The found footage genre in horror (and it’s almost exclusively used in horror, for reasons we’ll get into in a second) is divisive, to say the least. Some find the first-person POV perspective to be nausea-inducing, some find it to be a crutch that poor storytellers lean on, some think it’s the most gimmicky method of presenting horror to come along since the old “we bought you life insurance in case you die of fright while watching our film” promotion, while still others find that it brings horror out of the realm of cheesy slasher films and into a realm of heightened realism.I’m usually in the latter camp. I’ve never been the biggest horror aficionado; the Freddy Kruegers and Jason Voorhees of the world have always struck me as more ridiculous than thrilling. There’s something about the artifice of horror films that have always made me laugh at them, whether it’s the comically elaborate deaths, the abundance of cliche, or the emphasis on violence over atmosphere. That isn’t to say that they aren’t effective at times: I’m as susceptible to jump scares as the next guy, and films that heavily emphasizing spooky surroundings over shocking moments (think the creepy first half of Event Horizon, for one) can certainly make my skin crawl.
It wasn’t until found footage films started popping up that I really found my stride with horror films, though. As the Besties entry on The Blair Witch Project will indicate, I found that film to be a uniquely terrifying one when it arrived, and new found footage films have arrived with varying regularity over the last decade. Some people enjoy sports comedies, some buy every political drama that comes out: I find myself in the odd position of greatly enjoying a sub-genre of a genre I don’t particularly care for.
Found footage works because of the interesting ways in which the subgenre plays with notions of artifice and authenticity. In most films, breaking the fourth wall is taboo. Everyone in the audience knows that they’re watching a film that was scripted and acted and shot on camera, and that even the two beautiful actors kissing in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean look alone, they were in fact just a few feet off the shore of Hawaii and buffeted by hundreds of crew members just on the other side of the camera. We push that knowledge to the back of our minds, though, for the sake of a suspension of disbelief without which filmgoing is effectively a joyless endeavour in appreciating a craft.
Found footage films, on the other hand, go to great lengths to ensure that you know at all times that you are watching a film. References to camera batteries and the amount of film the filmmakers have left and how the sound quality is are pervasive. The actual filmmakers, the people who have conceived of the fiction of the film and written the script, subsume themselves to the fake filmmaker, the cameraperson inside the film who records the supposed events that transpire, for the sake of making it easier for you to believe that those events actually transpired. Things can get meta: there is both "The Blair Witch Project," the collection of film that the families of the dead students watched and edited together, and there's also The Blair Witch Project, the film that Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick directed and released into theaters.
It’s a reversal of our normal engagement with a film: the act of showing the process of filmmaking, the nuts and bolts of recording with a camera, is intended to solidify our belief in occurances that might otherwise look ridiculously low-budget or cheesy in a more traditional filmmaking style. It’s another kind of appeal to authority, really: these events, no matter how unreal they might seem, were really recorded on film, and are thus more believable than the special effects and CGI of traditional films. We know, intellectually, that traditional horror films are recorded with cameras, but those films go to great lengths to pretend that they’re not; by showing you their cards right up front, found footage horror forces itself into a documentary attitude. Despite the many, many ways in which we’re told images can lie, there’s still a part of us, or at least of me, that believes in the ultimate authority of film, and perhaps that’s why found footage affects me as much as it does.
All of which is why found footage is so rare in non-horror/sci-fi genres. There are mockumentaries, which share similar themes, but for the most part, we don't need the framework of a false documentary to believe in the events of a drama, or a romance, or an action film. Their events are, if implausible, rarely impossible. With horror, though, the theoretical gains to realism that can be found by forcing an audience to take on a cameraman's point of view - a realism enforced by exposure to decades of media - can often mean the difference between a low-budget scare working or not working.
I’m not saying that found footage is the ultimate form of horror films, simply that I have a lot of affection for it that I don’t have for the usual serial-killer fare. Part of that might also be its relative scarcity. Found footage films, while often massively profitable given adequate marketing (thanks to being dirt-cheap to produce), only come along once or twice a year, which is fine by me. Any more than that and whatever makes them special would likely fade over time, until I’d likely be as tired of them as I am of other horror films.
I know there are plenty of you who aren’t as infatuated with found footage as I am, though; going back to read the comments on The Last Exorcism surprised me when I saw how many people hated it. Does it just not work for you? Do you need higher production values to suspend your disbelief? Or do the cheapness of the films involved and their low-budget effects put you off?