Should Found Footage Stop?
October 13, 2015
(Nostalgiaween 2015 intro plays)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic, I remember it so you don't have to. Guess what I just saw a trailer for?
(Cut to footage of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, causing the people to collectively boo at him)
NC: That's right, the next and pray-to-God last of the Paranormal Activity movies!
Off-screen voice: Fuck you, entertainment I don't have to see!
NC: (holding up both hands) Now, if you're like me, you probably rolled your eyes like the majority of the audience who saw this trailer.
(Cut to footage of a Paranormal Activity movie)
NC (vo): Which is funny, because before, Paranormal Activity was the movie you had to fight to see. You had to call up your movie theater to have it played there in an ingenious marketing campaign. Now, we've seen it so damn much that we're sick of it. And for many, we're also sick of found footage films. Everyone I talked to says they're done with it. There's just nothing left. It's not a genre, it's a gimmick, and it needs to go out of style. Most people can't take the motion sickness camera in two dimensions...
(Cut to a shot of the Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension poster, labeled as playing in 3D)
NC (vo): ...but now we're gonna add three to it? Dude, this needs to stop.
NC: But then again, there must have been something that drew us to this for such a long period of time.
NC (vo): Were these really just cheap ways to make horror films with just a person holding a crappy camera?
NC: To answer this, we've gotta go back to where the whole found footage thing started, or... at least when it started to get popular, and that's with The Blair Witch Project.
(Cut to footage of Blair Witch)
NC (vo): Now, chances are, this kind of idea had been done before, but this is the first time it became a worldwide phenomenon.
(Cut to footage of talk shows promoting the movie, including Siskel and Ebert's review show)
NC (vo): The hype for this movie was insane, but even from day one...
(Cut back to Blair Witch)
NC (vo): ...people were split about it. Some say it was one of the scariest movies ever made; others say there were no scares at all. Some praised it as a new form of film-making; others saw it as a lazy shaky cam mess. Whatever your thought process, the film was a big hit, inspiring dozens of other films trying something similar...
(Cut to footage of Blair Witch 2 - Book of Shadows)
NC (vo): ...and ironically, the sequel being nothing like the first one.
(Cut back to Blair Witch 1)
NC (vo): You all know the setup: the whole film is being told from the point of view of a person holding the camera. And while it's debatable whether or not Blair Witch holds up, depending on who you ask, you can't ignore what it inspired.
(Cut to alternating snippets of Blair Witch and the Paranormal Activity series)
NC (vo): We went from two cameras to multiple cameras, quick edits to shots that take up the entire night, crappy quality to really high-end quality.
(The montage now focuses entirely on Paranormal Activity)
NC (vo): So, this means that the art form must have evolved, right? Well, again, it depends on who you ask. While the imagery looked better, many say the quality of the scares was getting predictable, and the limitations too frustrating. There's always shaky cam, there's always people reacting to the camera like they've never fucking seen one before, there's always a ton of comedy in the first half, and, of course, the characters always have to unrealistically film everything. (an image of a group of people holding up several phones with cameras on them is displayed) Well, maybe not so unrealistically nowadays, but still, this is pushing it. It's understandable why people would start to get sick of this.
NC: Still, a large part of any genre is the limitations and the discipline you assign to it.
(Cut to shots of a film noir movie)
NC (vo): In film noir, you know you're going to get heavy shadows and a dark, mysterious story.
(Cut to a shot of The Notebook)
NC (vo): In romances, you know you're always going to get two people...
(Cut to a shot of Romeo + Juliet)
NC (vo): ...who shares their emotions and their feelings to grow closer.
(Cut to a Paranormal Activity film)
NC (vo): So, why can't these limitations work for the genre of found footage?
(Cut to a shot of the cast of The Office)
NC (vo): Now, true, this has been used in comedies and dramas, so it's more appropriate to call it a sub-genre.
(Cut back to a Paranormal Activity film)
NC (vo): But it's still a distinct style with a distinct look that many filmmakers have added their own touch to.
NC: On top of that, while repetitive in many areas, it has opened up a new variety of scares.
NC (vo): The Paranormal Activity movies, despite the stories and characters becoming less developed, do still offer new ways of scaring people. Yeah, we get those fake-out jump scares that are always awful, but then there are ideas like the camera going back and forth slowly revealing the scare or literally dangling a knife off-screen, never knowing when it's going to fall, or even just moving spots, fucking MOVING SPOTS can suddenly become terrifying! It's this kind of simplicity that can get the biggest frights with the subtlest of actions.
(Cut to a clip from the second Paranormal Activity movie, involving a little girl)
NC (vo): One of my favorite edits is in Paranormal Activity 2, when the daughter thinks something has taken over her mother. We get a scene of the mother about to confront her in her room, and then we just cut to the daughter crying on the phone, asking for help. We have no idea what happened in between, but our imagination is much more disturbing than anything it could have shown. And seeing how a lot of found footage is very much "less is more", it allows clear touches like that to shine the best, when it has to work through the limitations by being clever. It's like shooting an entire movie in...
(Cut to a shot of the Ryan Reynolds movie Buried)
NC (vo): ...a coffin...
(Cut to a shot of the poster for Adam Green's Frozen: a chairlift with a man clinging on the edge for dear life)
NC (vo): ...or a whole film in a chairlift.
(Cut back to the Paranormal Activity movies)
NC (vo): When you take away the usual distractions, it allows you to focus more on the meat of the story, and it can only be done well by truly smart filmmakers.
NC: But with that said, a lot of times, the style can be the distraction.
