A new sub-genre of horror for a new century, it was in 1999 that The Blair Witch Project was released and became the first crossover hit of what has been termed “the found footage phenomenon,” produced with modest means and equipment yet reaching a global audience, opening the door to aspiring independent filmmakers wishing to emulate its style and replicate its success with major studios then pursuing the trend.
That film, its antecedents and its successors examined in a new documentary, aptly titled The Found Footage Phenomenon, writers and directors Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott have gathered a plethora of creators associated with the genre to discuss their work, its impact within the film industry and its connection with audiences and how the sub-genre has grown and continues to evolve as cameras become ubiquitous in everyday life.
Critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas proposing that found footage purports to represent “truth” whereas traditional narrative and stylistic structures are more obviously a constructed fiction to be observed rather than experienced, Trollhunter’s André Øvredal suggests that the reason the format is so tied with horror is that the premise holds the presumption that whatever project was undertaken was never completed by the filmmakers: “something bad happened to them.”
Steven DeGennaro suggesting that the best found footage films “trick your lizard brain” into belief, he points out that the origins of the genre are much earlier than realised, Bram Stoker’s Dracula presented as a series of diary entries, letters, recordings and documents, with Orson Welles’ famed 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds also an important touchstone as listeners were fooled into thinking an invasion was underway.
Film prone to censorship which the reporting of news escapes, Ruggero Deodato explains how that influenced Cannibal Holocaust and Stephen Volk laughs as he recalls the BBC’s position of trust which convinced many viewers that Ghostwatch was genuine, crafted to the medium in which it was presented, The Last Broadcast’s Lance Weller also commenting on the close link between technology and found footage, perhaps explaining why it appeals to younger viewers, while James Cullen Bressack counters accusations the genre goes too far by pointing out that Hate Crime was based on his own personal experiences.
The field too full for The Found Footage Phenomenon to be comprehensive, most telling is what is only alluded to, that while in principal the style is easy to replicate it is in fact a hard challenge, Jaume Balagueró recalling the intense rehearsals for each scene of [•REC] and Richard Raaphorst pointing out that each continuous shot on Frankenstein’s Army then took the same length of time to review and check, far from the spontaneous “let’s just do it” expectation of many whose poorly conceived attempts fail to make the grade.