While some horror fads like Asian remakes and torture porn burned out their popularity relatively quickly, one fad continues to dominate the genre: found footage. Part of the reason that it’s so widely used is because the movies are extremely cheap to make and can result in pretty large profits. However, with this sub-genre’s continued popularity, there are many people (like myself, for example) who don’t like it on the whole.
Our biggest complaint is that, for using presumed realism to increase fear and anxiety, found footage movies are simply not realistic.
But the concern got me thinking: how realistic are found footage movies?
The Answer: Mostly not at all (with a few shining examples to the contrary)
Found footage has been around for decades, including notable mixed-media films like the notorious 1980 video nasty Cannibal Holocaust and even the granddaddy of modern found footage films The Blair Witch Project in 1999. However, the genre didn’t really explode until the 21st century when consumer handheld video cameras because small enough to warrant constant use by the films’ characters.
Unfortunately, it is exactly this approach that makes the apparent realism fall apart. With most of the films falling into the horror category, it is not uncommon for the movies to feature one or more characters carrying the cameras with them through terrifying situations. However, science and common sense suggest that when faced with ghosts, demons, witches, and monsters, the characters would ditch the camera.
This goes back to the “fight or flight” response. From an evolutionary standpoint, animals have developed a very specific reaction to external stress and fear. When a person is in this heightened state, their body prepares for action by pumping hormones into the bloodstream, getting the body ready to fight an opponent or run away. Some of these hormones include corticotrophin, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. This results in an accelerated heart rate and tunnel vision.
A side effect of these hormones is shaking in the limbs, which is why people’s hands seem to shake nervously when they are scared. The immediate biological reaction to a serious threat would be to drop the camera (or maybe to attempt to use it as a weapon). More over, the body stress response also suppresses creative thinking in order for the body to be ready for the more animalistic reactions of fighting or fleeing.
Even professionals such as embedded journalists have to specifically train themselves to keep on task when faced with something dangerous or terrifying. News footage of journalists caught in the middle of military action, as very recently seen in the war documentary The Hornet’s Nest, will often stop filming directly at the action for self-preservation purposes.
Sure, some found footage movies like [REC] (and it’s American counterpart Quarantine) or Ti West’s new film The Sacrament feature journalist characters in these situations, but the average people seen in movies like Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, and Devil’s Due would not have this training. And certainly a character would not be running around the street, foolishly holding their laptop computer in front of her chest like in Paranormal Activity 4.
In addition to unlikely behavior of average people governed by their “fight or flight” response, the language often heard in these films (at least the PG-13 ones) is utter hogwash, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone satirized in their South Park episode “Pandemic 2: The Startling.” Swearing is a natural emotional response and likely behavior for the younger generation featured as characters in these films. Considering that the most popular swear words are “shit” and “fuck,” it’s unlikely in the extreme that a found footage movie situation would result in a film with an automatic PG-13 edit.
Sure, this last point is a bit silly, but it’s significant to consider the manufactured reality of these situations (which already feature ghosts, witches, teens with super powers, and giant kaiju monsters attacking cities).
What about batteries?
Ever since Cloverfied made tons of money and validated found footage films’ blockbuster potential, people have questioned the ability of a video camera to make it through filming all of the scenes. Yes, there are some found footage movies that feature professional video equipment – including the aforementioned [REC], Quarantine, and The Sacrament, as well as The Last Exorcism, Troll Hunter, and Diary of the Dead. These tend to be the better, more realistic films.
Other movies like Devil’s Due, the Paranormal Activity franchise, and Chronicle feature situations in which the characters can recharge and replace batteries as needed.
However, there are still found footage movies that have unnaturally long battery lives. Most consumer-grade camcorders have batteries that will last between 70 and 120 minutes for actual filming. Of course, if the camera isn’t filming, the battery will last longer. However, even if it’s not filming (as seen in Cloverfield), the time between shots can still eat up much of the stored power, still running down in about three hours of being turned on.
But still, this raises the biggest question of them all…
Who, exactly, is assembling all this footage?
Sometimes this is answered in the film itself. For example, in Cloverfield, the leading text on the screen explains this was a dub of a videotape found in the wreckage. Both [REC] and Quarantine are shot on a single news camera, so it’s safe to assume this is what is eventually found on a tape, or at least what would be on the tape if someone could watch it. And while it’s not a horror movie, the odious Project X seems to be an assembly of footage by one camera (even though it has no way of explaining edited music montages, slow motion shots, and various close-ups that would be virtually impossible to capture on the fly).
However, found footage movies start to get in trouble when they bring in other sources. The Paranomral Activity films are an assembly of existing footage, though the disappearing and reappearing VHS tapes from the characters’ past would be a little hard to digitize if they were, in fact, lost. Similarly, the quite well-made V/H/S series feature out-of-place HD and widescreen video that is supposedly found on old VHS tapes with a screen resolution of 240i.
Even recent movies like Lucky Bastard and The Sacrament are an assembly of footage with introductions and endings that frame the context of the story. This is also the problem with The Blair Witch Project because, for all of its viral marketing that helped propel the film to success, it’s unclear who would be editing this footage together.
Still, these are potential, albeit improbable, assemblies. Someone could have edited it all together for a theatrical release. Fair enough.
A new trend in found footage is to bring together footage from pretty much anywhere possible. Devil’s Due assembles footage from a variety of sources, including supermarket security cameras, other people’s Parisian vacations, and some footage that is later lost and presumably destroyed. (At least the filmmakers have acknowledged this flaw and chose to present its impossible structure as is.) Similarly, Chronicle also draws from a variety of impossible sources, including footage from unrelated characters’ cameras, and about 150 smart phones and iPads that conveniently surround the climactic ending battle.
Of course, the worst offender of this is Apollo 18, which features footage from a lost mission to the Moon. The opening titles of the movie explain that the film is edited from 84 hours of film footage taken from that mission. The only problem is… the module crashes at the end of the film. We are left wondering not just who assembled that footage, but how the footage was recovered in the first place.