Found Footage has had its day. In the beginning it added an element to horror movies which both brought the audience closer to the action as well as make them wonder how “real” the movie really was. Significant successes such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity led to poor imitations or worse, movies which added the Found Footage element without really needing it.
This made me wonder: what if we took the Found Footage away from the films which made the “genre” famous? Would those films still work? Would they be less scary or more successful if they were filmed “traditionally?” Lets look at five notable cases;
The Blair Witch Project
May as well start with the movie which launched a thousand imitators. The Blair Witch Project is terrifying because of the Found Footage. It was marketed as “Found” which, before mainstream internet, made people really consider whether the film was “real.” This is added to because the actors are so convincing in their roles and the lack of special effects or credible monsters, aside from hanging “cradles” and strange midnight noises, make this a much more terrifying movie.
Would it have worked without Found Footage? No, the Found Footage is essential for the movie to be effectively scary. Otherwise it is just a bunch of actors screaming in the woods at strange noises!
If Blair Witch catapulted the Found Footage genre’s success, Paranormal Activity built upon it by bringing it into our homes. The idea is simpler than Blair Witch because not a lot happens in Paranormal Activity. For huge amounts of the film you are watching people sleeping or even staring at empty rooms, certain you saw a flicker of life or an object move. Most of the film is slow and methodical, building the scares until the finale launches everything at you like a full frontal assault.
Would it work without Found Footage? No, the film would be much worse for being filmed “traditionally.” The quieter moments would be boring rather than tense and staring at empty rooms wouldn’t work.
The difference between Cloverfield and the other two biggest Found Footage movies is that this isn’t a straight horror film. It wasn’t about people being haunted or terrorised by demons, witches or ghosts. This was a group of friends trying to flee an alien/monster attack on their city. The Found Footage worked because it brought us closer to the action, the panic in the city, the first devastating effects. It also meant that when we caught glimpses of the huge monster, it was a bigger moment because we were watching through the eyes of ordinary people.
Would it work without Found Footage? Maybe. Cloverfield is better because of the Found Footage and this distances itself from Godzilla and that type of movie but there are times when the technique stretches credibility. The camera would have been dropped at the very start of the movie and a more traditional approach would have brought some of the story to life in a more effective way.
Chronicle is even more unique in the Found Footage genre because it isn’t a horror movie at all. It isn’t really a superhero movie either and the Found Footage is most effective when we watch the superpowers in the teenagers develop. It feels more “real” as the teenagers prank, joke and then become consumed and obsessed with their power.
This is when the Found Footage begins to get compromised. Chronicle could benefit from bigger action scenes, clearer sequences and more of the traditional treatment to deliver a film that fit the ambition of the movie.
Would it work without Found Footage? Yes, and in places it would be better. It may not stand-out as much as it does today but could have been a contender for the “non-superhero” movies like Kick-Ass or Super.
Troll Hunter begins very strongly and builds intrigue through the Found Footage but when the trolls appear and the story really kicks into gear, it falls into the usual Found Footage traps. The camera is used implausibly, the effects are wasted because we can’t really see anything and the ending is poorly developed because we only get one point of view.
Would the movie work without Found Footage? Yes, without Found Footage, the movie would be much more effective. The trolls could be realised in their full glory, the sub-plots clearly developed and the ending a huge spectacle as the film deserved.
Overall, there are plenty of examples of films that would still work or would be better without Found Footage but when it is done well, it is essential. It will always be home to horror movies but when it is brought out of that genre and used in different areas, it can add something new but more often than not, take away from the success of what is trying to be achieved.