Found Footage

 

I've always loved Found Footage movies.

Actually, let me re-think that. I've seen way too many of these things fail terribly to still say I love them. I guess I've just always loved the concept of Found Footage movies, the idea that anyone can take a consumer-grade camera and create underwear-ruining suspense on about the same budget it would take to fix a washing machine.

Of course a lot of things have to be in place for you to achieve success with your Found Footage movie, which is why so many of them crash and burn. First, your actors have to be there. The ultimate objective is to create realism, and if the actors are showing up like they're going out for a porn-o Days of Our Lives, then the whole effect is thrown off. Second, the story has to be there -- simple, yet achingly relatable; the audience needs to go in with an attachment to the characters and their situation. They need to walk away with second thoughts about, say, an upcoming camping trip. And above all, your Found Footage movie needs to sneak attack. The audience needs to be totally surprised. I'm not talking about throwing in a bunch of jump scares and music stingers. I'm talking about the environment surrounding the movie itself -- the idea that the whole world is totally Plain-Jane until your Found Footage movie comes along. It has to be a word-of-mouth thing -- subtle at first, but then it hits the mainstream. Suddenly, it's in the "A" Block of the evening news: "a phenomenon that's taking the world by storm!" Oh, and yeah: there has to be this feeling among the crowd that the footage is all real

These conditions are not easy to create. You could certainly argue that they are now impossible in our current Internet society. One recent Found Footage flick, "WNUF Halloween Special", gave it a noble shot when the filmmakers left behind tapes of their movie at thrift stores, hoping to start a whisper campaign about an infamous 1987 news broadcast that ended in several grisly on-air deaths, and was now shuffling around somewhere in the underground. Nice try, and definitely original. But people were too busy with viral memes to take notice, and also, by 2014 (when the film was released), people had become too cynical to buy into the story they were slinging anyhow. Also, the fact that the acting was on par with understudies for a community theater production of "Guys and Dolls" didn't help it very much, either.

Perhaps the concept of the Found Footage movie will never again be realized. But still, people keep making 'em -- if not for creating an unprecedented cultural touchstone then for making something on the cheap that can get picked up by some low-rent HorrorCon distributor and dumped onto Hulu with six hundred other faux-doc shockers that all look exactly the same. 

And yes, still, I keep watching 'em. I guess I'm waiting for the one that nails it; one that re-creates that feeling I had in the summer of 1999, when The Blair Witch Project hit my local multiplex. 

We know now that The Blair Witch Project was lightening in a thimble. But in July 1999, it was just another breakout indie that had come out of Sundance like so many had before it. At that time, most independent movies that made it to the fly-over states only did so because they were Oscar contenders. Blair Witch had just proven itself a major cash grab for the studio that had acquired it. It came to my town a couple weeks before school started as one of the most hyped-up independent films ever. My town was like any other market for this movie: the audiences were there; the word had been spreading like a virus since it hit Sundance in February, thanks to a profoundly clever Internet whisper campaign. It was the first movie to ever try such a thing, to use this new mass-user medium to create a built-in audience. Even those among me who were exclusively partial to Rob Reiner movies were brought in on it, all thanks to this non-traditional and aggressive campaign to make this look like it was all real. I can remember dinner table conversation at my house in the weeks leading up to seeing it: 

Mom: So these kids really went missing?
Me: I doubt it; I'm pretty sure it's just a stunt. But those "Missing" posters look pretty real.

Even in my church youth group, when we were supposed to be discussing morals and the New Testament:

My friend Joel: So it's all real?
Me: I don't think so. Pretty sure it's just a stunt.
My friend Joel: But if it's a movie, how come there aren't any actors in it?
Me: I guess they're trying to trick you into thinking these are real people.
My friend Joel: It sounds like it really happened. It wouldn't feel right seeing it.

(I guess we were discussing morals after all.)

