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The Found Footage Phenomenon (15)

Director: Phillip Escott, Sarah Appleton
Screenplay: Phillip Es
cott, Sarah Appleton

Starring: Ruggero Deodato, Oren Peli, Eduardo Sanchez

Review: David Stephens

"Found Footage" horror movies have had their ups and downs over the past 60 (yes, 60) years or so. From the "most profitable movie ever made" (namely The Blair Witch Project) to the reinvigoration of the subgenre by Paranormal Activity, and then the umpteen unholy POV possession films spawned by The Last Exorcism and similar movies. It's been a mixed bag, to be sure, but then again, so is any subgenre. What's the betting that the number of "bad" Westerns and Rom-Coms far outweigh the "good" ones to some extent? So it's a shame that some mainstream studios either look at this format as simply an exercise in profit or the "poor man" of cinema. Many moviegoers have also become frazzled by one crap film too many or swore off the subgenre due to motion sickness. But whatever your feelings, FF films are more important than you know, and they've been around for longer than you think.


Somewhat appropriately, this new "Shudder Original" has been directed & written & produced & edited by accomplished film documentarians and feature makers Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott. Called The Found Footage Phenomenon and accompanied by a typically Giallo-esque score by Simon Boswell, it played the genre festival circuit (Frightfest, Fantastic, Sitges) at the latter end of 2021. It's a standard "talking heads" documentary covering the (very) wide range of the FF films, their history in modern cinema, their evolution, and their future. Happily, it also plays plenty of clips from the classic and lesser-known examples of the subgenre, with some of them being surprisingly strong in nature.


Perhaps the best thing that this offering has over similar documentaries is that it's made by people who know exactly what they're talking about and filmmakers who share interesting opinions and tales. So you will get a chunk of time with Eduardo Sanchez talking about the marketing that made The Blair Witch Project a hit and Ruggero Deodato repeating the story about being taken to court because the police thought he had actually killed the cast. But pleasingly, you'll also get some alternative opinions and dissertations on the nature of FF films, as well as some well-deserved recognition for such FF landmarks as the BBC's Ghostwatch, Man Bites Dog, Paranormal Activity, and Rec, as well as under-appreciated gems like "Frankenstein's Army" and "Afflicted".


For arguably appropriate reasons, mockumentaries and other forms of POV cinema (David Holzman's Diary) are included under the FF umbrella (meaning that Lake Mungo gets its moment in the sun). But it's also enlightening to realise that Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960… there's those 60 years) is probably the first FF horror as we know it, with the audience watching the filmed deaths of the victims as POV. That sense of compliance is perhaps why it was so vilified at the time. It is also mooted that a fun film like What We Do in the Shadows is technically a FF horror as well! There are plenty of other interesting points made, with George Romero's and Brian De Palma's FF offerings being discussed.


The list of contributors to this project is pretty impressive, along with the expected input from filmmakers like Sanchez and Deodato; there's also Stephen Volk (Ghostwatch), André Øvredal (Trollhunter), Lance Weiler (The Last Broadcast), Michael Goi (Megan is Missing), Derek Lee (Afflicted), and many more besides. As is typical of these types of docs, there are some choice quotes and stories to be told. Weiler speaks about the similarities between Blair and Broadcast with a great analogy ("If you send one hundred monkeys up a mountain with typewriters,… two of them will come down with the same script"). Øvredal addresses why he hasn't done another FF film. Goi reveals the very different reactions that males and females have towards Megan.


FFP manages to be entertaining and thoughtful at the same time, as all the good film docs are. You'll see a discussion about how directors answer the most common question that nags at viewers (why do protagonists never stop filming!). They are divided on whether FFs come in "waves" or "peaks or troughs", but everyone agrees that they DO keep coming, and they will continue to do so. The future of the subgenre directly relates to technological advancements and the creativity of new filmmakers. As camcorders and security cameras revolutionised it, contributors point to zoom and the success of IT screen-based horrors such as Host and Unfriended. This probably won't make you a FF aficionado if you dislike the format. But all film fans should enjoy the history lesson, BTS stories, and musings about the techniques. Now screening on Shudder in both the UK and USA, the streaming channel is building up quite an impressive archive of engaging documentaries.

An incisive, enjoyable, and entertaining exploration of the subgenre of Found Footage, it proves conclusively that it neither started nor ended with "Blair Witch". It is nicely packaged with plenty of relevant (and "strong") footage from the classics, this may not convert you to the format, but it will enlighten you about its importance to horror.
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