Paper Cuts: Found Footage and the Ever-Evolving Campfire Tale


Paper (n): material manufactured in thin sheets from the pulp of wood or other fibrous substances, used for writing, drawing, or printing on

Cut (v): make (a movie) into a coherent whole by removing parts or placing them in a different order.

Found Footage and the Ever-Evolving Campfire Tale

Blair_Witch_ProjectWhy are so many horror fans so damn conservative? And no, I don’t mean politically conservative, but that would probably be an interesting piece if someone else wanted to write it.

No, I mean why are they conservative when it comes to matters of genre? You’ll frequently hear the statement “everything Hollywood gives us is remakes and found footage these days!” accompanying crotchety diatribes about the “dismal” state of the genre. And to preempt anyone saying this is a straw man argument, I heard a permutation of this from multiple people last month at Scares That Care.

I understand the feelings of resentment towards remakes, on an ideological level. But I don’t share the opinion that remakes are the refuge of the creatively bankrupt.

Newsflash: movies are made to make money. Especially genre films. Mercenary origins are a big part of what make genre films genre and not “art” films (even though I’m sure many financial backers of “art” films would still like to see a return on their investment). Studios can take some of the guesswork out of the equation by making their movies part of an established brand. This is just an economic reality. But sometimes they hire the right people and art gets smuggled into the commerce.

Speaking of economics: the lifetime box office of this year’s Poltergeist remake, considered to be a financial (it opened at #4) and creative (something I can’t comment on because I haven’t seen it, but hey: it’s got Sam Rockwell, he’s good) underperformer, was $47 million. Compare that to recent critical darling It Follows, which grossed a little under $15 million (Box Office Mojo’s numbers).

Sure, when you consider what each film must have been budgeted at, those numbers make it look like the “good guys” won. But if you’re a horror fan, living in the echo chamber of other horror fans, it’s very possible for you to hold the false impression that more people went to see It Follows in a theater (especially after good buzz bumped it from a limited to nation-wide release) than Poltergeist.

I think there are plenty of remakes that are as good or better than the films they’re remaking. The mean part of me also sees remakes as a form of cosmic justice for those who fill message boards with ill-reasoned arguments against remakes, but don’t get out to the theaters (or their VOD platform of choice) to support new, original properties.*

What’s that? This column was supposed to be about found footage movies and I just spent a good amount of it making spurious conclusions about remakes? True, true.

My point with all that remake stuff? My point is that horror movies (at the very least commercial horror movies) are not made for self-identifying horror fans. They’re made for young people. Businesses must target demographics, and if you’re a horror fan in a Famous Monsters t-shirt, my guess is that you don’t fall into the coveted “under 35” demo.

hudsucker gif

And is that a bad thing? I’m going to go ahead and argue “no.” Young horror fans turn into old horror fans and the cycle continues forever and ever, it only stops if we don’t produce horror that appeals to the next generation.

Circling back a bit to my initial question: how slow to accept tidal changes are horror fans? I still routinely hear people denounce “shaky cam” movies as one of the problems dogging today’s horror scene (and, really, if you’re using that term…come on).

Now, there’s clearly a lot of found footage films still being released, but this last July was the 16th anniversary of The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Sixteen earth years.

If that movie were a person it would be driving by now. This isn’t a new thing, you should be used to it by now. We are currently further away from the release of The Blair Witch Project than Blair Witch is from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

The interesting thing, to me, about these complaints is that by insisting the market is oversaturated with found footage, you’re denaturing the most creatively interesting part of the found footage wave: the fact that it’s not a subgenre.

I’ll freely admit that I’ve chosen a team in this imaginary debate: I’m a big fan of many found footage films. But, objectively, I don’t think you can call it a subgenre.

Found footage is a lens through which other subgenres can be filtered. And, as such, shouldn’t really be something you’re allowed to hate on.

It’d be like hating movies that feature crane shots. It’s just a technique. And one that allows movies to be made very cheaply (in most cases), thus allowing bigger risks to be taken, narratively.

For example, a hallmark of the most popular examples of the technique (yeah, I’m tying myself into knots not calling it a subgenre) is that lots feature a larger mythos that is being investigated by our protagonists.

This set-up exists in Blair Witch, our urtext for this argument (and if you want to snark and point to Cannibal Holocaust as the originator of the format…let’s just say that I’m well aware of the Italian cannibal genre). And it also exists in Paranormal Activity (2007). But I would argue Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity belong to two discreet genres.

Blair Witch is a folk horror film. Its final shot even mimics The Wicker Man in that our investigators/protagonists have become unwitting participants in their own pagan sacrifice. Strip the found footage conceit from Paranormal Activity (and the heavy, convoluted interconnectivity that the sequels bring) and you’re left with one of the most stripped-down ghost stories to hit theaters in a decade.