I didn't care what anyone who bought into the fake controversy the movie was successfully creating said. By the day it opened, I had become almost like a cult member. If you were like me and saw this movie the week it opened, then most likely you had been to the web site at least a couple times a day since June, where photos of the three hapless, missing film school students greeted you. You had seen (and probably taped) the Sci-Fi Channel documentary, "Curse of the Blair Witch". You had all the witch folklore of Burkittsville, Maryland etched on your brain, and when you were watching the film in the dark, crowded theater, you knew exactly what was meant by the last frame, where the seemingly possessed Mikey stands in the corner while a freaked-out Heather is shoved to the ground by some unseen force. You left that dark, silent room knowing, at least 99 percent, that this was all total bullshit, and it was just a movie. But still, there was that 1% doubt in your mind:

(A) If this was just a movie, then why couldn't they keep the camera straight to tell a cohesive story?
(B) Why didn't they show the monster? Even in Jaws, where the object was suspense, they still showed the monster.
(C) If this was just a movie, then why did the filmmakers decide to keep the audience in the dark about pretty much everything?

This was the frustrating fun of The Blair Witch Project. It was filmed and edited in such a rushed, tacky way. Unpolished. Like a collection of tapes had just been found in the woods and the footage strung together by the police to make sense of what had happened. There was that feeling of displacement, and that when it ended, you were more in the dark about the mystery than before it had started. What's more: you had no idea who even made this movie! B-Movie Drive-In Critic Joe Bob Briggs has always said the staple of any great horror movie is that you feel it could have been made by actual psychopaths. He always referred to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as such a movie. With Blair Witch, there was definitely that feeling. The people who made it didn't seem to give a shit about your motion sickness, or timidity toward the F-word. They just seemed to get off on showing you this footage as it was shot -- not answering any questions, but rather, scratching your curiosity until it was a raw, bloody nub. 

Since Blair Witch was R-rated and I was a 16 year old who looked so young I routinely got carded at PG-13 movies, I had to drive an extra ten miles from my house to the run-down Wildwood, the only theater in Birmingham I knew of that would let anyone into any movie because they were so cash-poor and under the radar. On the longer than usual drive home that day, I couldn't escape that feeling of longing to know what had happened. I knew it was a movie, sure. But the camcorder had made it so real. I felt truly -- viscerally -- sad for these kids, who just wanted to have an adventure -- like I had done several dozen times before with my own friends -- and had ended up paying tragically for it. I remember that annoying song by The Offspring -- "The Kids Aren't Alright (Shattered Dreams)" -- came on the radio, but I couldn't turn it off because it seemed so appropriate. Before I knew it, I had spaced out behind the wheel, and ended up having to turn the car around because I had missed my exit back home.

Strangely, unlike most small, micro-budget horror movies that became smash hits -- HalloweenFriday the 13th, Scream -- The Blair Witch Project didn't immediately spawn a string of pale imitators. It was simply released, made a huge splash, and then horror went back to being the same old thing. As a matter of fact, the genre largely died for the better part of the next decade, save for the torture porn Saw movies that progressively only appealed to the hardcore basement freaks in the crowd and not to a wide general audience the way most breakout horror movies do. So why was there such an anomalous gap between this inventive, mostly original idea of a Found Footage film that had been well executed on a shoe-string budget and the obligatory mob of studio suits rushing to cash in?

I have to think that there was such an intimidation by the concept of The Blair Witch Project -- the balls it had to be so audaciously minimal, building suspense in the marketing so that when you walked in you were already sitting on the edge of your seat -- that there was a complete brain drain among the screenwriters who were hired to copy it. Even the sequel, Book of Shadows, didn't dare even trying to ape the original in concept or style, opting instead to do a straight narrative with lights and cameras on tripods (though they did try to create a meta-mystery for the video release involving something called the "Secret of Esrever").  

It was the flip-flop nature of Blair Witch that made it so damn great. Most movies keep you in the dark about their endings. In this you walked in knowing what happened. Or at least thought you knew. The movie greets you with its conclusion, plastering it on the 25-foot high screen at the very beginning:

In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. 
A year later, their footage was found.

Then, as the movie hard cuts to the camera adjusting on Heather, your blood starts to race. You realize that this will not just be another scary movie. You will actually care about these characters. You really feel this when Heather shows you around her apartment, which could be your girlfriend's apartment. It's cutely decorated and all around are artifacts of her fast, exciting life as a college student in her early 20's. Anything you've ever taped with your own friends looks exactly like this. Later, when Heather, Mikey and Josh are in the grocery store, kicking off their foray into the woods the way anyone would -- goofing off, buying junk food, pushing the camera erotically into a bag of marshmallows -- it really starts to hit you: I'm about to see every nightmare that I've ever envisioned happening to me in the woods fall on these poor people.

