Found Footage

There’s a lot of pre-hype going around for a new movie from Magnet Releasing, V/H/S, and damned if I’m not starting to buy into it. A look at the red band trailer this morning kinda solidified that.

So there are, like three possible reactions to that: people like my wife, who if they accidentally watch it, swear they will never watch anything like that. People like me, who want to watch it now. And the third type, who will immediately spit on it because it’s “Shaky-cam.”

My name is Freeman Williams, and I like found footage movies.

(“Hi, Freeman!”)

A lot of you are going to start grumbling about The Blair Witch Project, but hold off on that for a while. My love for this sort of thing goes back even further, to a TV movie called Special Bulletin (1983), which is about a TV news crew reporting on a dockworker strike, who are taken hostage by a group of nuclear terrorists. Follow that up about ten years later with the 1994 Without Warning, which is a supposed series of newscasts dealing with a meteor striking near a populated area, but the meteor turns out to be something else. Both attempt to use the breaking news format to tell a story; we’re used to news reports punctuating dramatic story lines, but not as the sole means of delivery. Both movies have flaws but are pretty entertaining. Special Bulletin is available from my favorite vendor, Warner Archive, and Without Warning appears to be on YouTube in its entirety.

You could go back further to Orson Welles’ radio version of War of the Worlds, with its stitched-together radio news broadcasts. Or you could back even further, to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, presented entirely in the diary entries of various characters. But then the lines we’re trying to draw get pretty muddy, so let’s return to the present day.

The 1992 French film Man Bites Dog carries on the news crew trope, but the following year’s America’s Deadliest Home Video marks the true birth of the camcorder movie, six years before Blair Witch. I’ve seen neither of the predecessor films, but I think Blair Witch is easily considered the point at which the camcorder movie came into its own. Outlandishly successful, due more to an amazing ad campaign (that pre-release website was an absolute work of creepy genius) than its actual merit as a movie, it’s everything that’s right and wrong about the subgenre. It has a stark immediacy and some truly unnerving moments. It also has no idea what to do with itself during long periods of the running time and three actors who need to learn another word beside “fuck”.

I’ve not seen all the found footage movies since, but I do find them gaining in confidence and quality. Cloverfield, again, has its flaws, but they’re muted. Troll Hunter is one of the best. And finally, this last weekend, I saw a couple more.

[REC] (2007) is a Spanish movie where – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – a small TV crew (a newswoman and a cameraman) are shooting an episode of While You Were Sleeping, documenting the night shift of some firemen. They go out on a minor alarm with two of the firemen, an elderly woman in some distress at a small apartment block. Then things get interesting when the woman attacks one of the police officers that arrived earlier, and everyone finds themselves sealed inside the building by a force of soldiers who threaten to shoot if people even get close to the windows. There is some sort of virus spreading quickly among whoever is bitten by the infected, and the need to find some manner of escape becomes more and more desperate as the ranks of the infected increases. They’re not quite zombies, but they’re not simply insane, either: there’s something evil afoot here.

[REC] clocks in at a brisk 78 minutes. There’s some filler, but it’s all at the beginning, as the crew shoots what would be, yes, filler for their episode. Once in the apartment, however, the story kicks into overdrive and rarely slows down. As was the case with Blair Witch, the actors had no idea what was going to happen from day to day, and that sets up several scares that not only get a hell of a reaction out of the actors, but out of the audience, too. I rate myself a pretty hard guy to scare, anymore, but [REC] definitely got me a couple of times.

The usual criticism against these movies is “Why do they keep filming?” [REC] circumvents that nicely in several ways. 1) It’s the guy’s job. Seriously, I’m a videographer in my day job. My question is always “Why did he stop filming?” 2) There is a Spanish woman yelling at him to “tape everything!” My first love was Hispanic. Do what they say. 3) There is, inevitably, a point at which the lights go out, and the only light is on the camera. Also, I am always surprised at these cameras that have a night vision function. This movie, Cloverfield, and apparently¬†The Descent (which I am told I need to get over my claustrophobia and watch). Maybe I just use the wrong cameras.

Here’s the first trailer I ever saw for [REC], composed only of night vision footage of audiences watching the movie, followed by a more traditional trailer (there’s one available in English, but it doesn’t use any actual footage from the movie.)

If there’s one type of movie you aren’t really expecting to get the found footage treatment, it’s the superhero genre. Nevertheless, here we are, watching a movie called Chronicle. The plot is pretty simple: three high school boys find a glowing something-or-other underground, and shortly thereafter find themselves developing telekinetic powers, including the ability to fly and some limited invulnerability. Power then proceeds to corrupt.

Director Josh Trank is pretty confident with the medium. “Why do they keep filming” is covered by the protagonist, Andrew, buying a video camera as a means of protection against his abusive, drunken father, and continues to play with his new toy. As the story progresses, the camera POV is switched to other cameras, such as a girl really into her vlogging, and security cameras. Andrew is especially adept with his new powers, multi-tasking, and eventually acting as his own camera crane. Andrew’s free-roaming camera practically becomes a character on its own as the story proceeds.

You know things are going to go badly the more we find out about Andrew’s home life; not only a father that uses him for a punching bag (along with the usual stooges at school), but a mother slowly dying of cancer. That’s going to be the tipping point of a life already spiraling out of control: a drug that will alleviate her suffering, but carries with it a $750 co-pay. When the neighborhood thugs don’t have that much, Andrew turns to outright crime, but a limited imagination squashed by a lifetime of crushed dreams leads to purely penny-ante theft and unforseen consequences, which in turn leads to the final, pretty darned apocalyptic confrontation.

The power stuff is pretty heady… if limited by the fact that it’s teenagers, who wind up doing teen-age boy things with them. That part I found pretty realistic, actually. Steve, the aspiring politician, points the way to utilizing the power for the most pragmatic uses, flight and moving cars around. Matt, Andrew’s older cousin, is slowest to master his power but also finds the deepest rewards; his feckless, slacker lifestyle becomes more responsible, he starts connecting with a girl who was once out of league, but is becoming impressed with the man he’s developing into. Matt’s altruism is also developing, but he finds out the depth of Andrew’s personal pain far, far too late.

The story applies the Foreshadowing Brush a little too heavily in a couple of places, but is pretty enjoyable, for the most part. Once more, the found footage format, the slightly stepped-on quality of the video, adds some verisimilitude to the effects. Those effects sometimes betray their digital origins, but mostly look simply amazing to the unsuspecting eye. Not a perfect movie, but a pretty damned good one.

And Josh Trank will be handling the Fantastic Four re-boot. having now seen Chronicle, I can breathe a relieved Thank God.

Then again, here I am in 2016 repairing YouTube links and thinking, “So much for high hopes.”

Oh, I’m finally watching Marble Hornets on YouTube, even if it is pretty much everything people find annoying about these things.

But yeah, I like found footage.

Bring it.