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The Ultimate Choice #16: Found-Footage Films

Last year for Halloween I made the focus on The Ultimate Choice horror film, so I couldn’t exactly do the same again. I put up a general poll asking my Twitter followers (make sure to follow me on there for the latest updates, you can find my feed here) what they would like to pick for this month’s topic, and the winning category was found-footage films. Therefore, that is the focus of this edition of The Ultimate Choice. Let’s see what everyone had to say.

Cloverfield (2008)

Cloverfield (2008)

Chosen by Amy Smith

Out of every sub-genre in horror, I am probably least educated in found-footage. The format of the found-footage never really fascinated me, as I just associated it when I was younger with the likes of Paranormal Activity. That was not really the sort of horror films I was really into a few years ago, but I have given a few found-footage films a watch since them. Out of the few that I have seen, I have a clear favourite for which one is my favourite. That would end up being Cloverfield from 2008.

Unlike most found-footage films, this one didn’t look cheap to make. It wasn’t simply focused on one room or what we can’t see on the screen, this is still a big production for a horror film. You can see the shot that I chose to be the still from this film, the head of the Statue of Liberty broken off in the middle of the street. That is not only visually stunning and shows the destruction of the world without any other context needed, but it looks really good for a horror film in 2008, especially of this genre.

Everything about the filmmaking is solid with this film. The visuals, the cinematography, the editing, the performances. There is not one weak chain in this production. There is also a strong set-up for the story, which clearly explains why everyone is at this one location, what the relationship between all of the main characters are and why they just so happen to be filming in the first place when everything starts to happen. Nothing is left unexplained, and it is no wonder why this film ended up being successful enough to warrant sequels. It’s a great found-footage film and I want to see more of this style.

Creep (2014)

Creep (2014)

Chosen by Black Pistachio: Twitter | Blog

This indie horror film came highly recommended by my sister and it did not disappoint. Creep is directed by Patrick Brice and co-written with Mark Duplass. Both Brice and Duplass play the two main characters, Aaron and Josef. Embracing the found footage style, it has a simple premise; an ad on Craiglist offering $1000 to film someone for just a day. Josef places the ad and Aaron bites. What happens over the next 48 hours I will leave you to enjoy – or not – if you’re of delicate sensibilities. Despite Creep‘s minimal set up this does not hinder its efficacy at producing some unsettling and horrifying moments.

One of the things I loved about Creep was the lack of music. If you’re well versed in mainstream and indie horror films, then you’ll know that music plays a key role in letting the audience know when to be scared and when the characters are in danger. However, Creep does not rely on music to do this. Instead, as an audience, we’re forced to rely on the devious dialogue for hints and clues as to what is really going on. This technique creates some incredible tension, sometimes unbearably so. The conversations between Aaron and Josef I was surprised to discover were largely improvised which makes them all the more impressive. Yet, it’s through these conversations that the plot hurtles forward and the real horror is unleashed.

One of the most unsettling things is watching Josef manipulate and disarm Aaron again and again. Aaron’s morbid curiosity and naïveté is working against him in every sense. There are several incidents where you expect Aaron to sense the impending danger that he is in but somehow Josef convinces him of his supposed fragility and innocence and Aaron falls for it hook, line and sinker.

Creep is a brilliant indie horror film which despite its short runtime, never feels rushed or paced too slow. Tips for watching: Turn off the lights and put your phone away. You won’t want to miss a single frame.

REC (2007)

REC (2007)

Chosen by Russell Bailey: Twitter | Podcast

Approaching the found footage film is a tricky prospect. The deluge that followed the success of Paranormal Activity (a terrifying first watch that inspired two good sequels, two questionable ones and an unnecessary spin-off) means there are a lot out there but that they are not all worth your time. When considering the best example, the one you should seek out, we should rule out those that are closer to mockumentaries (as exceptional as Death of a Vlogger and Lake Mungo are they do not count) and shared screen movies (the likes of Unfriended, Host and Searching). And a lot become disqualifying by a last act that makes it increasingly absurd that someone would continue filming (Cloverfield is great but surely you’d drop the camera and run for your life at some point).