(Cut to a poster for Night of the Living Dead)
NC (vo): The master of zombie films, George A. Romero...
(Cut to footage of Diary of the Dead)
NC (vo): ...took his stab at the found footage style and failed miserably. Nothing ever looked like actual found footage. It was too well shot, too nice sounding, and too much acted like a Hollywood film.
(Cut to footage of other found footage movies)
NC (vo): Something like this makes you realize, not only is there a right way to do found footage, but there's a logical reason for why it can work. What do horror movies, as well as most movies try to do? They try to make you feel like you're in the films so you can identify more with the situation. But where most movies need to film a main character, with found footage, the main character is the one that's filming, so it's much easier to make you feel like you're the one in the situation. When it works, it can get some of the biggest scares you can imagine.
NC: But the downside is, people are much more critical, and rightfully so.
NC (vo): Not believing the environment or characters in a found footage movie is ten times worse than if you don't believe it in any other genre, because the whole point is to make you feel like you're really there, and if the story, characters or acting are so far-fetched that it knocks you out of that illusion, the film falls apart. The majority of the Paranormal Activity movies have good scares, but because they had to make them so fast – one every year – the stories got too silly for most people, and the character's choices became unrelatable.
(Cut to footage of Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension)
NC (vo): This is why the next film looks so bad, because rather than convincing us that they fixed the problems, they're throwing more gimmicks and more distracting visuals that are just looking fake now. They're trying to go bigger in a series that thrived on minimalism.
NC: But with that said, sometimes, new twists can come from the most unlikely of places.
(Cut to footage of Unfriended)
NC (vo): Unfriended spends the whole movie on a girl's computer screen. This limitation allowed us not only to see the cost of living too much on social media, but also how unlikeable most dumb teens in horror movies are. At first, you think you're supposed to like these people, like in most scary movies, but by the end, you realize, not only are you supposed to find them all revolting, but that teens in most scary movies are usually revolting. It's a good way to use satire while also moving your story forward and upping the atmosphere, again using very little to achieve an awful lot.
(Cut to footage of The Visit)
NC (vo): And speaking of mixing comedy and horror, who'd have thought M. Night Shyamalan would be able to mix the two so well? The Visit was a hit with both critics and audiences, and while it still has his awkward writing all over it, it did manage to create a scenario where you're both screaming and laughing both at the same time. Well, even though there's a ton of holes in the movie, like how is that tiny camera getting that good quality, or how are their nonexistent mics picking up everything, the weird atmosphere it creates manages to be both charming and disturbing simultaneously, and the found footage style helps that. There's a scene where the grandma chases the kids under the house, and it's scary because you see literally what they see and therefore fear what they fear. But when you're further away from it, like they are, you see she was just playing a game. Oh, yeah, I guess we're kinda jumping to conclusions... right? The point of view of the camera blurs that line throughout the majority of the film, leaving the mystery tougher to figure out.
(Cut to footage of The Last Exorcism)
NC (vo): The Last Exorcism was another great blend of horror and comedy, as a film group follows an exorcist who claims he's a sham, and we laugh at his clever ways of convincing mentally ill people that he's getting demons out of them. But when he comes across one that seems too real, even for him, it's left to the viewer to decide whether the girl is actually possessed or not. There's no flashbacks, close-ups or inner monologues to give you any clues; it's only what the camera picks up. It's another layer of limitation that actually helps the mystery of the storytelling. That is, until the bullshit ending, but let's not go there.
NC: No, really, I'm telling the film not to go there. You were so good until then!
NC (vo): Many of these movies I'm talking about are years old, but some of them are rather recent, meaning that there's still possibilities that can be done with this type of film making. Can it get annoying? Yes. Do the limitations stunt the growth at times? Certainly. But clever film making is clever film making, and if someone has a twist on a popular idea, there's no reason to stop them.
NC: And if you can never get into them, and the motion sickness is just too much for you, it's completely understandable.
(Cut to a shot of a man and a woman kissing under an umbrella)
NC (vo): Everyone's gonna have a style or genre...
(Cut to a shot of cowboys on horseback against a setting sun)
NC (vo): ...that's just not gonna grab them.
(Footage of The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Hateful Eight are shown)
NC (vo): But I think for most of us, it's like watching a trailer from Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino. You always kinda say you're done with that style and it's the same thing over and over, but then when you see them do something really, really good with it, you remember that style can help a story and you're reminded of why you started to watch it to begin with.
(Cut back to the Paranormal Activity films)
NC: Found footage is more than just a person holding a camera, it's a surprisingly complicated method of film making that allows fewer mistakes than many would expect. More elements have to jell together to please the audience for a found footage film...
(Cut briefly to a shot of a Transformers film)
NC (vo): ...than, say, the audience for a Michael Bay film.
(Cut back again to the found footage films)
NC (vo): Because there's less distractions, you have to be sure what you have is convincing while still telling an engagement narrative. Horror is already difficult on its own, so throwing in these limitations makes it even tougher. But when it works, it can really work, and lead down new avenues that didn't exist before. It's hard to say whether or not the new Paranormal Activity will be any good, but it's not worth condemning a style of film that can, and has, given some memorable scares for it. Is there gonna be crap with it? Sure, just like any genre has a lot of crap. But for those who know how to not only work within this realm, but also evolve it to a new level, the possibilities are just too intriguing to turn down.
NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I shake the camera so you don't have to.
(As the NC gets up from his chair and leaves, the camera starts shaking vigorously; after several seconds of shaking camera, the NC returns with a look of annoyance on his face)
NC: (waving dismissively) Okay, seriously, stop that–
(He gets cut off as the credits roll)