Found-footage horror is an underrated genre. This is because films are so cheap to make. Most of the time, you just strap cameras to your actors and have them run around in the dark at a real-world location. Because suspension of disbelief is the name of the game, expensive set pieces can actually work against a found-footage filmmaker. Small scares and realistic moments are far more effective and sell an audience that much more on the concept that what they’re watching is something real.
That said, found footage is often viewed as a foot in the door of the film industry. Established directors almost never step into the genre. This means that less-seasoned directors create films with a smaller budget for scripts, sets, and actors. It’s a lot to fight against, and found-footage directors often overlook some key aspects of the stories they’re telling. Here are the biggest ways found footage horror undermines itself.
You’re attached to a set of characters for most of a found-footage film. Often, you’re attached to just a single character. Fail in creating a compelling voice that an audience is willing to follow, and you’ve already screwed up the single-most important element in your film.
This would seem true for all films, but an audience is willing to follow certain characters in a traditional third-person movie who they might not follow in found-footage horror. Because the audience is looking through a character’s point of view, there’s a higher demand that the eyes they see through belong to someone with whom they can identify. Create a set of jerks, such as the jocks who bully theater kids and decide to vandalize their school in “The Gallows,” and the audience simply won’t feel comfortable accessing your film through the eyes of those jerks.
This doesn’t mean you can’t make a film about jerks. You just need to give an audience a compelling reason why they should be following these jerks for the next 90 minutes. “The Last Exorcism” follows a con-artist preacher who makes his living tricking people into believing he’s exorcised a child’s demons.
Instead of putting us at a distance from this character, he lets the film crew following him on his very last exorcism in on all the smoke and mirrors he uses to con families. He shows the camera gadgets and magician’s techniques meant to build his lie. Sure, the role is played with a sure charm by Patrick Fabian, but this isn’t enough. He invites the audience in as an accomplice, not as a bystander. Viewers are positioned on his side of the trick, and curiosity drives us forward. As an accomplice, you can’t help but identify with him.
Or consider “As Above, So Below,” a recent gem that did something very few found-footage movies think to do. In archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe, viewers are offered a true hero. Along the roguish lines of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, the film opens with her risking her life in an Iranian tomb about to be demolished.
Most found-footage movies offer up hapless victims who constantly make mistakes. It can be difficult to be a fan of people who are just too stupid. The archaeology horror “The Pyramid” introduces a set of terribly-written, monumentally-stupid characters who set off every trap by bumping or stumbling into them.
Yet Marlowe is a compelling leader, one the viewer’s willing to follow through her film because she inspires confidence in the face of terror. In climbing over skulls, she tells her panicked cameraman: “It’s really not too bad.” When bone-chilling sounds echo down a dusty corridor and her team cowers in fear, she marches straight at the sound with a determined “Fuck that, I’m going.”
Found footage shouldn’t be so afraid to think outside of the box with their leading characters. Panicked teens in over their heads are done to death. Unique pulp and genre characters have yet to make a real dent in a genre that could use them.
There’s always a chase. Here’s the thing: it has to make sense. “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” includes a scene where the lead character, Hector, is chased through a house. He enters a room and has to pry the window open. With his life hanging in the balance, what does he do? He points the camera at the window with one hand and tries to pry it open with the other. People in the audience slapped their hands to their foreheads.
The first thing you’d do in real life is drop the camera, but then the chase continues off-screen and the movie finishes with a boring shot of the floor. For the movie’s sake, audiences need Hector to hold the camera. For the sake of an audience’s suspension of disbelief, he needs to drop the camera and pry the window open with both hands. These two needs are in conflict.
What’s the solution? Never put a character in this situation in the first place. Lately, movies are avoiding this with head-mounted cameras that allow actors to use both hands. When they don’t, however, a director has to be smart enough to change situations on the fly. The audience can’t be rolling their eyes at a point of high tension; otherwise, they’ll become less and less willing to buy into the fright of the rest of your film.
It was an easy fix, as was a moment earlier in the film when Hector gets in a one-handed fistfight while not setting down the camera or using it as a weapon itself.
These moments are laughable, and it’s not that difficult to direct around them.
Let’s stay on “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.” At one point, the main character’s feisty Mexican grandmother confronts the demon inhabiting her grandson. What seems at first like it might be a showdown for the ages turns into a needless death of a brave and endearing character. Worse yet, instead of making the moment tragic or meaningful, it turns into a throwaway scene that doesn’t seem to matter much. Yes, characters need to die in horror films to translate a sense of real threat to the audience. Yet if you make a side character too good and her only purpose is to die, you may be pushing the audience away.
“Cloverfield” did it better with Lizzy Caplan’s Marlena. She was the object of the cameraman’s affections, yet she continually brushed him off in ever-more-amusing ways. Her character was strong, yet her death was sudden. Its abruptness happened with a violence that was made crystal clear to the audience, while also being hidden from their eyes. An explosion of blood spatters across plastic tarps between her and the camera. The audience knows what happened, and they’re simultaneously thankful they didn’t have to see it while imagining endless versions of it in their heads. The best visual effects in a movie will never surpass the ones an audience can imagine. Even if her death is just one more among thousands, the implications that are hidden from the audience make it momentous.
