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5 Films That Prove There's Hope for Found Footage

Updated on March 26, 2015
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My name is Samantha Silverstein. I'm a recent graduate of Arcadia University. My passions include television, film, and entertainment.

Found Footage Overview

Found footage films comprise the salt of the Earth. The formation of this sub-genre of horror and sci-fi is probably one of the worst things to happen to the entertainment industry in recent years. These films, which do relatively well at the box office, have garnered a distasteful reputation among hardcore horror/sci-fi fans. These films are seen by many as desecrations of the genres these people hold dear.

Despite the amount of negative opinions people have in regards to these types of films, it’s easy to understand how a filmmaker might see the need to tell their story through the use of found footage. In terms of the horror genre, where found footage films are most prevalent, the design of a found footage film allows for the scares that are used to have an increased effect on the audience. In addition, found footage films also have greater appeal to the general public because of their overall realistic looks. Very few audience members actually believe that the films contain real footage prior to attending screenings of these films, but once the lights go down it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief. Found footage films are designed to look like walk-throughs of haunted houses; First person camera perspective, scares and action sequences linked together by a flimsy plot, combined with so-so acting adds up to a movie going experience that feels great in the moment but can leave bad aftertaste later on.

If most people within the horror and sci-fi genres view found footage as being so terrible, why even bother writing an article about found footage films in the first place? Although the majority of the films in this sub-genre are poor examples of filmmaking, there are a few films that prove that there is potential for this sub-genre to improve its status within the world of film.

#5 The Fourth Kind

Synopsis: Psychologist Dr. Abigail Emily Tyler is recovering from the traumatic death of her husband, Dr. Will Tyler. Will, (a fellow psychologist obsessed with investigating several unsolved murders and disappearances that had occurred over the years in his hometown of Nome, Alaska) had been murdered i the couple's bedroom. Abigail, who aided her husband in his research, is determined to continue her husband’s work just two months after his passing.

Dr. Abigail begins by conducting interviews with patients who all claim to have had their sleep disrupted by the presence of a white owl watching them from their windows. As she moves from patient to patient, she begins to integrate hypnosis into her sessions. This well intentioned idea leads to undesired effects when Dr. Abigail’s patients begin behaving in strange ways. After the murder-suicide of one patient and his wife followed by another becoming paralyzed as a result of an episode experienced during his hypnosis session, Dr. Abigail is placed under house arrest by Nome’s chief of police.

Soon after her house arrest is put into place, a supposed alien abduction occurs, resulting in the disappearance of Abigail’s daughter. Giving up hope that the police, or anyone else for that matter, will ever listen to her theories on aliens and their interactions with the residents of Nome and neighboring Anchorage, Abigail enlists the help of her friends, (fellow psychologist Abel and a Sumerian/alien expert Abigail befriended through her husband’s research), to place her under hypnosis with the intention of contacting the aliens who took her daughter. As the film concludes, however, Abigail is left with more questions than answers.

Why does this movie bring found footage hope? :

In order to fully understand why this particular film brings hope to the world of found footage it is best to first evaluate the film’s good points in addition to looking over the aspects of the movie that aren’t quite so savory.

Let’s start with the good stuff first. Unlike most found footage films that attempt to convince you that they’re real by using, what the filmmakers claim to be, actual footage donated by the cooperating police department or what have you, The Fourth Kind uses a somewhat unconventional style. For starters, the film opens with actress Mila Jovovich prefacing the audience on what they’re about to see. Following Jovovich’s introduction, the film pairs re-enacted scenes starring the actress with, supposedly, found video and audio recordings of Abigail Tyler (the film also kindly reminds us that all names have been changed) and her patients. Though this side-by-side style of storytelling has its drawbacks, the film earns points by trying something new. In addition to the filmmakers’ bravery, The Fourth succeeds with its beautiful shots of the Alaskan landscape, (that is if you can ignore the obvious Land Rover product placement that accompanies every scene involving travel.)

