Found Footage Fails

Blair Witch Project

“I’m sorry to my mom…for losing her camera in the woods forever.”

So while I haven’t seen 90% of the world’s popular modern film classics, I have seen an absurd number of horror films (not all of them gr8, but that’s another post) and routinely spend hours at a time searching for what I deem well executed and, ideally, actually scary horror films. Having seen, I would wager, all “classic” horror films (minus zombie ones because omg idc) and probably most cult classics, I am constantly searching for new nightmare material, which is unfortunately pretty gd hard to find. To me a “good” horror movie requires a very particular balance of story, execution, acting, and aesthetics, such that it holds up not only as a horror film but as a film in general.

This balance is, imaginably, pretty fucking hard to attain.

Of course I, having never made a horror movie myself, can’t speak to the semantic difficulties of one’s execution, nor justify any of the “failures” common of the genre. Likewise I am by no means a film scholar or expert critic – so consider that a disclaimer for all observations made in this and future posts. THAT SAID as a rather experienced layman viewer and lover of horror, and also as a self-important, extremely bored human being, I reckon I can contribute something of meager merit on the subject. 

There seems to be a fairly standard recipe for a “good” horror film and its presentation: setting the scene, building suspense, the first blatant reveal of a threat and thereafter varying escalations to the final shitstorm of spooks. Simple, tried but true, Horror 101 stuff. However basic there are still tons of ways to utilize this pattern successfully, creating a product with a strong story and good scares – and of course roughly 10 billion ways to fuck it up. Deviating from this pattern makes for even more of a challenge, but if properly executed an even more impressive and memorable product.

The standard progression of found footage horror films is perhaps even more predictable: people set out to film thing, thing becomes dangerous, shit gets real and they die. Of every found footage film that I’ve seen, only two of them deviate from this pattern. Two, out of 20+. That considered, I understand why people dismiss or dislike the genre; I used to be one of them. But for some reason I have been on a found footage kick lately and have seen far, far too many films not to write about them.

I have sat through hours of the good, the bad, and the inexcusably stupid to feed my new fixation. Some of that time could have been better spent doing laundry or punching myself in the face (both of which would’ve been more entertaining/scary than some of these films), but for the most part it was worth it. Excluding the total garbage ones, there were some decently spooky, if not particularly remarkable, movies – and to my own surprise some that I would even consider part of my top horror films of all time.

But let’s start with the garbage ones.


(Warning: There are slight spoilers in my discussion of the following films, but trust me you’re not any worse off for that.)

Devil’s Pass

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Summary: A group of college kids head to the Ural Mountains to uncover the truth behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident, in which a group of hikers mysteriously died in 1959.

As with most found footage horror I went into this one with low-to-zero expectations. Even so, I was disappointed.

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“U wot, mate?”

The film opens with a news clip concerning the students’ disappearance, immediately revealing its adherence to the standard found footage pattern. That admission aside, one would expect the film to make up for lack of innovation with some additional creative spin on the concept. It does not.

Every aspect of the film sticks to textbook basics, from the obvious progression of the characters (two-dimensional teen movie defaults) into madness, to the token romantic subplot they shakily employ. As for scares, unless pretty lights make you shit your pants you can count yourself safe.

Main offense: Found Footage Faux-Pas #1 – Special FX Overkill

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When in doubt, blame monsters…right?

The final moments of this film are a goddamn mess. Suddenly there are monsters and portals and time-travel – as if in the writers’ room they had listed every tired and contrived Sci-Fi twist possible and decided, Let’s just use all of them! What could go wrong?

EVERYTHING. In an apparent rush to wrap things up the film delivers a vague and haphazard explanation for all the mysterious happenings, involving secret government experiments during the Cold War. Had they explored this point further it could’ve made for a really rad story – especially considering the Dyatlov Pass Incident, the event on which the characters base their expedition, actually happened – but instead, they commit found footage taboo: falling back on cheap FX.

Not to say that special FX have no place in found footage films – they can be used effectively, which in most cases means sparsely – but for a genre dependent on the authenticity and believability of the product it’s insanely risky to incorporate CGI. Especially in the form of some generic monsters who serve no purpose other than inane shock factor. Devil’s Pass sacrifices story for cheap “scares,” and not well at that.

 

TL;DR: Clichés culminating in a cop-out.

Redeeming qualities: Like, I guess the snowy mountains were pretty.

Rating: This movie sucked. I rate it 0 out of 2 million babooshkas.


 

As Above So Below

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Summary: A group of explorers go into the French Catacombs in search of the Philosopher’s Stone.

Again, pretty straightforward. As if anything could go wrong in a massive unmapped tunnel system full of dead bodies.

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There better be a Starbucks behind this fucking door.

This film at least imitates intrigue through the sheer speed of events. That said, not a lot happens in this film. The main protagonists’ rapid-fire banter about classical history and cryptology makes up most of the action as they solve a bunch of vague riddles to navigate the tunnels. They quickly find the Stone – and that’s when things stop making any sense.

Main offense: Convolution. And – you guessed it – unnecessary FX.

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Huh. There’s a flaming car down here now. I’m not gonna question it.