The truly great examples are the ones that find the reason narratively why those in it would keep filming. Take The Borderlands for example – the set-up creates a task for its characters (priests investigating a church where strange going-ons are happening) and the device that allows this (headsets that they have to wear to perform their task). If it weren’t for another work this may very well be my pick. But it comes second to the unconquerable Rec.

The Spanish horror is an inspired work. Following a film crew that are shadowing firemen, they enter a tower block and then find themselves promptly in the midst of a lockdown, unable to leave. The residents are tense, nerves fray, there is talk of something else happening. And then, in the last twenty minutes, the film escalates to one of the most terrifying conclusions in cinema. The genius of Rec is twofold. By focusing on a reporter and her cameraman, the narrative overcomes any moment where it is implausible that the camera stays on. It is their job to keep filming, to chronicle events as they unfold. And the second reason this is such an effective horror is that no much happens for so much of the runtime, but we get an ever-growing sense of dread as it becomes apparent that something terrible is happening here. The immediacy of found footage means that when it works it is one of the most effective ways to shoot a horror. It adds so much to Rec, a film that is masterful in its world building, and means that this, for me, is the best example of it.

REC (2007)

Also chosen by Kevin Crighton: Twitter | Blog

A television reporter and cameraman are filming a show with the fire brigade, when they are called to an apartment building… 

Found footage films often follow a similar pattern, introducing the characters before slowly building in the scares, leading to a, hopefully, scary ending. Two of the best at that are Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project

[REC] follows the pattern at first, getting to know the reporter Angela and the fireman before they head out. These early scenes are well done indeed. 

But once they head to the building, it soon becomes clear that [REC] is playing by different rules, for once the shocks begin, they keep coming as the film builds to a truly frightening ending. While most found footage horrors often go the more ghost or supernatural route and done well they are very good indeed. But [REC] goes for an infection spreading through the people in the building and as a result, when people are infected they come after the others you can feel the tension building as they are pursued relentlessly. 

For all my enjoyment of found footage films, you sometimes wonder why the person filming simply doesn’t just throw the camera away and try to get out alive, to escape. Cleverly, [REC] gets round that by having a reason to continue filming. Once they are in the building, they discover that the authorities have sealed the building off, no one is to get out. Being a reporter, Angela insists her cameraman keeps filming and records what happens to ensure the truth will come out. . 

Which brings me to the last act. The final fifteen or so minutes of [REC] are among the most terrifying I’ve seen in film, as the survivors hole up in one apartment and discover the truth. After being chased through the building, any hope of reprieve or safety is dispelled as they uncover the truth of what is going on, leading to the final moment, that leaves you stunned. 

(As an aside, the superb sequel [REC] 2 deals with the sealing of the building and the ending very well indeed) 

It’s the unpredictable nature of [REC] that I love. Often, you can see in a found footage film, from how the camera is moving, where the scare is likely to come from. With [REC], you never get that. There’s a moment that is truly jaw dropping, you simply don’t see coming. The scares are more unpredictable and as a result, the audience is on edge throughout. Like the characters they are watching, they don’t get a moment to pause. 

It’s a brilliant horror film, tense, terrifying and shocking. And I love it.

As Above, So Below (2014)

As Above, So Below (2014)

Chosen by MJ Smith: Twitter | Blog

As Above, So Below is one part Tomb Raider, one part National Treasure, and one part Disneyland’s Indiana Jones the Ride dressed up in a spooky Halloween costume. The film follows Scarlett, a talented archeologist with a penchant for bending the rules in search of the truth as she attempts to track down the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. After a ridiculous set-up straight out of a Dan Brown novel, her search leads her to a hidden chamber of the catacombs in Paris. She and her friend George enlist the help of Papillon, an experienced diver of the catacombs to lead them to the chamber where they can find the stone. However, Scarlett has been warned left and right that pursuing the stone is a fool’s errand and those who have tried before her have descended into madness. What follows is a claustrophobic journey through the catacombs and even Hell itself.

