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

devilspassposter

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.

devilspass1

“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.


 

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