Thirteen years is a long time in filmmaking; in 1960, Psycho so shocked audiences that the Observer’s film critic resigned for good in protest. 1973 saw The Exorcist, a film that reignited mainstream horror and had its fair share of gore along the way. By 1986, George A. Romero had completed his trio of zombie films, concluding with The Day of the Dead and in 1999 The Blair Witch Project took Cannibal Holocaust’s found footage style and fashioned a revolutionary but supremely effective horror movie on a shoestring budget.
Cut to 2012: Paranormal Activity 4 has just been released, following on from The Devil Inside, Grave Encounters 2, REC 3, Chernobyl Diaries and V/H/S. Found footage has become the de facto choice for horror filmmakers and the world is a worse place for it.
This is not to say that found footage films are always ineffective, or just a fad. That would do a disservice to a number of quality releases over the last decade or so. Blair Witch was obviously a highlight and the original REC has also emerged as a classic horror movie, while Paranormal Activity was deservedly successful. The Norwegian Troll Hunter was another excellent foreign language addition and Cloverfield was perfectly passable fare, if uninspired.
Unfortunately, these films represent a dwindling minority of the rapidly growing genre. Back in 1999, making a found footage film was a real statement of intent. It was original and daring, and only people with a real vision about what they wanted to achieve would do so. There was no such thing as a bog-standard found footage film when Blair Witch came out, and it was clear that the creators had crafted something meticulously in order to achieve maximum scares.
Nowadays, found footage has become a byword for uninspired rubbish. If a studio wants a low budget horror film, it has become the first port of call. The benefits are clear: the films are incredibly cheap to make, and there is clearly a large market for even the worst films, as The Devil Inside showed when it took over $100m. Its rating of 7% on Rotten Tomatoes equates to around $20m for every good review.
Part of the problem may be the prevalence of the genre. A number of found footage films begin by telling people that what they are about to see is real, a technique that loses effectiveness the more often it is repeated. Similarly, a limited number of storylines mean that new films often tread old ground. There is also the problem that found footage leaves little room for visual flair.
The main problem, though, is that recent releases are just incredibly lazy. A rash of sequels is rarely a good sign and Paranormal Activity 4 is no exception, being the latest in a line of hopelessly formulaic features. One can only hope that Berberian Sound Studio’s novel use of sound earlier this year will inspire filmmakers to try something different, rather than sticking with an increasingly tedious formula.
PHOTO/devilintheflesh, Pamelia McClintock