Getting trapped in the catacombs poses a realistic if underwhelming threat. Even the proposed link between the catacombs and Hell itself I could deal with. What lost me was, once again, the haphazard implementation of FX as a plot device. Like Devil’s Pass the end segments totally depart from the rest of the movie, inserting abrupt and random FX for no reason other than to up the ante. It’s like someone realized at the last second, Wait a minute – we can’t let all these characters survive! and decided to kill them off in quick succession, out of nowhere. Suddenly the pacing goes haywire, and a slew of corny FX drive the film to its close.

 

TL;DR: Too much try-harding. Like, this film’s parents need to sit it down and have a talk about self confidence – Your story is enough, sweetie. You don’t need to make yourself seem super highbrow or high-tech just to fit in with other horror movies.

Redeeming qualities: Aesthetics. I mean, it’s the French Catacombs. Shit looks cool. If nothing else you can treat your inner hipster to a few hours of Francophilia and ancient history.

Rating: 1 out of 10 stale baguettes.


 

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

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Summary: The supernatural force from the previous films moves on to terrorize a new family, who turn to the strange video tapes found in their house to piece the story together.

That said, a monkey could piece this story together, provided he sat through the first four films (this is not including The Marked Ones because wow even I couldn’t sit through that). Yet despite the track clearly established in the preceding movies the final film really struggles to bring things to a sensical and satisfying end.

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“But Daddy, I wanna watch the scary movie!”
“Aw, honey. It’s not scary. It’s just stupid.”

Main offense: Throwing in the towel.

With a found footage franchise as longstanding as Paranormal Activity, I can sympathize with the challenge to find new and exciting methods to spook the audience; there are only so many ways to jumpscare people. What I can’t excuse is taking the story you’ve spent four films – and eight years – building up and throwing it out the window. The Ghost Dimension feels rushed and haphazard, as if the writers were like Lol okay we made our money, let’s wrap this shit up so we can get back to playing CoD. Beyond the desperate pacing, the story they settle on is so dumb. Demons, occult, witchcraft – they’d given themselves a lot to work with, yet the explanation with which they ultimately justify the entire franchise’s events is unbelievably lame. Summoning a demon okay gr8, but the desperate connection to this new kid just based on a shared birthday? Do you have any idea how many kids were born on 6/6/06? A fucking lot of them.

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Literally sick of your shit, Paranormal Activity.

This like a lot of the plot points hurriedly tossed together at the series’ end was stupidly extraneous and moreover forcibly spoon-fed to the audience through the flat, almost narrative dialogue (granted that probably says as much about the audience as the writers and actors oops hi). A little subtlety, similar to the previous films, could have made a more satisfying product and end to a decent series.

 

TL;DR: This movie is basically a giant shrug from the writers. Like, Yeah, we dragged this story out into 5 films, but we never really thought it through all the way. Stop at the 4th and make your own assumptions; I guarantee they’ll be more creative and satisfying.

Redeeming qualities: If there’s ever a place for special FX in found footage films, it’s in those of the supernatural variety, and this film has some decent spooky moments. Excluding the mess of CGI bullshit at the end.

Rating: 0 out of 20 grainy night-vision cameras.



V/H/S 2

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Summary: In search of a woman’s estranged son two investigators break into his house, where they find a collection of eerie videotapes.

I’m always hesitant to watch sequels in any genre. Too often they shakily parody and subsequently ruin whatever the original film accomplished (see The Ghost Dimension). The first V/H/S, while not exactly mind-blowing, offers at least a shred of intrigue in its delivery: an anthology of eclectic horror shorts strung together by the overarching narrative of those viewing the tapes (ooh, meta). The sequel follows the exact same pattern, but does it infinitely worse.

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Okay guys I know it was bad, but…it’s just a movie. Chill.

Main offense: Not even trying. Like, the writers of As Above So Below should’ve halved their Red Bull intake and given the rest to these guys.

Like the first film, V/H/S 2 takes you through a series of found footage shorts – their short timespan posing both a benefit and a challenge. With the clips running roughly 15 minutes each, that only leaves so much time to establish both story and scares, but conversely, you don’t expect the same substance from a vignette as you would a feature-length horror film. That said, all that need be accomplished is enough of a story to support the spookiness, and then the spooks can carry it home. Not a single short managed to do even half of that.

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The film’s about as scary as they are pretty.

Although they vary in subject matter, the clips are united by the same failures. None of the shorts work particularly hard to establish intriguing stories (with the exception of maybe one) and instead rush toward the action – which also falls totally flat. The clips are nothing more than shoddy vehicles for different takes on found footage, each plagued by erratic pacing, exhaustive FX overkill, and, unsurprisingly, disastrously shitty acting. Even the frame narrative, which vaguely tries to finish what the first film started, stops short of a full fledged idea and devolves into a mess of half-assed shock factor attempts.

TL;DR: Undeveloped ideas and lazy execution. These people clearly just wanted more money from this franchise.

Redeeming qualities: The one thing the V/H/S films do well is innovation. They explore the concept of found footage really creatively and move the genre beyond your basic handheld camcorder. That said, the sequel’s failure to execute these innovative concepts becomes all the more disappointing.

Rating: 1 out of 50 defunct video playback devices.


There. Hopefully that spared you some time you might’ve wasted watching any of these. Agree? Disagree? – FIGHT ME. Kidding. But leave a comment and you can try to convince me otherwise.

If you have any suggestions – found footage or horror or both or none – for what I should watch next, tell me in the comments! You can never have too many nightmares.

A sleepless night is the mark of a good horror movie, after all.

XX
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