How “Found Footage” Found Its Way To Hollywood

Uncomfortable close-ups of the snot-smeared visage of a thoroughly unhappy camper aside, the “found footage” genre has proven itself to be a popular format with thrill-seeking horror fans everyhwere. In fact, the found footage fan base is now so great that there is even an annual festival in Wisconsin, held specifically to celebrate quivery camerawork.

As well as allowing filmmakers to build up significant amounts of utter tripe about the “real life” nature of what was captured, found footage films have an obvious alignment with the suspense-building aims of the horror flick. In their original state, found-footage films inferred that the protagonist pressing the REC button was no longer around.

But things are moving on for the format. The latest director to embrace shaky splendour is Josh Trank with his CGI tastic action/adventure, Chronicle. Telling the story of a trio of teens who are bestowed with superpowers after a freak caving accident, the film reveals its engrossing content through a combination of CCTV footage and the protagonist’s own attempts to record his life frame by frame.

After some time gripped by the gnarly hands of the horror flick, the found footage sub-genre has been gradually taking steps into other movie domains. But how did it make it from cult video nasties to big budget action adventure?

Many would argue that Ruggero Deodato’s intensely disturbing Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was the first film to use the found-footage technique to any great effect. Supposedly recording the last adventures of a jugle-faring anthrologists who encounters a bunch bloodthirsty cannibals, this still remains one of the scariest horrors to linger at the back of any VHS cabinet. WARNING: This clip is vile.

Fast forward a decade or so and we have perhaps the most famous film of its kind. The Blair Witch Project Artfully blurred the line between reality and fiction by using crudely shot found footage to tell its gruesome tale, this film cost just $22,000 to make and raked in over £240 million at box offices. If there was ever a question about the future of the sub-genre as a potential money-spinner, this film provided the definitive answer.

Spanish horror flick, REC (2007) is next to make out potted history of the sub-genre. Yet another found footage horror, this film did not really bring any really bring anything fresh to the format but does not take away from the fact that it truly is ff horror at its best. Raw, petrifying and absolutely stuffed with suspense (and weird noises).

Taking a sideways step from pure horror to horrific action thrillers, Cloverfield made a strong impression in 2008 with its brave use of found footage as a means to “record” an alien invasion. The home video of a friend’s party makes a familiar start point against which to contrast the horrendous events which unfold. Horrors’ love affair with the format is still in plain view, but the fierce and brutal action caught by our protagonist hints at a different kind of thrill.

In a departure from the norms of the genre, Troll Hunter uses found footage to tell its fantastical tale to impressive effect. A group of students join a hunter, thinking he is only after bears but soon discover his prey is far larger. After a string of troll-related attacks, disappearances and deaths, footage is finally found by a truck at the side of a road. Thank heavens because otherwise Andre Ovredal’s fantasy/adventure/thriller would never have made it to screen…and helped to push the boundaries of found footage filming even further.

As budgets tighten and finance dries up for many small-time film directors, the appeal of using handheld cameras and amateurish editing techniques will continue to be also an inviting prospect. The genre has already proven that it can attract nervous bottoms onto seat and, despite flirting with big budget CGI hits, is sure to encourage inventive storytelling from budget-cnoscious directors with other stories to tell.