If the opportunity’s there to create a moment like this, implying something to the audience and asking them to do the thinking, this is a way of inviting the audience in as a co-creator. Being too graphic, especially with an endearing character, can make an audience step back and assess what just happened with a critical eye. Hiding and implying these moments can make an audience pause between hope and hopelessness. They are drawn further into the film to know for sure what happened.
This is the least appreciated aspect of found-footage horror. You need choreography and you need to have a sense of how your editing will interact with that staging. Many films in the genre follow multiple cameras, often in the same room. The audience has to be able to understand whose viewpoint they’re viewing. Given that found footage typically includes shaking cameras, quick editing, and lots of darkness, it gets very easy to lose track of viewpoints when switching between them quickly.
If your characters are changing rooms quickly, it can become such a mess that the viewer has no concept who’s involved and which character has wandered off and become lost. When it does settle down and become apparent, viewers often shrug their shoulders and think: “Okay, I guess that’s what happened.” That’s never the reaction you want as a filmmaker.
“As Above, So Below” excels at this implicit choreography. Despite constantly-changing sets and a surprisingly-large ensemble for a found-footage movie, it subtly telegraphs shifts in perspective before they happen. Like music, the editing relies on a logic and rhythm the viewer begins to anticipate. It’s a marvel of creating cues through dialogue and editing.
This doesn’t mean the film is trapped into this rhythm. To the contrary, you can now create unnerving moments simply by holding one particular shot too long, or breaking that rhythm in an unexpected, but intentional, way. It lets the filmmaker dictate the emotion and pace leading up to the big moments. The difference is like inviting the audience to enter a haunted house in front of you, rather than leading them along behind. “Rec” and its remake “Quarantine” are two other good examples of choreography built to make the viewer’s job easy.
“Unfriended” does this in a unique way. The movie centers on an online video conversation between several characters. Since the entire film happens on a single computer screen, other programs are sometimes called up in a way that uses the entire screen; they act as invisible edits. These programs are usually only called up during key moments when they’re needed, so everything in between these cuts is a single take between all those actors. This allowed unknown actors to inhabit their roles more fully without the usual interruptions of a film set. Choreography doesn’t just lie in the staging of actors, it also lies in editing it all together.
The climax is the most difficult sequence for a found-footage movie to pull off. The problem centers on found-footage movies having to be at least somewhat realistic to be believable. The style is grounded in the mixing of the supernatural or horrific with the very real. Climaxes in most films are built off being bigger, louder, more brash, and pushing the boundaries of the suspension of disbelief. This conflicts with a found-footage movie’s nature.
“The Last Exorcism” almost pulled off a beautiful climax that would have explained its supernatural elements through real causes. It was hauntingly psychological, but then it pulled the rug out from under this and just threw in a supernatural explanation anyway.
“As Above, So Below” was doing incredibly well before its climax. Everything happened in real time with some jump cuts, and its reliance on choreography made the experience feel seamless. It evoked the sense you were truly watching recovered footage. The film holds up because of how strong its other elements are, but it breaks this approach to its storytelling by suddenly jump-cutting massive pieces of its climax together. The hand of an editor suddenly becomes very apparent, and it can feel as if the audience is being ushered quickly out of the movie.
Even “Cloverfield” couldn’t quite get it right, undermining its earlier terror by becoming too cinematically inclined and showing its monster close-up in the daylight. What had been deadly the night before now turned into a ridiculous bit of CGI. That said, at least “Cloverfield” ends as a classic downer, rather than ramping things up after its incredible high-rise sequence.
“The Blair Witch Project” may still be the film that gets this element correct. By ending abruptly and playing off earlier information that required its audience to pay attention, it chilled. Its climax relied on the audience taking one sight (a man standing in a corner) and letting the mind run wild. It played into a myth spoken very early in the film. Then the camera simply cut. There was no climax. There was an elevated moment of terror, and then…nothing. The climax didn’t happen on screen; it happened in the audience’s minds as they talked and argued on their way back to their cars.
The climax can’t be a regular film climax. It has to be something altogether different.
Found-footage filmmakers need to write and cast unique characters. They need to take far more advantage of the pulp territory their stories cover. Audiences will follow characters more akin to Van Helsing or Lara Croft than hapless, generic teenagers.
Don’t put your characters in positions where the needs of filming break the reality of the story being told. Kill characters with reason and meaning, not just because you can. Remember that staging, choreography, and a theory of editing will save you and your audience needless stress in trying to understand your story.
Finally, be brave about your climax. Make it different, and don’t take it too far into the realm of another genre of film. You’re not making an action movie or a traditional horror film. Own that, and be willing to ask your audience to do some of the work of interpreting your ending. Do all that and found footage won’t be such an underrated genre anymore.