Okay, As Above, So Below is pretty dumb. The set-up feels exactly like National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code with Scarlett and George spouting off random history facts and tenuously connecting the information to threads about the location of the stone. But, it makes up for its weakness in two areas: pacing and themes.

The film is helmed by The Dowdle Brothers and this is their third found footage film (The Poughkeepsie Tapes and Quarantine are their other too) and they use this experience to their advantage. They make sure the film moves at a clip. Everything that happens pushes the story forward and its runtime is a breezy 1 hour and 33 minutes. This is an advantage because the exposition is so silly and heavy handed that they can move through it at breakneck pace. But it also helps as all Hell literally breaks loose and the heroes face a mad dash to the other side. That back half is where the theme park thrills and chills abound and while they’re all mostly jump scares, the duo also finds ways to play into the claustrophobic nature of the catacombs. It’s good, campy fun.

Thematically, As Above, So Below has a lot on its mind and it’s in this department that the film truly shines. While our heroes are in pursuit of this magical macguffin, their journey is one of self discovery and healing. After they find the coveted stone, they trigger a trap that forces them deeper into the catacombs. During their descent, they find a cave that ends up being the doorway to actual Hell. Hell has many interpretations, but in this universe, it is simply defined as guilt. As the characters make their way through the land of the dead, each are confronted with a past traumatic experience that they hold guilt over. The film supposes that everyone has or will have trauma in their life, and the only way to truly move past it is to move forward with it honestly.

Mild spoilers ahead: Not everyone survives the trip to hell. Those that don’t are consumed by their trauma and grief and forced to relieve it. The ones who do survive confess their trauma and what guilt they harbor from their trauma. Through their confession they find forgiveness for themselves and are able to move on from this Hell back into the real world with a new perspective on life. Some might say this makes the film saccharine, but it’s a nice reminder that honesty is the best policy, especially when it comes to yourself. Once you put in the hard work of facing your trauma and confessing any baggage that comes along with it, you will come out the other side better for it, but having to stare it in the face and dig out the infection that is guilt can sometimes feel like Hell.

So, yes, for all its silly puzzle solving that feels like watching people do the most elaborate escape room you’ve ever seen As Above, So Below touts a message about working through grief and allowing yourself to truly feel the weight of that sorrow and trauma so that we can move forward as better people having learned from our experience and by doing so in the guise of a horror movie tacks on a few adrenaline pumping thrills along the way.

Trollhunter (2010)

Trollhunter (2010)

Chosen by Sam Hurley of Movie Reviews in 20Qs: Twitter | Podcast

Honestly, this write-up has changed films at least three times now. While I appreciate the originality of Blair Witch, loved the spin on the superhero genre that is Chronicle, am suitably creeped out by Creep, and literally just wrote 400 words on why REC is probably THE horror movie of the 2000’s, I can’t help by find myself circling back to Trollhunter.

For the unaware, Trollhunter is a 2010 film from Norway that revolves around three students (Thomas, Johanna and Kalle – their cameraman) who set out to make a documentary about a bear poacher named Hans. They investigate the site of a bear that has been killed  and are told by local hunters that the bear tracks look unusual. The students then catch up with Hans and try to interview him, but he refuses to be a part of it. They secretly follow him on a hunt one night and discover that he isn’t hunting bears, he’s hunting – spoiler alert. Well, wait you’ve seen the name of the movie – trolls.

The movie succeeds in that, almost taking a note from Cloverfield’s book, it never shows you too much of the monster until it needs to. But unlike Cloverfield, the environment itself becomes even more of an integral character, as the sparse and isolated nature of rural Norway creates an increasing level of dread throughout the film. Conversely, the isolated nature also lends itself to feelings of claustrophobia, as we feel the main characters’ world irrevocably change, and close in around them.

