage (Host, 2020). 

Deftly edited by Appleton and Escott to suggest a fluid, on-going conversation between multiple, separately interviewed parties, and regularly punctuated with insights from film scholars Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Found Footage Horror: Fear and the Appearance of Reality, 2014) and Shellie McMurdo (whose doctoral thesis was on found footage), The Found Footage Phenomenon shows a format whose potentially very low production costs serve to democratise horror and offer opportunities to genre newcomers – even if its successful handling takes real filmmaking talent, as is clear to anyone who has watched poor instances of the form. Still, with its intimate immersion of the viewer into the unravelling scenario, found footage – even bad found footage – is, pound for pound, more consistently frightening than any other form of horror. For here, it is not just the camera that ends up shaken. One of the most compelling observations made by Heller-Nicholas and others in this documentary is that, unlike other horror genres which tend to come in cycles, found footage comes in spikes, typically bound in a parasitic relationship to innovations in filming and recording technology. After all, with found footage, the medium is always an essential part of the message.

strap: Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott’s documentary uncovers horror’s most self-consciously mediated format

© Anton Bitel