With an announced production budget of under $2 million, The Last Exorcism undoubtedly won big this weekend, pulling in an estimated $21 million. Numbers like that get noticed and, unfortunately, get undeserved sequels greenlit. I openly admit to walking into The Last Exorcism with a prejudice: I don’t like fake documentaries or “found footage” films. It’s a tired trick. Hollywood doesn’t mind them though, because one mediocre weekend turns a big profit, and the film can be sent immediately to DVD.
We’ve seen films like The Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity use this formula to great success on limited budgets.
Since I’m not a Hollywood executive, I don’t really give a damn if they make a ton of money. There are more entertaining ways to earn it, like just releasing more medium budget horror movies. Or releasing horror movies on Halloween. But I digress. I don’t like faux documentaries or found footage films because they rarely work and they’re never even close to real.
Of course they can’t be real, I get that. Giant sea monsters have never attacked New York (or so says the government) and witches don’t live in the woods. Blair Witch was probably one of the last films to ever be able to play the “this might be real card.” There was a good hype around it, and the footage was somewhat convincing. More convincing though, was the lack of a name on it.
No one is going to buy The Last Exorcism as a real documentary because Eli Roth’s name is slapped on it. We already know we’re going into a movie, not a documentary, so we have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Sure, a movie can excel in this format (Man Bites Dog), but more often than not it’s just drivel, and for a few reasons.
I’m going to briefly break down why I’m tired of faux documentaries. Come along for the ride. In no particular order:
- You market it like you’ve just found some awesome footage. But then you hire Milla Jovovich or get Eli Roth to produce. This is our first clue that you’re lying to us about this footage actually being real. Because real actors don’t get paid to act in home movies that someone found in an upstairs closet.
- They always lack a narrator. With few exceptions, documentaries have narrators speaking over them, explaining what the film is about. Or, they have text narration. Not just name cards and location titles. Documentaries are out to explain something, not be mysterious.
- They always lack a point. Like I mentioned above, documentaries are supposed to document something or make a statement. They’re not video shots of people running around filming stuff willy-nilly. Found footage is the exception.
- They’re edited incorrectly. Look. If it’s just found footage, there won’t be a narrative. It will be tons of random filming, most of it bullshit. Just look at any celebrity sex tape: fifteen minutes of sex and four hours of Tommy Lee blowing a boat horn with his dick. Even worse is the faux documentary that descends into madness: someone is editing this. If you had video footage that proved the existence of aliens, or demons, or cults, or whatever, you would cut the movie about that. You wouldn’t make it a movie about 50 boring minutes of getting to know some guy – you cut right to the massive fire demon, or make it about that. You don’t slow tease someone to the answer of “Does God Exist” by showing parlor tricks first. You wouldn’t cut in scenes of a priest making jokes and revealing his secrets with what is honest to goodness demon possession. That just doesn’t make sense. Documentaries are supposed to be about truth (Michael Moore excluded-zing!) while movies are about lies (fiction). You don’t edit documentaries to fool the audience. You edit them to enlighten.
- They all have the same crew setup. At a bare minimum, a crew in these movies is a camera man and on air talent. Some throw in a sound person for ‘added realism.’ Whatever.
- No crew member does their job well. In The Last Exorcism the sound woman is often seen not holding her boom, not anywhere near the action, and not recording sound at all. Yet throughout the movie, near perfect sound is captured. Sure, some cameras can capture sound – but a lot don’t. If you have a dedicated sound person running recording equipment, you use that instead. So when she’s off doing jack-all, the audio quality should suffer tremendously, or be absent. Even worse is the camera man. If a giant sea monster or a resurrected demon appeared, you wouldn’t get crowd reaction shots. Look at any real video of violence or tragedy. You point the camera at the “OH SHIT” object and leave it there. Also, when someone starts chasing you, you drop the 20lb shoulder cam and run like a mother fucker.
- One camera covers one angle. This is actually at odds with the last one, because somehow a single camera man always manages to get a big diverse range of coverage, from multiple angles, all without missing sync on the subject’s talking. Without the aide of teleportation, you can’t have two different angles of someone speaking cut so that you never lose synch of them speaking. The camera guy needs time to move across the room, so without seeing his movement or pan, he somehow just appeared somewhere new.
I would be very, very impressed if a movie made the bold choice of obeying the rules of a documentary. Hollywood loves the shock ending, though, so I doubt they ever will. I mean, think about it Bigfoot were real. You wouldn’t cut together some laughs, some searching, some crying, and then at the end show a ten second clip of Bigfoot. You’d take all that footage and create a story about finding Bigfoot, not some meandering journey.
The way found footage and faux documentaries are edited is just too movie like. Why not make a movie and show us the monster then? Why take this route? If you really want to do a found footage flick, shoot it super guerrilla style. Make it make sense for what it is. Hell, you could even use shittier cameras and we’d forgive some shitty acting because it’s more real. Focus the camera on the strange event. Use terrible sound. Make it real.
I’m sure someone will make the argument that the film could be edited that way. It wouldn’t make all that much sense, but it could be. Fine. But if Hollywood wants to play with this format, play with it. Experiment. Get lower quality video cameras. Get terrible sound. Have it drop in and out. Take all the ugly tediousness and mistakes of home videos and use them to your advantage. And finally figure out humans are two things: fuck ups (hence all the mistakes) and visual. They will aim the camera at the monster, not their unrequited love.
Maybe it’s just me, and I hope it’s not, but I’ve had enough of this faux documentary bullshit. There are some great fake documentaries out there (This Is Spinal Tap) that work because they take themselves seriously and explore the format. But ones that verge too much on fiction and rely too much on surprise and mystery lack the connection to the audience that makes them believe, temporarily even, that this is real. Train a camera on me right now and I’ll give some real emotion: Rage, because I’m past my boiling point.
Look straight into the camera and tell me your thoughts. Don’t mind me teleporting, I just need coverage.