The Found Footage Phenomenon

Director: Sarah Appleton, Phillip Escott

Sarah Appleton, Phillip Escott

Cast: Eduardo Sanchez, Ruggero Deodato, Stephen Volk, Lesley Manning, André Øvredal, Rob Savage, Graham Hughes, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Steven DeGennaro, Oren Peli, Dean Ailoto

Producers: Sarah Appleton, Phillip Escott

Music: Simon Boswell

Cinematographers: Sarah Appleton, Thomas Beswick, Jack Bromiley, Taylor Camerot, Brian Cheung, Eugenio Ercolani, Josie Hess, Roee Keren, Jim Kunz, Andrea Lyngholm, Timo van der Berg, Kevin Walls

Editors: Sarah Appleton, Phillip Escott

Cert: 15 (TBC)

Running time: 101mins 

Year: 2021

What’s the story: A documentary exploring the history and impact of found footage horror films through the decades and their explosion in the 21st century.

What’s the verdict: Found footage. The horror subgenre with a bad reputation as a cheap way to make a fast buck. Also the subgenre that has revived horror’s fortunes numerous times. The subgenre that perhaps more than any other democratised filmmaking, allowing anyone with a camera to have a go. As mentioned here, the widely acknowledged “original” found footage movie, 1989’s The MacPherson Tape, was made because aspiring director Dean Ailoto had access to a home video camera and no choice but to embrace a home movie aesthetic.

Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott’s excellent documentary takes an unblinking look at the good, the bad and the ugly of found footage cinema. Expected heavy hitters The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, REC and Ruggero Deodato’s proto-found footage shocker Cannibal Holocaust all feature. But space is made for those grungier movies, David Holzman’s Diary, Hate Crime, Megan is Missing, that did not breakout, but also typify the subgenre’s highs and lows.

A compelling case is made for found footage horror often reflecting the shifting trends, attitudes, technologies and naivete of the times in more illuminating ways than their polished cousins. Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast is seen as a touchstone moment. Decades later, BBC’s Ghostwatch, given full appraisal here and convincingly argued as a critique of audiences’ response to images coming out of the 1991 Iraq war, had equally fooled viewers convinced they were watching a live possession. Ten years later, audiences would briefly believe the cast of The Blair Witch Project perished in those woods.

Numerous commentators identify this fascination with “is it live or is it Memorex” as what keeps interest in found footage cinema bubbling over, while stoking resentment from those who feel duped. The POV shot, “mondo” shockumentaries, and Vietnam war footage are noted as antecedents, while the internet is also argued as one of the greatest technological leaps to evolve the subgenre. Older readers will recall how The Blair Witch Project’s website rewrote indie film marketing for the online age, while YouTube is found footage ad infinitum.

Directors Appleton and Escott assemble a fantastic range of talking heads. Blair Witch co-director Eduardo Sanchez (filmed in his Star Wars themed study), Troll Hunter director André Øvredal, Ghostwatch writer Stephen Volk and director Lesley Manning, Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli, and, bringing it bang up to date, Rob Savage. The latter directed Host, a film that gave found footage a new lease of life through the unique conditions of a pandemic lockdown and the ubiquity of internet cameras.

Less well- known players also feature. Steven DeGennaro, who gave the subgenre a pre-Host boost with 2016’s Found Footage 3D, Death of a Vlogger director Graham Hughes, and The MacPherson Tape director Dean Ailoto, who refuses to take responsibility for all this. Found footage scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas places the whole thing into socio-historical context.

Highly recommended, both for seasoned horror heads and audiences who think The Blair Witch gave birth to found footage frighteners.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
Podcast: The Movie Robcast

2 thoughts on “The Found Footage Phenomenon”

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