The only negative side to this film is that the manner in which its story is told, however bold and unique it might be, creates a disconnect with the audience. Watching the re-enacted sequences at the same time as the real video footage creates the feeling of viewing two films at once. Though both sets of footage are supposed to be representing the same characters, it’s hard to establish a connection with both at the same time. To the film’s credit, this style is not one commonly used in film. Therefore, it’s understandable why the film’s execution was met with a few flaws.

Overall, The Fourth Kind isn’t the greatest example of good found footage. In fact, the more this film is viewed, the more it becomes apparent that it’s really not that good of a movie. Though the film itself is so-so, the fact that the filmmakers involved chose to go in a somewhat unconventional manner in regards to how they told their story sheds light on the fact that there are creative opportunities available within the found footage sub-genre. If more directors would take the time to improve upon what The Fourth Kind attempted to accomplish, perhaps found footage can become a viable genre after all.

#4 Paranormal Activity 2 (Unrated Version)

Synopsis: Kristie and Daniel Rey have just arrived home from the hospital with their newborn son, Hunter. Hunter, who serves as the firstborn male on Kristie’s side of the family in several generations, is greeted by his half-sister Ali, (Daniel’s daughter from his first marriage; first wife is deceased), and nanny/housekeeper, Martine. The family uses a video camera to document Hunter’s first days at home, in addition to a few personal moments alone. This practice continues until a mysterious presence disrupts The Rey family’s seemingly perfect life.

Upon investigating the burglary, it is revealed that no valuables were actually taken from the house. Concerned for the life of his family, Daniel installs security cameras throughout his home. That night, however, it becomes clear that not all is well.

Similar to the first film the haunting begins slowly, (objects moving on their own, dog barking at nothing, etc). The activity quickly escalates as it become clear to Kristie and her older sister Katie that whatever presence followed them around as children may have returned. Furious with the accusatio0ns that they may be a supernatural spirit stalking his home, Daniel insists on hearing no more of “that haunted house crap”. That is until the entity begins to lose its patience. One night, after successfully creating a diversion that gets Daniel and Ali out of the house, the demon decides that it’s finally time to take what it came for: Hunter.

Why does this movie bring found footage hope? :

The Paranormal Activity franchise is undoubtedly responsible for making found footage film popular again. However, despite the overwhelming success of these films the jury is still out on whether or not they’re actually good. Many of the naysayers claim that the films are laughably bad; the scares are obvious and not well developed the acting’s poor, etc. Those who dislike the franchise also claim that these movies are only made for the general public who don’t necessarily know what to look for in a horror film. On the other hand, those that enjoy the Paranormal movies claim that these films do in fact represent the best of what horror has to offer. Fans of the franchise claim that the films tell scary stories reminiscent of Goosebumps or old campfire tales. The individual scares themselves might not make a person jump, however, the overall tone of the film is sure to leave a theater goer with many a sleepless night to look forward to. While the horror world continues to debate the value of these films on the genre as a whole one thing goes without questioning: These films have made an impact on pop culture. If a film franchise is able to create that large of a stir within a particular genre than it’s clear that the filmmakers have done something right. Regardless of which side is correct, the popularity of these films is enough to signify that there’s something within them that future found footage directors can learn from.

Of the five Paranormal Activity movies currently out, the second film is probably the best representation of what can be accomplished when found footage is done correctly. For starters, unlike most found footage films, the characters in this film are easy to identify with. Not only do they behave like everyday people, the actors portraying these characters actually know how to act. There are no over the top gestures or reactions, no bad line readings, no underplaying of emotions. At times, it’s hard to remember that what you’re watching isn’t real. In addition to the on point acting, the camera also serves as an aid in adding reality to the film. In some of the other Paranormal Activity films having the characters carry around a camera with them at all times doesn’t really make sense. However, in this film the characters are supposed to be documenting the early days of their newest family member’s life. The characters also have a security camera in place allowing them to record their lives hands-free. Since the recording aspect of this film is well-integrated into the movie’s plot, it’s easier for the audience to suspend disbelief.