Consider the totally factual statement that a folk horror film and a traditional, straight-up ghost story are two of (if not THE two, if we’re looking at the ratio of budget to box office) the most successful films of the last 20 years. That’s a win. A win that launched a hundred genre movies we might not otherwise have (not all of them found footage, I’m certain this 21st century boom got other horror flicks greenlit in the search for the next big thing).

As the last 16 years of found footage has progressed, this “don’t call it a genre”-diversity has even existed and fluctuated within franchises. I would argue that some of the strongest sequels in modern horror cinema (as much of a pain in the ass as the titles are to type up) belong to the [Rec] series **. While the first installment is a fairly standard zombie film—though the found footage conceit does add some mileage—the second tosses in a demonic possession/occult element that re-contextualizes the events of the first film and broadens the mythology considerably. And the third entry does away with found footage completely, but not before relegating the set up (the idea that the whole movie may end up being filmed by a wedding photographer) into a pre-credits joke, as if to say: “got you again, this one’s going to be a comedy…presented in third person!”

There’s also the curious case of last year’s found footage Bigfoot movies. Yes. Movies, plural.

There are two movies, released a few months from each other, that can both be summarized as found footage Bigfoot flicks. And the even crazier thing is that they’re both really good. And could not be more different.

Willow_Creek_Theatrical_PosterBobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek starts off as what could be a Christopher Guest-like mocumentary, as it features interviews with real cryptozoologists and bigfoot researchers playing themselves. But this first act subverts those expectations (especially if you’ve seen some of the director’s previous films, where caustic misanthropy is putting it mildly) by maintaining a respect for its subjects before our two protagonists head off into the woods in search of sasquatch himself and things get…tense.

With much more hinted at than shown, Willow Creek is more in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project’s slow-burn resulting in a harrowing third act.

Eduardo Sanchez’s Exists is the anti-Willow Creek. But it’s not surprising when you consider that Sanchez was one half of Blair Witch’s directing team, Exists’ mission statement seems to be: you’re going to see the monster, the monster’s going to see you, and Bigfoot’s not going to bother with banging any rocks together. In a category that (sometimes fairly) gets slighted for not having any action, Exists has a surplus of mayhem.

My point is: I can see Willow Creek not being to some horror fans’ taste. And I can also see Exists not being everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s hard for me to conceptualize the separate circle on the Venn diagram that represents people who won’t like either because both films utilize found footage.

And, finally, since this is supposed to be a column that bridges the gap between horror lit and cinema: what is the literary equivalent to the found footage genre?

Well, if we want to be pedantic about it: the entire horror genre was built on found footage. The first horror novels are all told first-person epistolary. And further back than those, the first gothic novel (proto-horror?), The Castle of Otranto (published in 1764, predating Shelley’s Frankenstein by five decades) was presented by Wapole as a translation of a “newly discovered” Italian manuscript from the 1500s.

Did these authors really think they were “fooling” readers? Unlikely. But compare the oldest of the old traditions in genre lit with what, something new enough you haven’t yet encountered it.

Reddit’s popular NoSleep thread. The only limits put on these first-person short stories (and a few serials) is that participants have to stay in character at all times while posting on the thread. No matter how out-there the stories, the community is under strict instructions to consider it gospel. It’s an unholy amalgam of digital campfire and creepy-ass D&D campaign that’s spun off into podcasts and has even started to launch its authors into more traditional publishing avenues. And while there are no statistics available, I would bet that most of the authors are under 30, many of them high schoolers. If you haven’t checked it out, I recommend it. It’s fascinating to see what a generation free from the weight of an established literary (or genre) canon does to scare each other.

And where is found footage going in the future? Well, I have no idea, but author Jonathan Lees put me onto a web-series called Marble Hornets while I was writing this and it seems like the perfect example of hybridizing the tried-and-true techniques of found footage and the internet’s penchant for conspiracy and interactivity.

These framing devices, insisting that footage/prose is an authentic first-party account of scary shit, are what modern audiences crave. It’s why we perpetuate urban legends at slumber parties, its why s’mores taste better when accompanied by “this story about a guy I know…”

Insistent first person perspectives provide a partial bridge across the chasm of suspended disbelief. Yes, if you’re a curmudgeon that attends a magic show with his arms crossed, doubting that those doves really materialized out of thin air, then you’re not going to have fun, but if you let your defenses down a bit, meet the conceit halfway: you’re going to have some fun.

Or sleep with the lights on, as the case may be.

*If we are to extend this analogy to its logical conclusion, map it onto biblical plagues, then A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) is the death of everyone’s first born. I said I like some remakes, I didn’t say I was above irrational and white-hot geek hatred.

