Although there are a few found footage pictures that predate Eduardo Sanchez’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, it was really Sanchez’s film about a trio of film students who go missing in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland that launched the found footage sub-genre.
In 1999, when THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was released audiences discovered a “new” and refreshing form of filmmaking. And Hollywood, and just about any aspiring filmmaker with a camera, were eager to jump into the fold and try their hand at creating a low-budget flick that could produce an enormous fiscal turnaround. For a few it worked. But for every great found footage film we’ve seen released it feels as though we’ve been forced to wade through a few hundred clunkers.
But the tides are changing.
At this point in time it seems as though filmmakers are understanding that shooting a found footage piece isn’t “the easy route” to a career in Hollywood. If anything, it’s a larger challenge to assemble a fluid, cohesive and terrifying found footage flick than a more standard style picture. There are a lot of potholes to fall into in this sub-genre, but we’re seeing a new string of found footage horror that suggests filmmakers are identifying those potholes and working their asses off to fill them and deliver organic and enthralling films.
We’ve still got quite a ways to travel before anyone will declare the journey mastered, but again, the tides are changing, and the films are improving. Here now is a look at a handful of sub-genre installments that really get it right, and have worked to instate a new degree of belief in this particular format of filmmaking.
CAPTURE KILL RELEASE
In order to impress with a handy-cam flick, a few things need to be as close to perfect as possible, and one of those things is believable and organic performances. If we’re to be fooled – even only temporarily – into believing that what we’re watching is actual footage, the performers in these movies must be spot-on and fault-free.
CAPTURE KILL RELEASE introduces Farhang and Jen, a young couple who are itching to experience the feeling of killing someone. Both young thespians turn in astounding performances, with Jen portraying the giddy ball of energy and leader of the homicidal plan and Farhang serving as the dedicated but circumspect lover willing to do anything for his girl. The two deliver wonderfully natural turns in front of the camera, and that quality alone sucks the viewer into the film immediately. The terror that unravels, and the hiccups the two encounter en route to committing this heinous crime are conceivable, shocking and revolting, simultaneously. But it all feels natural, as viewers are ushered into what amounts to a modern telling of the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924.
Like the Leopold and Loeb case, things don’t go as smoothly as planned for Farhang and Jen, but that’s where we’ll pull the plug on details. No spoiling here, but you can rest assured that CAPTURE KILL RELEASE closes on a properly horrifying scene. The climax certainly lives up to and exceeds the shock and quality of the first 80 minutes.
THE DARK TAPES
THE DARK TAPES doesn’t just rely on the bases that are must-cover, such as story and the aforementioned organic performances. THE DARK TAPES, instead, places emphasis on diversity and structure, dragging an anthology structure to the table with a very wide variety of subject matter to place in front of consumers. Think, if you will, of the V/H/S franchise, and you’re aligning the proper expectations.
Unlike the V/H/S movies, however, THE DARK TAPES is consistently refined and perhaps of more value, consistently frightening.
Whether you have a preference for psychopaths, demons or even aliens, THE DARK TAPES delivers. There’s a feeling to the film that suggests a much smaller budget than what we’ve seen in the V/H/S films, but the other side of the coin shines, as it feels like a (this is of course subjective and arguable) stronger picture from start to finish than any one of the V/H/S films, the first two of which are rather solid affairs.
When THE DARK TAPES becomes readily available to the masses next month (courtesy of Epic Pictures), don’t pass on it assuming it to be nothing more than a V/H/S rip-off. It’s an extremely spirited affair with some chilling imagery and a consistent (the final segment produces a few long-winded moments, admittedly) measure of quality that found footage fans are going to appreciate.
I’m terrified that #SCREAMERS may find itself stuck on a shelf somewhere for years, when it really, really shouldn’t be. The film is unique to every other on this list in the degree of professionalism and technical refinement showcased; it’s on an entirely different level, and if fans are lucky a quality brand will get behind the pic soon and see that this one earns the kind of distribution and promotion it deserves.