The cinematographer knows just how stunning the Norse fjords are, and they double for moments of respite. While some of these vista shots wallow for longer than necessary, it’s almost as if the filmmaker knew that this would help give the film a sense of authenticity, as though it was legitimately filmed by a bunch of amateurs. The CGI wouldn’t be considered to be on par with Hollywood standards, yet when it’s used it’s still realistic, and a whole lot of terrifying.

The final reason why this becomes my ultimate is that it just blends genres seamlessly. There’s a level of bone-dry Nordic wit which lands in one scene, then the next you’re swallowed by its dark fantasy elements. Other scenes are just purely horror, but never does the film overplay its hand in one field.

So basically, if you’re a fan of Nordic fantasy monster-horror social satire mockumentaries, this is for you.

The Virginity Hit (2010)

The Virginity Hit (2010)

Chosen by Chauncey Telese: Twitter | Website

Project X was the splashier comedy to use the found footage device and while that movie is fun, to me The Virginity Hit was the more noble effort. Produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, The Virginity Hit tells the story of four friends chronicling their quest to lose their virginity with the focus being on Matt (Matt Bennett) who is the last of the group. He finds out his girlfriend cheated on him and his friends go to outrageous lengths to help him get over that betrayal and complete his quest. The movie’s big set piece where Matt is duped and later publicly humiliated by a woman conducting a study on male sexuality is hilarious but what makes the movie function is its level of heart. Two of Matt’s friends are his adopted siblings establishing a unique dynamic amongst the friend group. What also makes it work is that while it’s billed as a raunchy movie everything is done with care. The quest on the surface is to get Matt to lose his virginity but really his friends are trying to help him get over a break-up and also get payback on his dead beat dad.

Again, not all of it is successful but the movie is carried by its heart and the chemistry with all the actors is great as it it’s New Orleans setting. The film also makes good use of its cameo from adult film star Sunny Leone whose appearance serves as a nice payoff to the earlier conflict with Matt’s girlfriend and allows the film to earn its sweet ending. The found footage aspect of the movie works as well and is also successful at implementing 2010’s internet elements while on a micro budget. Project X was the louder and more ambitious version of the two found footage comedies but The Virginity Hit accomplishes more with a lot less.

The Blair Witch Project (2000)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Chosen by Calum of Scaretroducing: Twitter | Podcast

Few films manage to elicit true, repulsive terror in the audience; that a return to everyday life leaves them unable to shake the chill from their spine or the unknown figure from the corner of their eye. Even fewer so-called ‘found footage’ films have achieved such a feat and yet in 1999 – completely out of the blue – independent cinema bestowed on the world one of the scariest films of all time: the absolute masterpiece The Blair Witch Project.

To argue as to why this is my choice for the best found-footage film is an absurdity – it’s very likely that many people around the world share this opinion – but as we approach a Halloween season stuck indoors, it bears repeating: for 81mins of pure fear you cannot go wrong with The Blair Witch Project…backlash be damned!

Written & directed by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, the film finds us fully in the grasp of three student filmmakers who are out to make a documentary about a fabled myth of horror and death. Following in the footsteps of the maniacal Hitchcock (The Birds) and Kubrick (The Shining), the directors delighted in tormenting the miniscule cast behind the scenes via sleep deprivation and withholding provisions. Morally there’s an argument to be made against such behaviour, but artistically? My god, does it pay off. The confusion and the anger; the fear and the frustration all ferociously burst off the screen – it’s as close a horror film has come to a tangible object you can pick apart and examine in your hands. The woods exist in your living room and you – the audience – exist in the woods. “Magical” would be the optimum word if it weren’t so damn terrifying!

So for anyone who’s seen it, to anyone who’s not and especially to those who dismiss it as meandering and boring – try it again. Turn out the lights, make sure you’re alone and discover why no other found footage film comes close.

What did you make of everyone’s picks? Is there any films you now want to watch for the Halloween season? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.

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