One of the reasons that the Blair Witch Project is such a memorable film in the legacy of the horror genre is due to the fact that it easily popularized the found footage concept. Now, the 1999 feature isn’t the first movie to document in the found footage style. Cannibal Holocaust is a well-known cult classic that used the found footage format. The use of this genre actually goes way back into the early 60’s with a drama movie called The Connection – which is about a director trying to film a group of junkies waiting for a Cowboy to bring their heroin connection – is reportedly considered the first film to adapt this nature of filmmaking. Since Blair Witch Project popularized the genre, the rise of found footage considerably grew with notably features such as Cloverfield, V/H/S, Chronicle, Creep, Unfriended, and Paranormal Activity some of the more prominent features to use this style. While the genre certainly does come with some great films, there are a lot more clunkers that crowd the specific category. Here’s the thing, no genre in filmmaking is without its bad movies. Sci-fi, Action, Drama, Thriller, Comedy, there’s not one of these that lacks a multitude of lame films. However, the found footage sub-genre is a specialty that should only be showcased it small doses.
Whether you thought The Blair Witch Project was scary or not, the film is a good example of how to properly make a found footage feature. It wasn’t just the genius marketing that made the film feel realistic, but Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez created a suspension of belief that made the footage seem real and less hokey. Sure, there are moments where you question why the camera is even on at this time, but even the suspension of disbelief is few and far in-between. Paranormal Activity actually did a solid job of elevating the concept as well, and while the typical found footage issues still remain, the style of filmmaking actually helped with the overall atmosphere and scares of the world that was being portrayed onscreen. Both Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project felt personal and intimate, allowing audiences to deeply connect with the characters because it could easily be one of us trapped within that situation. That’s what makes the found footage gimmick so special in the first place. Even Unfriended – a movie I don’t consider scary – manages to tap into that notion. It plays off the modern social media craze and granted, there are a lot of plot holes and moments that don’t make sense (How did the ghost get footage of Blaire and Adam having sex?), but it’s a film that invades our privacy and sends shivers down on spines because we feel violated. However, the core issue with the found footage concept is that it more often than not detracts from movies who don’t particularly need it.
Chronicle is a good film, but the found footage concept wasn’t necessary. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it feels forced. That’s pretty much how most bad found footage movies are. The moments fail to feel organic and the concept itself is pretty limiting on what you can do. That’s a big part of why Chronicle’s gimmick rarely feels organic because it comes across as an origin superhero story forced to follow the rules of the found footage gimmick. The Paranormal Activity franchise lost its luster due to the situations becoming gimmicky and ridiculous. It’s hard to create something new under the guise of this concept. Every now and then, a film will be a breath of fresh air in the tired sub-genre, with Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching being the recent film to breathe new life into the concept. So, should the entire found footage gimmick end? Have we seen the last of originality within the specialty genre? I don’t particularly think that sub-genre as a whole should be put to rest; however, filmmakers should really be more aware on whether it’s necessary to begin with. Take out the found footage aspects of Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project and you leave out one of the biggest characteristics that make these two films unique. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows is such a failure. Well, that and the fact it’s just a bad movie all around. I don’t particularly think that Searching will be the last feature to use the gimmick in a unique and original manner. Making a found footage film requires a high level of skill that can really make a movie special if done right. The concept doesn’t need to end, but filmmakers need to be smarter on the way they use the format.