Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Found Footage Phenomenon, on Shudder

History students should appreciate found footage horror, because it is told entirely through supposed primary sources—as primary (and often primal) as it gets. It feels real, because it looks like it was recorded as it happened. Of course, the better ones require extensive planning and preparation, while the worst give the subgenre a bad name. Some of the leading filmmakers associated with the grungy style reflect on its meaning and development in Sarah Appleton & Phillip Escott’s The Found Footage Phenomenon, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

To their credit, nobody interviewed in
Phenomenon suggests found footage horror started with Blair Witch. Instead, they point to the epistolary style of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and Orson Welles in/famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. It is so Wellesian that he innovated a super-cheap and convincing method of story-telling, but left it to others to exploit it commercially. Some also point to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, but the Blair Witch Project and Ruggero Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust were really the first films that had marketing campaigns designed to convince people what transpires on-screen happened for real.

Of course, everyone more or less concedes all the found footage films that followed
Blair Witch represent a wildly mixed bag. To often, they feature disturbing levels of violence. Filmmakers can justify it any way they like, but it doesn’t make the ultra-realistic-appearing brutality any easier to watch. That is why clever and inventive found footage, like the Paz Brothers’ JeruZalem and What We Do in the Shadows (both of which get their due) are so fun and different.

Appleton & Escott talk to just about everyone they should, including Deodato, Eduardo Sanchez (co-director of
Blair Witch), Doron and Yoav Paz, Patrick Brice (director of Creep), Rob Savage (Host), Steven DeGennaro (Found Footage 3D), and Oren Peli (of the Paranormal Activity franchise, probably still the reigning champion of the found footage box-office).

In some ways, found footage has become so familiar, it now works best in films where were not sure what to make of it or how we are supposed to react, such as
Murder Death Koreatown (not discussed). Appleton & Escott also show brief clips of the atrocities staged in Brian DePalma’s Redacted, but ignore the subsequent controversy when Islamist terrorists started targeting American servicemen, because they were radicalized by clips from the film posted online and purported to be true. By doing so, they deliberately skip over a perilous example of how found footage staged reality has directly influenced real reality—although not for the better (of course, it is not technically horror, so cover it fairly or not at all).

Regardless, the various participants are generally correct when they suggest just when found footage conceit feels tired, a new spin comes along to re-invigorate the subgenre (the most recent example probably being the Zoom-based
Host). Although Phenomenon is a bit repetitive, there is clearly enough material to support a feature-length found footage documentary and Appleton & Prescott’s treatment is mostly solid and watchable. Recommended for fans of post-1990s horror, The Found Footage Phenomenon starts streaming Thursday (5/19) on Shudder.