What’s beautiful about the film isn’t just the interactive angles (I really don’t want to get too into this aspect of the flick, because the gang behind the movie do some things that go the extra step to get viewers thinking) of the narrative but the acting. This is quite possibly the greatest acting I’ve seen in a found footage(/mockumentary) film, ever. For the first 20 minutes or so, I shit you not, I thought I was watching an actual documentary. That’s an enormous statement.
#SCREAMERS has a finale that leaves a little to be desired, but the performances of Tom Malloy and Chris Bannow are so damn impressive that the quick-finish does little to diminish the enjoyment factor of the film. Thus, interestingly enough, the elements of the film that really aren’t horror at all are some of the greatest, by far.
BE MY CAT: A FILM FOR ANNE
This is a disturbing film, and most of us would probably agree that it takes a lot to disturb, especially those of us getting up there in age. But BE MY CAT gets the job done, and it is surprising the manner in which it makes it all happen. There’s no movie magic here. There’s no heart-stopping twist. There’s no iconic mask. There’s no CGI.
What makes BE MY CAT: A FILM FOR ANNE rank among the finest found footage on the market is the almost too-dedicated-to-the-role effort from writer/director/lead, Adrian Tofei. His portrayal of a profoundly obsessed (with Anne Hathaway… which somehow makes it even more disturbing) aspiring filmmaker and murder-in-the-works is so disconcerting you’ll likely find yourself wondering, is this guy really this off his rocker… like, in real life?
I know I did. Adrian scared the shit out of me. And his inability to balance his emotions on an even remotely near typical level exceeded disconcerting; it often entered the realm of paralyzing. If you think that’s a joke, give the film a look on vimeo, and tell me the Chloroform sequence doesn’t send a wave of shivers racing down your spine.
HELL HOUSE LLC
HELL HOUSE LLC continues the hard-work, no short-cuts trend that’s sweeping through the subgenre, and this one turns energy into frenetic scares. It doesn’t offer the perfectly timed escalation that CAPTURE KILL RELEASE offers, or the excellent diversity of THE DARK TAPES, or the pitch-perfect performances of #SCREAMERS, or the stomach-sinking villain of BE MY CAT. This one chooses to channel all of its energies into an impressive string of related haunted attraction scares. This isn’t the same shock on repeat, we get different methods of fear generated in equal doses over about a 90-minute stretch, and it takes its toll on the nerves.
One of the smartest things that Stephen Cognetti does with his film is place focus on the haunted attraction. To date this is only the second relatively-high profile found footage film that places haunted attractions at the center of the storyboard. The other film is the very different, but also enjoyable (and wonderfully acted) THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT, which for the record makes for a perfect preceding companion piece to HELL HOUSE LLC. They’re radically different films, but they’re chilling and THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT is a great primer for this absolutely bat-shit scare fest.
HELL HOUSE LLC in a sense tells its story in reverse while combing through recovered footage, which creates a few loose moments (and flip flops), but also helps to further distance it from other found footage. It’s another big plus to the film, as well. But you’re going to be freaked out by the myriad of different styled scares (this isn’t just a jump-scare flick – I want to hammer that point home) that Cognetti lines up. And, the truth is he introduces a couple of very memorable characters (Gore Abrams’ work is going to floor you); this isn’t a one-man show, there are three or four very likable personalities in the picture.
Above all other films to earn mention in this article, HELL HOUSE LLC is the most frightening. It may not be the be best technically executed pic, but it is certainly refined, it’s certainly enjoyable, and it’s a fantastic example of the new wave of high caliber found footage features being produced these days.
Lazy filmmakers are going to need to find a new approach if they hope to develop longevity in this field.
A few other recent found footage recommendations include THEY’RE WATCHING, CREEP, THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN and Eduardo Sanchez’s amazing Bigfoot flick, EXISTS.