It's not like I had never been in the middle of a pop culture thunderstorm before. I had seen Jurassic Park and the Beanie Babies. But that summer was something totally different. At a time when Lethal Weapon 2 was my favorite movie ever, I became privy to a bold new world of film making -- one that was rough, unsafe, and even made me feel a little dirty for even going along with it.

A lot of people throughout history can claim they lived in a time that could never be xeroxed, and they may be right. The birth of Jesus, the Gettysburg Address, the Summer of Love were all once-in-an-eon milestones. And yes, there was something about the Blair Witch Project that I doubt we'll ever see again. In many ways, it was a kind of apex of the twentieth century, a time when everything we had created in the brave new information age came to a head. At that time, we had already begun taking computers and the Internet for granted, even though we had only had them for a few short years. Global positioning was becoming a given, because no matter where we were, we could rest assured that a satellite was flying over our heads to show us the way home. And then, here comes this one little movie to remind us that we're only one wrong turn -- one last cigarette -- from total savagery. In what's most likely the best line of the film, when the hapless film students are lost in the woods and letting go of all manner of self control, Heather sums it all up when she justifies that they have to stumble out of the woods eventually, because "We're in America, we've destroyed all our natural resources!" How can you walk away from this movie without that punching you in the stomach, knowing that it's this kind of first-world arrogance that's going to get us all lost in the woods some day?

Found Footage movies eventually flooded the horror genre when Paranormal Activity hit in 2009. Most have landed DOA, although a select few are still proving that the concept can be done right, at least two-thirds of the way. We saw that quality acting can overcome a shoestring budget in movies like the first Paranormal Activity, as well as Cloverfield and Unfriended. We saw that story -- simple, yet achingly relatable -- can pinch our nerves better than any horror flick with a top-rate production, such as the recent Willow Creek, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, where two people on a camping trip try to make sense of the mysterious sounds outside their tent late at night in one torturous-in-a-good-way shot that runs no less than twenty minutes.

But it's the sneak attack that nobody can get right, and perhaps nobody ever will. Cultural conditions have accelerated too rapidly for us to be fooled by a movie anymore, and the only ones out there poring over footage to determine its authenticity are the 9/11 cranks. Anything that truly shakes up the way we look at entertainment these days is found in interface, such as an augmented reality app that makes cute animated creatures look as though they're right in front of us.

I wouldn't say I've given up hope for Found Footage just yet. I think that the genre can still be turned on its head in ways the audience won't expect -- in ways that force a cultural reaction the way Blair Witch did seventeen years ago. One base concept I think filmmakers keep getting wrong is that every character in their Found Footage movie must die. This is, I think, erroneous, and has dwindled the genre down to a "dime-a-dozen" mentality in the eyes of the mainstream public. Most people -- myself included -- don't want to see an endless string of movies where the endings are exactly the same. In this case, I am a firm believer in reviving the genre with a movie where the characters actually live. It can still be Found Footage, just found by the characters years after they shot it. This thought recently occurred to me when I found an old DV tape at the bottom of a camera bag and was stunned to see footage I had shot years ago with my friends and had subsequently forgotten about. I thought: How many people have had this same experience? Of finding evidence of their younger selves, mindlessly taping exploits they had with their friends back when everything was just one big game?

I'm not sure where a filmmaker might go with this idea, but I just know that some of the best scenes of The Blair Witch Project had nothing to do with curses or monsters, but the simple interactions between the characters. It was the way the two guys push a bottle of Scotch on Heather so she'll relax, the way they debate Gilligan's Island in the tent late at night. It was the way Heather, at the point of the highest stress, yells "Some day we'll all look back on this and laugh."

Imagine if someone made this movie, like it's years after this insane weekend of hiking and smoking and friendships coming to the brink, after which everyone disbanded and went their separate ways. People graduated, got jobs, had kids. And in the middle of one of them moving, a tape falls out of an old bag, and they're able to re-live it, in all its funny, terrifying, nostalgic, cringe-inducing glory.

I don't know if this kind of approach to a Found Footage movie will stir up our culture, but I'd like to think a few people might relate. At least it will be something different, and cheap to make at that.