Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott assemble a can’t-miss congregation of filmmakers and critics to determine just why audiences want to believe in the reality of horror
While any horror discourse is guaranteed to provoke fiercely held opinions, there’s likely no question that will be as immediately polarizing as asking what horror fans think of found footage horror films. Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott’s new documentary The Found Footage Phenomenon dives headfirst into these murky waters, suggesting that while our personal verdicts on the genre may be nearly instantaneous, fully unpacking them may be a more nuanced and involving matter altogether. Unlike any other genre of horror, found footage directly attacks the viewers’ sense of reality–building off of our everyday lives, convincing us of how true they are…while slowly slipping in the otherworldly, the fantastic, or the bloodcurdlingly violent. The lack of score, polish, or anything demarcating a piece of fiction becomes as much of a weapon as it is a stylistic choice–with our barriers between true and false ripped asunder, we become as much a participant in our own terror as much as we are an eager audience. Some reject this approach entirely, highlighting a lack of craft or forced storytelling limitations. Other fans (like yours truly) revel in the experience, an opportunity to be further immersed in horror storytelling like nothing else.
The Found Footage Phenomenon leaves no stone unturned in navigating the philosophical and creative minefields the genre has created in the decades since the filmmakers behind Cannibal Holocaust, The Last Broadcast, and The Blair Witch Project popularized unearthing their supposedly real tapes. Much like fellow Fantastic Fest doc Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched from Kier-La Janisse, Appleton and Escott’s tenacity in exploring every aspect of found footage brings together an unparalleled roster of academics and filmmakers from around the globe who are more than eager to dissect this bizarre reclusive stepchild of horror cinema. Creators of genre staples Blair Witch, Last Broadcast, REC, Ghostwatch, Noroi, Paranormal Activity, and Troll Hunter are all assembled here, in addition to those behind more deep cuts like Megan is Missing, The McPherson Tape, Hate Crime, and Afflicted, to newer classics like Host, Found Footage 3D, and beyond. Much of The Found Footage Phenomena feels like a meandering yet tightly focused trip down memory lane as these creatives reveal the secrets behind the films’ origins and executions, with many of these films’ simultaneous productions leading to competing narratives over who was the first to pull off which storytelling device and why.
What unites these filmmakers, though, is a fearless dedication to scaring their audience using only what’s at hand. While it’s a decision that’s often borne out of budget and necessity, it’s one that only heightens the amount of dread and terror these films are capable of. From the shot of a man standing in a corner in Blair Witch to faces lingering in the corner of a still frame in Lake Mungo, some of the scariest and impactful moments of the genre are those that do so much with so little. While big-budget horror films can spare no expense at blood and gore, The Found Footage Phenomenon argues that found footage horror uses their audience’s sense of voyeurism and perceived authenticity against them to inspire true fear. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an unseen apparition dragging us out of bed or suddenly coming across an impaled girl in the jungle–no matter how much or little time or money is spent on the shot, there’s still that split second where our lizard brains feel like these moments are real.
And like these brain-tickling moments of found footage, the most intriguing parts of The Found Footage Phenomenon are the sequences where Appleton and Escott dig into the psychology of why this genre remains so viscerally effective to audiences today. Appleton and Escott’s argument is twofold–whether we love or hate found footage, audiences are naturally drawn to the appearance of reality, while also being keenly aware of anytime that sense of constructed reality feels false. Technological changes in how we record the world around us lead to booms of found footage–from the new availability of camcorders in The McPherson Tape to primetime simulcasts in Ghostwatch to the lockdown-imposed Zoom meetings of Host. As an unintended consequence of capitalizing on new media, each of these films captures their unique zeitgeist–creating a time capsule of how and why we relied on these modes of reality at any given point.
That’s what’s ultimately so fascinating about this genre, and Appleton and Escott’s love letter of a documentary. Whether you love or hate found footage, each of these films also captures an irreplaceable spirit of their era of horror and the audience who craved these films. While some classic horror films feel timeless, no other genre of horror is so rooted in its own moment–rising and ebbing like increasingly mercurial tides as technologies and audiences and both cinema and the horror genre change to survive as a result. As the years pass and tropes and tech fall out of pop culture favor–found footage films dare to remind us that the past might not be as distant as we want to believe. The Found Footage Phenomenon unabashedly celebrates this much-maligned genre–and revives classics and buried treasure titles alike for future audiences to discover for themselves…if they dare.
The Found Footage Phenomenon has its U.S. Premiere at Fantastic Fest on Thursday, September 23rd. The film will also be available on the Fantastic Fest @ Home Virtual Platform for 48 hours beginning Friday, October 1st. A U.S. distributor is in the works!