Many found footage horror films fall into the trap of letting the scares drive the movie. While this might seem like a good idea coming from an entertainment perspective, from a writing point of view it really isn’t the best course of action to take. Scares in a horror film are meant to serve as tools. They aide the plot in creating dramatic moments which creates tension amongst the characters, which then leads to an increase in stakes, which overall adds up to a compelling and worthwhile film to watch. When the scares are given greater emphasis they become the story. It’s like creating a spin-off television series starring the supporting character from the original show. In theory, the show seems like it’s going to be funny. In actual execution, it fails to elicit a single laugh. Supporting characters on TV, much like scares in a horror film, are there to help the main characters by serving as the aid to the straight man. When the supporting character becomes the straight man they lose every character trait that made them worth watching. Much like when the scares in a horror film become the story. Scares are created as a result of dramatic tension building within a scene. When you reduce the amount of plot, you reduce the amount of tension, thus creating orphan scares that shock and amaze but don’t actually make any sense when given a second glance. In Paranormal Activity 2, the scares, (for the most part), are well placed throughout the film. This creates a more compelling story, which is actually enjoyable to watch.

The film’s bad points are, thankfully, few. The only elements that detract from the movie’s positive attributes are the filmmakers decision to focus heavily on the mystery element of the plot, the script’s refusal to give the audience many details about the demon terrorizing the Rey family, and, last but not least, the film’s insistence on repeating plot points addressed in the first film.

Paranormal Activity 2 is written as a sort of whodunit mystery. It presents the audience with scary sequences and clues, allowing them to join the main characters in figuring out who, or what, is behind the strange occurrences plaguing their home. The mystery element lends some fun to the film but it can prove distracting. Especially when the first movie already covered a lot of what the second film attempts to explore. The first film doesn’t reveal every detail regarding the demon that’s plaguing the family through its maternal bloodline; however, it covers enough so that it’s unnecessary to rehash certain plot points in the sequel. In the second film we learn that Hunter is the first male to be born on Kristie’s side of the family in quite some time. This fact becomes significant when it’s revealed that some people make deals with demons I exchange for wealth or power. It’s concluded by Ali that some deal and that the demon involved has come to clar deal and that the demon involved has arrived to collect its payment. These facts are unfortunately overshadowed by the “what the hell is that?” moments that crowd the film’s first act. The audience already knows, as soon as we find out that Kristie is Katie’s sister, that she’s connected to the demonic presence that stalked Katie and her boyfriend, Micah, in the first film. It’s redundant and boring to have these moments replayed in the second film.

Aside from the reveal that someone in Kristie and Katie’s family is essentially responsible for sending a demon to plague them, there aren’t many other details given regarding the big bad in this film. Though it leaves the door open for more sequels, and subsequently, more money for the studio execs, to leave out these details, it diminishes the audience’s interest in the movie itself. If we know what it is and it’s obvious we’re afraid of it, why not just tell us everything we need to know? The filmmakers did a good enough job on the film’s other elements, ergo, no reason to worry that their audience was going to up and leave before they could rush off to make another film.

Despite its drawbacks, the second installment in the Paranormal Activity franchise is a good example of what can happen when filmmakers use the conventions of found footage to their advantage rather than let these elements and tropes define their work. Much like a work of popular music, there are certain elements that need to be present in order for the audience to recognize the work as being found footage. However, by not letting their creativity become stunted by these conditions the filmmakers behind the second Paranormal Activity movie were able to create an enjoyable piece of horror.

#3 V/h/s

Synopsis: Told primarily through vignettes, this framework story begins with a few sort video clips introducing our main characters; a rough and tough band of low lifes, who make their money by videotaping drive-by exposures of young women’s breasts. Early in the film, the group’s ringleader is informed that there’s a videotape he needs to retrieve. Upon rallying his band of misfits, the leader brings his friends to the house of an old man, who upon breaking into the dwelling, is discovered to be recently deceased. In the room where the body was discovered stand an array of televisions connected to numerous VCRs with accompanying videotapes. One by one, the boys watch the tapes only to discover the evil presence lurking within their contents.

Why does this film prove there’s hope for found footage? :

What makes V/H/S a great example of found footage stems from its unique construction. Much like The Fourth Kind, V/H/S is told differently than your run-of-the-mill found footage movie. The filmmakers behind V/H/S chose to tell their story through a series of vignettes rather than keeping the camera focused on one particular story. These vignettes, which are connected by the periodic appearance of our main characters, help create an overall creepy tone which prevents the film’s scares from dominating the entire piece. The film also moves at a consistent pace, thus preventing the audience from having to wait around between scares.

In addition to the film’s quick pacing and vignette style construction, the acting feels realistic but not so natural that it’s barely believable. Each scenario featured in the vignettes is written so that the integration of the camera doesn’t feel forced. The second vignette features a couple that’s supposed to be on vacation; the third showcases a group of kids who have decided to go camping near a lake in the woods; the fourth documents a series of video chat conversations held between two long distance lovers. All of these examples are instances in real life that a camera would be present at. Therefore, if the actors play too much to the camera or happen to have their backs turned during a particular shot the audience doesn’t feel like those actions would put in to add to the illusion of reality; they instead feel like they’re watching something out of their own home movie collection. (That is, until the scares come into play, of course).

V/H/S rounds out its positive attributes with the use of realistic gore during its scary sequences. For some, who either don’t frequently watch horror films or perhaps aren’t particularly fond of the expanded use of gore that, (thanks to films like Saw and Hostel), has become a major staple within the genre, this might be seen as a negative trait rather than a positive one. Despite the potential difference of opinion some viewers might have, the amount of detail put into the gore sequences is impressive and deserves to be commended.

Similar to The Fourth Kind, the style in which V/H/S is told, however innovative and interesting it might be to watch tends to work against the intention of the film. Because the film is told through vignettes that are only vaguely connected a lot of the minutia has to be inferred by the audience. If the audience does not pay careful attention to every detail, they could miss something important. In addition to the drawbacks regarding the style in which the film is told, the central conflict and character development are somewhat underdeveloped.

Despite its writing based flaws, V/H/S is a great example of the good things that found footage can accomplish. The film still falls into the same traps that other found footage films do, however, the filmmakers manage to successfully combat those aspects but focusing more on quality than quantity. Instead of pumping their film with scares, those behind V/H/S instead focus on creating a good quality horror film. This mentality, which isn’t centered on creating a film that reaches the highest heights of popularity, is responsible for making a movie that not only entertains but engages the mind. V/H/S is a found footage film for smart people. If you like puzzles, then you’ll love piecing together the vignettes of V/H/S.

#2 The Last Exorcism

Synopsis: Set primarily in rural Louisiana, The Last Exorcism is a “documentary” that follows Reverend Cotton Marcus’ plan to perform one more exorcism before giving up his chosen profession for good. Cotton, who is deep in the midst of losing his belief in God, decides to pay a visit to the Sweetzer farm where a young girl by the name of Nell is supposedly possessed by a demonic spirit. Upon meeting with Nell’s family members, (Nell’s father and brother), to assess the situation, Cotton performs a rigged exorcism on Nell. While Nell’s brother seems to be on to the games Cotton’s playing Nell’s father is thoroughly convinced that the demon that has been plaguing Nell and his family since the death if his wife has been officially sent back to Hell. After paying Cotton for his services and sending him on his merry way back to New Orleans, Nell begins to exhibit odd behavior. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Nell Sweetzer is not just another girl who cried demon.

Why does this film prove there’s hope for found footage? :

The Last Exorcism technically isn’t a found footage film. The movie never comes out and says that it’s based on true events nor is there a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that specifies that the footage the audience is about to see was found at such and such crime scene. Why include this movie in a list of found footage films if it isn’t technically a part of that sub-genre? Though The Last Exorcism may not come out and call itself found footage it contains many elements which classify it as a found footage movie. However, since the film is billed as a mockumentary rather than a collection of video footage edited together for the sake of time, many of the conventions that normally restrict found footage are not present. This set-up allows the audience to experience the same level of fear and intensity that they would from a found footage film with the added bonus of a well-written and properly executed plotline.