** and, full disclosure, I haven’t seen the fourth one yet, as it just recently became rent-able in the U.S., but fingers crossed that the trend continues

Adam Cesare is a New Yorker who lives in Philadelphia. He studied English and film at Boston University. His books include Mercy House, Video Night, The Summer Job, and Tribesmen. He has an oft-neglected website and tweets as @Adam_Cesare.

5 thoughts on “Paper Cuts: Found Footage and the Ever-Evolving Campfire Tale”

  1. I think there are times when “found footage” is more than just a technique. In movies like BLAIR WITCH and CREEP, the “found footage” aspect is integral to the storyline. The BLAIR WITCH kids were making a movie, so they kept the cameras rolling. The guy in CREEP was hired to film the entire day, so that’s what he did. I think in those instances it removes it from just being a tool used to tell the story, and makes it a part of the story itself.

    1. Interesting, and I don’t think I disagree with you (nor does anything I said above contradict that). But I would also say that: yeah, there are plenty of bad found footage movies. But there are plenty of bad movies, in general. And quality can be related to how strongly they “justify” their conceit. But that’s not the only factor on which I judge them, the same way any other film can have weaknesses and strengths.

      CREEP is an interesting example to use here because (spoilers follow): the conceit turns out to be the main “joke” or hook of the movie. By the time the final reveal is made, it’s clear that we’re dealing with a character “making” his own found footage movies.

      And I think that’s the best thing about that movie, which (aside from a few clever tonal switch-ups and a strong central performance) didn’t do much for me outside of being a good, meta-thought experiment.

      There, you happy? I finally commented on one of these. 🙂

      1. Replying to my own reply, because I think I make a crappy argument there:

        Yeah, I guess my crane analogy kind of contradicts your point. But I think you’re talking about transcendent usage of a technique/plot conceit, while I would still argue that it can be just a more vanilla technique that results in a good movie. To reuse an example from above, [REC] 2 has such a free-wheeling, unbolted perspective that it probably “cheats” its FF roots by using the helmet cams, which it switches between liberally, but I still think the aesthetic is better than if that film had been done in traditional 3rd person .

  2. I like to think of many of the remakes (horror or otherwise) as “reimaginings”. Take Zombie’s remake of Halloween, for example. When I first heard of an upcoming Halloween remake my heart sank. My favorite horror film was about to be butchered. There was no way to retell this tale in any other way than John Carpenter’s original way. Then Zombie came along and wrote an entirely new way to see Michael Myers. He took the story deeper than we’ve seen in the many sequels. AND he stayed faithful to most of Carpenter’s original elements. As someone who loves the movies, shows, books etc that he grew up with, i do admit some annoyance when i hear of another remake; but a well thought out reimagining can go a long way. So can a very delayed sequel IF the story warrants it. Take Tron for example. Our technological advances with video games and computers have come such a tremendously long way since the original Tron film that a sequel to revisit the original characters was itching to happen.
    Where sequels and remakes become obnoxious is when they are created simply because “Hey, why not?” I might lose my mind if there is one more Texas Chainsaw remake. None of the remakes to this series offer anything new. And even for die-hard fans of the horror genre such as myself, the same scenes over and over, portrayed by the same characters over and over, does get annoying. We also have more access to see all the movies we want (especially B and C horror flicks) thanks to streaming services, so many types of horror seem to be more “played out” now than they did when you could ony watch what your local video store had available. Thanks to the streaming services, we really are getting closer to the “seen it all” mark. That, to me, is the key ingredient to why most people are annoyed with the level of creativity throughout the movie industry.

  3. I have no complaints about found footage movies. I actually enjoyed Blair Witch once I could view it on a small screen. I originally saw it in a theatre and the hand cam venue made me feel dizzy and nauseous. But I do expect any movie or story to follow its own logic and mythos. I give any movie that has created a logic and plays by it my viewing time. Don’t try to make a horror movie just because you think that making a film and pouring the red stuff all over deserves my time.

    I even enjoyed the original Saw movie – I did figure out the ending before the characters did – but that is because I followed the logic of the story. I didn’t follow up with any of the sequels, because I don’t appreciate watching a movie just to see if there are ten more ways of maiming or killing people (that is my assumption of the Saw sequels).

    One of my favourite remakes is Night of the Living Dead. Same premise, but two totally different stories. And the Tom Savini film had an ending that I LOVED…very satisfying.

    And to add another sequel/smashup. I did see Jason vs Freddy and I did know who had to survive. Because Freddy appears in dreams and so is unreal whereas Jason is a real person. And that film played out following the logic of both characters’ mythos. It was a fun movie and I didn’t feel cheated because it followed their worlds’ logic.

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