A Short History of the Found Footage Horror Film

Here’s an article I wrote for the arthouse Irish streaming service Volta in conjunction with their release of the excellent Willow Creek.

With the release of Willow Creek independent Bobcat Goldthwait’s venture into horror and the found footage sub-genre. To celebrate Bren Murphy takes a look at the brief history of the found footage horror film.

The earliest example of a found footage horror film is Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980). The film doesn’t use the format all the way through but rather adapts it in the third act using traditional narrative at first to tell us of how a New York University anthropologist goes into the Amazon rainforest to find a missing documentary crew but returns only with their footage. He brings the footage back to New York to view, the rest of the film is that footage. We’re treated to an “unedited” documentary on cannibal tribes, showing the manipulation the crew uses between takes, artificially creating situations to film how the tribe reacts. Their methods however backfire and the true horror of angry cannibal tribe is caught on film. Cannibal Holocaust was an extremely controversial film, it used real life slaughter of animals and human death that was so realistic the filmmakers were arrested and made prove they didn’t actually kill anyone. It’s a tough watch and is really only for fans of extreme cinema, which is probably why this wasn’t the birth of new wave in the genre and a horror found footage film wouldn’t hit screens again until 1999 with The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Some of the earliest screenings of The Blair Witch Project where in fact on VHS tapes passed around college campuses, viewers sat down to watch the footage showing three students’ footage as they made their documentary about the fabled Blair Witch of Burkittsville, Maryland. The students end up getting lost in the local woods and seemingly stalked by an unseen force. After watching the film’s shocking finale, people would immediately wind up the old dial up internet connection and “Yahoo” the Blair Witch and the names of the missing film makers. They found websites confirming that what they had just seen was real, there was a legend of the Blair Witch and in October 1994 three student filmmakers went missing while making a documentary about it. Of course it wasn’t really real, it was the clever marketing of the filmmakers, who figured the best way to spread word of mouth about their low budget horror film was to make people think what they were watching was real. Eventually the film was picked up by a distributor and went on to be one of the most successful independent horror films ever made.

Surprisingly the success of The Blair Witch Project did not result in an immediate spate of found footage horror films hitting cinemas, there were a lot of smaller hard-core examples such as the August Underground series (2001 -2007) which remained just that, underground. The sub-genre was still so tiny that Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato tried to sue the filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project for stealing his idea. Which looking back seems as ridiculous as Howard Hawks suing anyone else for daring to mix romance with screwball comedy. It wasn’t for several more years that the found footage films started to spill into the cinemas, the leader of this new wave was the hugely successful Paranormal Activity (2007).

Paranormal Activity is a barebones found footage horror film about a young couple experiencing ghostly goings on, they set up surveillance cameras to see what’s happening while they’re asleep and it reveals a lot more than a cheeky poltergeist. It was a hugely successful film that spun off several sequels that replaced the annual Saw films as the big horror Halloween release. With that success came the release of more found footage horror films, we got zombies in [REC] (2007) a Spanish film with a documentary crew trapped in a building that’s the source of an outbreak, even the zombie master himself George A. Romero used the format for Diary of the Dead (2008) and a got big scale disaster movie with Cloverfield (2008) portraying a bunch young New Yorkers, who’s party is interrupted by a giant monster.

The found footage format works perfectly for horror for many reasons. It can add an extra level of realism to the film, unlike a traditional fictional film the characters acknowledge the camera and it’s operator like they would a documentary, the mix of fictional horror with a documentary style, something we associate with non-fiction can trick the viewer into thinking what they’re watching is real, this along with the simplicity of a film like The Blair Witch Project can be extremely, effective, something you could argue has been lost in the more recent examples of found footage which have used more and more CGI and gore. Willow Creek (2013) however is a refreshing return to this style. It very closely follows The Blair Witch Project’s structure.

Willow Creek is a very pared down Bigfoot horror film, a couple making a documentary travel to the Bigfoot mecca, Bluff Creek, Orleans. Bluff Creek is the site of the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film which is the infamous footage of a supposed Bigfoot shot in 1967. The interview Bigfoot enthusiasts on the way to their campsite in the nearby woods. What Willow Creek does is something unique, make what’s considered a laughable figure of cryptozoology feel real and more importantly absolutely terrifying.

Watch Willow Creek on Volta here.

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