Due to The Last Exorcism’s construction, its positive points are quite numerous. The film has a concrete plotline with actual character development present throughout. The story arcs of the various characters might not be perfect but at least the film gives the audience something to follow. In addition the writing kudos, The Last Exorcism is well-acted with meaningful scares placed throughout the film. At times, the fact that Cotton’s cameraman is still recording seems somewhat unnatural but those moments can be easily overlooked when they’re complimented with an over-all scary tone that entertains without distracting from plot.

The Last Exorcism not only qualifies as one of the best found footage films in recent years but one of the best horror films to date. With Eli Roth on the list of those involved it’s no wonder that this film has interesting characters, an engaging plot, and a perfectly creepy tone that adds together for a truly enjoyable movie watching experience.


#1 Grave Encounters

Synopsis:

Television based paranormal investigator, Lance Preston, has arrived with his team at Collingwood Mental Hospital in the hopes of capturing some supernatural phenomena on film for the sixth episode of his show entitled Grave Encounters. After conducting a few preliminary interviews with a local historian, the hospital’s caretaker, and a recently hired gardener, Preston instructs his crew to begin setting up for their overnight lockdown. Though Preston’s investigation seems uneventful at first things start to pick up when the spirits of former patients begin to interact with the ghost hunters. Preston and his team are under the impression that they have all the footage necessary to create a half decent episode. That is until the team discovers they might not make it out of Collingwood alive.

Why does this film prove there’s hope for found footage? :

Similar to Paranormal Activity 2, Grave Encounters leads its audience on a mystery filled adventure. As Preston and his crew make their way through the hospital, facing ghost after ghost and being left without a means of escape, the audience is forced to put together the pieces. This challenge, combined with the films well-written scares add up to an engaging film that not only trusts the intelligence level of its audience but doesn’t overburdened its viewers with unexplained facts that need to be digested. The audience might be left to fill in the blanks but that doesn’t mean they’re left in the dark for long. Grave Encounters makes sure to give its viewers enough clues without giving away too much.

Despite some of the film’s writing strides, it does possess quite a few negative attributes. Grave Encounters is well-written compared to many other found footage films. That being said, this film contains very few likeable characters. The members of Lance Preston’s crew, including Lance himself, do not believe in the supernatural and are just doing the show for money. To top it off, almost every single one of them has the personality of a rotten egg that’d been left in the sun too long. While this increases the audience’s delight whenever one of the characters has an unpleasant encounter with a ghost, it makes the early parts of the film almost unbearable to watch. The film’s acting also leaves something to be desired. While the camera does a great job of making the film’s sequences look realistic the movie’s acting tries to add to the realism. The actors aren’t necessarily bad but they certainly aren’t trying very hard. Only when the film’s scares escalate does the piece regain any sense of believability.

Despite its glaring flaws, Grave Encounters still manages to entice its audience. The scares are compelling and well-placed throughout the film. In addition, the plot is clear and develops well throughout the film. Overall, Grave Encounters behaves as the perfect horror style revenge fantasy. If you aren’t a hardcore horror fan then the types of shows that Grave Encounters references aren’t going to strike a chord with you. However, if the horror genre is in fact a huge part of your life then paranormal investigation shows probably annoy you to no end. These shows are seen by horror experts as being incredibly staged and fake. While this has yet to be proven as fact, the horror community as a whole tends to avoid these programs like the plague. If you fall into that category, you’ll find that the events of this film feel like a dream come true. The crew behind the TV show Grave Encounters gets theirs in every possible way; the effects of which couldn’t be sweeter to watch.

Even if you aren’t a horror fan Grave Encounters still has that concise, velar plot and bone chilling scares that are sure to leave a lasting impression. If you’re up for something new and exciting that keeps you awake for days, this is the film for you.

You will likely never see a found footage film nominated for an Oscar. Nor will you see a found footage movie that is successfully able to escape all the tropes and restrictions created by the sub-genre. Though found footage will always, for lack of a better adjective, suck, these five films prove that maybe, just maybe, there’s some hope for this sub-genre after all.

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