Friday, April 24, 2015

Why Found Footage Horror Can Work

Hey guys! Let's go buy a video camera so we can film everything!

Awesome. Make sure to film awkward interactions with your family and friends. After all, anyone who gets a video camera is suddenly overcome with a childish, two-year-old-style desire to play with it 24/7 and film every little fucking thing.

We might run into some bad, scary stuff later, but it's okay. That comes with the territory of owning a video camera these days. When you're running away from whatever Eldritch demon you somehow conjured up with your own tomfoolery, you won't drop the camera at all. You won't miss a goddamn thing. And even if you die during your chase, your camera will be found by magical film-fairies who will edit the footage together in a convincing manner AND slap a "Based on a True Story" title card before it all, as if anticipating a major theatrical release. That makes it super real. So real, you guys.

I laid on the sarcasm pretty thick there, but you get what I mean – those are the worst things about found footage films. I've seen a lot of dumb movies that do this shit. I used to be really dead set against this whole style, and it made me miss out on the most interesting things about movies like Paranormal Activity. Recently I've had a kind of change of heart on these kinds of movies – there are still things wrong with them, yeah, but also plenty of ways to do it right.

I've said in the past that these found footage shaky cam movies are a product of who we are as a people right now, and it's true. We are millennials, as much as I personally hate that term after reading one too many think pieces about how we're all lazy fucks, and one thing we do differently than other generations is recording ourselves.

Whether it's Facebook, Twitter or Tinder, we love using the Internet to show off what we find unique about ourselves or how we're feeling. We put ourselves at center stage at all times. These horror films take that and put a morbid twist on it, putting characters at center stage, filming themselves, even as they're dying or coming face to face with horror. That's fine because everyone is like that deep down – we all sorta view ourselves as the main characters of our own films. I don't think that's specific to just millennials.

The point is, this is a trick that can be done well. There are a lot of films like The Devil Inside, Apartment 143, The Taking of Deborah Logan, the last two V/H/S films and plenty of others that do it wrong – they're just shitty scripts and shitty movies, with little creativity or nuance. The camera gimmick is stretched thin in all of them and there isn't enough quality there otherwise to make a difference.

But every once in a while … you get a really good one. People, I'm talking about The Houses October Built.

Director: Bobby Roe
Starring: Brandy Shaefer, Zack Andrews, Bobby Roe, Mikey Roe, Jeff Larson

I guess it's a good thing found footage has kinda been fading out of style recently in favor of artier flicks like Starry Eyes and It Follows, because now we can distinguish The Houses October Built as the kick ass movie that it is. This is a pretty stripped down story about a bunch of friends going on a road trip to do a bunch of haunted houses. As a self-professed lover of haunted houses myself, I was all over this shit.

It's just a well done movie. The dialogue feels realistic and you get to like the characters, who really just act like regular people you'd see at your job or at a local band's show or whatever else. That takes some talent to do.

The scares come slow and creepy. You really get a sense for the atmosphere at these haunted houses, which I understand were all real places the cast members went and filmed interviews at. It's playful ambiance, and transitions almost seamlessly into the scary bits through little, eerie moments here and there. The pacing is very good in this. When the scary shit does start happening like a landslide, it feels natural and you do actually feel as claustrophobic as these characters, trapped in horrible places.

Since the topic of this article is the found footage, well, the handheld camera perspective actually works for the movie. You get a sense of being right there with these people. The interviews with haunted house cast members are also cool and add a spice to it that a lot of these movies miss – very individual.

I guess some of the scenes on their RV feel a bit silly when they constantly have the camera on, like even at breakfast. Maybe a better idea would be having those parts as a normal movie without the camera, but I guess for that 'realistic' effect, it's not too bad - still better than the ways some movies do it, mostly due to the realism of the dialogue and how much you end up liking these people.

That's really a minor thing though, and overall there are comparatively few moments that feel really forced or silly with the camera – certainly no Paranormal Activity moments where they grab the fucking camera before going to see if someone needs help. And there are actually a few times later on when they do turn the camera off when they're asked to for secret haunted house business. That's really something more of these movies should try – it leaves the imagination wanting more and it's actually realistic. Most of the time, people in real life aren't gonna want you filming everything.

The really scary moments at the end feel extra seedy, dank and creepy as fuck with the low-res camera lens and the realistic audio, so points for that.

People will have mixed reactions to this, and if you don't like American haunted houses and that kind of shit, you might not get it. But I think it's one of the better movies of its style out there. It's on Netflix, so you can go watch it right now. You know, unless you don't have Netflix or something like that. In that case, I guess you're fucked. Sorry.

Found footage horror isn't dying out yet, and I actually think they're getting better now than they were in the mid-to-late 2000s. This one is my favorite I've seen recently, but other ones like Grave Encounters and The Den, despite having problems, are certainly worth a cursory view if nothing else. So don't write off the style yet even if you hated all of these movies I've mentioned. It might come out with something that interests you eventually; you never know.

Images copyright of their original owners; I own none of them.