Found footage movies are in the zeitgeist again, even though many thought it was a one trick idea with The Blair Witch Project. But the enormous cost to profit margins of the Paranormal Activity movies launched the trend again, and it crossed over to other genres as well, like the comedy Project X, and the superhero movie Chronicle.
Whether it’s a horror story or a comedy, the idea is simple. An event happens, it’s been documented on video, and once the footage is found and watched, it tells the story of the event. The idea of a found footage movies seems so simple, you’d think anyone could do it. In fact, that’s been the appeal for many filmmakers: it’s a simpler, and much cheaper, way to make a movie.
Some feel that Blair Witch had a punk, DIY sensibility that proved to young directors they didn’t need a lot of fancy, schmantzy equipment to make a movie. As Josh Leonard, who starred in the film, told the L.A. Times, “It was like when you and your buddies were 14 and you heard a Germs album and you’re like, ‘I could do that.’”
Paramount has a number of found footage projects in development, and as the President of the studio, Adam Goodman, told Deadline, “I believe it’s something that’s here to say. It’s a terrific medium for filmmakers. They don’t see the medium as a barrier to entry. They don’t care about shaky cameras. For whatever reason, it just makes for a much more visceral experience for the audience.”
At least one horror director complained to me that doing a found footage movie makes directors lazy, but in several found footage horror films it took a lot of work to make it look like no work went into it at all. Since the late sixties, documentary techniques and cinema verite became a big part of making horror films effective.
Night of the Living Dead may have been the first in this regard with its frantic camerawork, and fake newsreel footage that helped make the event seem more plausible. And as Dan O’Bannon, the late screenwriter of Alien, said of horror films that were shot on a budget, the lack of professional polish makes them feel far more removed from Hollywood. Like demented home movies, you have the feeling the people behind the camera aren’t bound by any restraints and could show you anything.
Blair Witch was shot on Hi-8, which is essentially a step above VHS, and it definitely gave it that demented home movie feel, but it was actually a European horror flick shot on 16mm that first started the found footage concept, namely 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust.