The "found footage" genre is perhaps the most divisive sub-genre of horror. While the concept––(the presentation of fictional recorded footage that functions as a grim document––seems like a match made in heaven for moviegoers seeking a thrill, the majority of examples in the genre don't seem to have a lasting impact and are typically considered poor. The main problem, I believe, has everything to do with how easy it is to make a "found footage" film. One doesn't have to be a good filmmaker to make one, similar to how one doesn't have to be a good filmmaker to make a spoof comedy. Being a good filmmaker certainly helps, but most are films created by people who likely didn't know what they were doing yet knew enough about the genre to abide by the standards.
This is why the majority of these films tend to be nothing more than an excuse for folks to sit down and watch eighty minutes of cheap jump scares and bad camerawork. If you disorient the viewer, they won't know what's happening, and isn't it so much scarier when the viewer has no clue what's going on? Doesn't that make it scary? The fact that they just don't know what they're looking at? Isn't it just, like, crazy scary when the camera is looking around too fast, and every shot is out-of-focus so that even if the viewer wanted to see what was happening, they couldn't? Isn't it scary to watch nothing but blurry images of people running around screaming and getting their limbs cut off?
Well...not to me. In fact, I think most of these films tend to be more ugly, depressing, and unappealing than they are scary. Plus, let's face it. If we were getting our limbs removed, we probably wouldn't want to film it. I could probably count the number of truly effective films in the genre on one hand (maybe two if I tried hard enough). The most compelling of all these films is, arguably, Ghostwatch. For those who are unfamiliar, Ghostwatch was a made-for-TV movie that aired on BBC1 in 1992 on Halloween night. The film is presented as a television special, hosted by Sir Michael Parkinson, that details the paranormal happenings which befall a family in Northolt, Greater London.
Pam and her two children, Kim and Suzanne, appear to be experiencing paranormal phenomena, which interviewer Sarah Greene, one of the only two hosts that believe in the supernatural, describes as being "so awful that they would rather sleep out on the streets than in their own home." The other believer is Lin Pascoe, a "parapsychologist" who has spent much time working with the family and insists that she's seen marvelous things. The program starts innocently enough, with a lot of cheeky sarcasm and several members of the crew who, naturally, find the whole concept silly and employ a rather hokey presentation, including Parkinson. Almost everyone, in fact, seems to be trying to make the most out of a rather thankless project and makes no secret of their skepticism. We get to see a lot of the cool technology they're using, including motion sensors and night vision. There's even a prank jump scare, which is cheap and probably encouraged some children watching at home to check out early.
We are told some eerie stories of a presence in the home that assaults Suzanne, leaving several cuts on her body. Suzanne has also experienced demonic possession. The voice she uses while possessed is proven to be a separate voice recorded on audio. We, of course, get to listen to it. The possibility arises that Suzanne, an introvert, is being victimized due, in part, to her dysfunctional upbringing which makes her ideal prey for an entity who feeds off negative energy. Kim describes the entity as a bald-headed man with a swollen bloody eye socket wearing a pink petticoat. She calls the ghost "Pipes" because of the pipe-like noises it makes. Pam, at one point, recounts the experience of being locked in a room under the stairs by "Pipes." Concerned members of the community are also interviewed. People have disappeared, animals have been murdered, fetuses have been scattered around the graveyard premises––the usual stuff.
Meanwhile, the people at the studio continue to have a debate about the science of the supernatural and take increasingly worrisome calls from viewers. Eventually, Sarah expresses some discomfort in waiting in silence for so long. Around this time, at about the halfway mark in the program, mayhem unfolds very fast. The camera equipment receives more and more interference, weird abrasions appear, household objects move around, loud noises occur, and there's even the temporary relief that it might all just be a hoax before we plummet back down into the bowels of hell. It is soon discovered that this ghost is, in fact, a poltergeist. As Suzanne states, at one point, "they got what they wanted."
Ghostwatch is a jolting piece of work. In fact, I must admit that I was a little nervous about rewatching it, initially. Sadly, like almost every "found footage" film, it loses its effectiveness on repeat viewing. This doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't still effective. In fact, it's an absolute masterpiece when it comes to developing a taut, foreboding atmosphere of pessimism and hopelessness. What astounds me about Ghostwatch, however, is its mastery of a formula and how it manages to exceed at doing what so many horror films continue to fail at doing. The lost sense of control here is exceptionally well done to the point where I actually got goosebumps, despite having seen it all before. The claustrophobia required for this to work is pulled off using security cameras that have been set up around the house. The cameras add what at first appears to be a safety net, but, by the end of the film, they add to the horror when we see characters hopelessly wandering around in the dark. While this technique was used to chilling effect in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, here it is done in a more familiar setting. The safety and comfort of the home is suddenly turned into a death trap, and that's where I think Ghostwatch succeeds where so many others fail. The best horror films explore real fears, and what's more real than being attacked in the dark?
What adds to the horror of this film, also, are its real-world implications. In fact, when Ghostwatch premiered, many people thought what it depicted was real. Like Orson Wells with War of the Worlds, this film had an impact on the real world; terrified people called the network and complained about things that were happening in their homes as they were watching it. The TV was acting funny. Odd noises were being heard. Subliminal imagery was appearing on the screen. Yes, this film used subliminal imagery of the man in the petticoat. Viewers claimed to have seen him hiding behind the curtain at the beginning of the program, and while the debate rages on as to where he appears and where he doesn't, I will say, on rewatch, one of the scariest things I experienced was the sensation of seeing things that weren't there. The power of DVD, of course, permits me to be able to rewind the film and see if I was just seeing things. In most cases I was. In one case, however, I was not, and unfortunately, it was during one of the scariest moments in the film.
The Blair Witch Project is the only other horror film of this kind that played with my senses in this way. While Ghostwatch, stayed true to the traditions of horror and made effective use out of known tropes and concepts, The Blair Witch Project threw them all out the window in an attempt to reinvent the genre. The Blair Witch Project created a kind of mythology behind its presentation, and that's what makes that film especially exciting to revisit. One could easily argue that Ruggero Deodato did what Ghostwatch did eleven years prior with his Cannibal Holocaust. The truth is, though, that Cannibal Holocaust is not the same kind of horror film. It is not a "found footage" film. In fact, it's a horror film that makes use of the "found footage" aesthetic. Cannibal Holocaust doesn't rely on it as much as it uses it as a way of exploring sensationalism in the media. Cannibal Holocaust uses graphic imagery to elicit horror, which is a perfectly legitimate way to approach making a horror film.
As far as I know, the precedent for "found footage" horror is Ghostwatch. I don't believe that The Blair Witch Project would exist without it. One film that is occasionally credited as the inspiration for The Blair Witch Project is The Last Broadcast, but I feel that particular film owes more to Ghostwatch as well. In comparing the presentation, the two function as fictional extensions of reality television concepts. Ghostwatch is presented as a paranormal investigation show (before they even existed in the way they do now) and The Last Broadcast is presented as a true crime documentary. Meanwhile, The Blair Witch Project is presented as the found footage of three kids lost in the woods. The three concepts couldn't be any more different, but the real world implications of Ghostwatch ensure it stands the test of time. There are still a lot of people who believe in ghosts, and, while I can't say that I do, in the time I spent watching Ghostwatch, I sure as hell did.