“How are we going to differentiate ourselves from every other shitty found footage movie?”
There are a lot of found footage horror films in existence ‐ most of them seemingly edited for viewing by unseen hands, many of them featuring illogical/impossible “home video” camerawork, a surprising number of them with scores/sound effects added during an incongruous post-production.
And the overwhelming majority of them aren’t worth the effort it takes to press ‘play.’
The found footage (ff going forward) conceit is essentially this: a group of friends/strangers have gone somewhere for some purpose, and while one (or more) of them records their actions for fun/posterity the camera ends up capturing their collective demise at the hands of an evil/angry/irritated enemy leaving the footage to be found and screened at a later date.
The problem with most ff films isn’t in that synopsis but in the laziness of filmmakers who use the format as an excuse to make terrible movies rife with illogical decisions, inconsistent actions, and irritating characters/actors. There are more than a few exceptions to the rule, but more often than not a ff film is a generic, underwhelming, repetitive film to avoid.
Writer/director Steven DeGennaro knows all of this, and he’s stacked his feature debut, Found Footage 3D, with characters who are equally aware. It’s essentially a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a ff film ‐ complete with characters who continually point out the multitude of issues typically present in such films ‐ that itself becomes a ff film. Strong acting and smartly entertaining observations make for a fun watch until it becomes the very thing it’s been criticizing.
A small crew has come together to make a low budget ff horror film, and they think they’ve guaranteed themselves a hit by crafting it as the world’s first ff film shot in 3D. It’s ridiculous, and they know it. Derek (Carter Roy) is the driving force behind Spectre of Death as both the writer and lead actor, and his brother Mark (Chris O’Brien) is along for the ride as cameraman. Their friends Andrew (Tom Saporito) and Carl (Scott Allen Perry) are directing and handling sound, respectively, and they’re joined by an assistant named Lily (Jessica Perrin) and their female actor ‐ and Derek’s estranged ex ‐ Amy (Alena von Stroheim).
Spectre’s story involves a couple with the misfortune of attempting to reconcile their marriage in a remote cabin where a man once murdered his wife, and the dynamic mirrored by Derek and Amy’s failed relationship offers an intriguing setup. (It’s worth wondering why Derek and friends think a ff film with a cast of only two people would work, but hey, Bobcat Goldthwait more than delivered with Willow Creek so we’ll allow it.) As they begin production friction between the leads fuels emotional outbursts, and a supernatural entity begins to make its violent presence known.
The film is at its best when the characters are simply bantering and talking as both the dialogue and acting are of a noticeably higher grade than ff films typically manage. Most ff films spend the majority of their time with characters and performers who annoy us before the action kicks in, but we buy these relationships and interactions and enjoy our time with them. They may not become people we care about necessarily, but they’re far from the mere fodder ff films traditionally trot out to be slaughtered. Their conversations and observations feel real, and their ff critiques/concerns are spot on and often funny.
It works as an aware comedy/drama about a small group of filmmakers making another sure-to-be terrible ff film, but once the horror elements start kicking in any hope for a smart, meta exploration ‐ think Scream or Behind the Mask ‐ are tossed aside in favor of a ff film that makes the very missteps (and more) that they’ve been mocking.
Andrew recommends they use practical effects for their spectre, but Derek wants to go the CG route promising it won’t be “shitty” ‐ but once the real spectre shows itself here it’s via some truly underwhelming digital work. Andrew’s concerned about answering the question as to why their characters would continue to film once the shit hits the fan ‐ but characters here film well past the point of reason including one inexplicable stretch in pitch-black. Footage is edited with sound cues for creepiness, audio that bleeds across video edits, and blurred-out cereal boxes (because apparently even “found footage” needs to be cleared of copyright issues).
The final element shared by Found Footage 3D and far too many ff films is that the damn thing just isn’t scary. That’s not to say there aren’t some cool, bloody horror beats here ‐ one involving a door and a certain well-regarded horror film critic is terrific fun ‐ but the jumps and sound cues don’t ever translate into actual scares.
Some might make the argument that the film intentionally becomes what it’s been mocking ‐ that it’s simply part of the joke ‐ but that makes even less sense. DeGennaro’s verbal skewering of ff films is on point. He knows the format’s issues are frustrating and annoying for viewers, and incorporating them into his own film makes little sense.
Found Footage 3D remains an entertaining watch despite its missteps, and it’s still far better than most ff films as it delivers solid performances, smart observations, and a fun ride. Its horror elements are lacking, but while you’ll never be frightened you’ll also never be bored ‐ and that’s no small accomplishment for a ff film.
[Disclosure: This is a review of the 2D version of the film, and while he may not agree I consider co-star/co-producer Scott Weinberg to be a friend in the real world.]