Fantastic Fest 2021: The Found Footage Phenomenon

A dip into the world of ‘found footage’ horror and the wider impact on the genre.

Synopsis: The Found Footage Phenomenon is an independent documentary charting the origins of the found footage sub-genre, tracking it through to the technique’s current form and asks what the future is.

Found footage horror does truly feel like a phenomenon, with perhaps no other subgenre being quite as divisive or capable of continually reinventing itself in the face of evolving technology and societal concerns at a pace that speaks directly to the current zeitgeist. There are, of course, unique challenges that present themselves and this documentary itself occasionally struggles under the wealth of material to cover.

One way in which it sidesteps the issue of being unable to probe all the entries into the particular genre is through careful text and interviewee selection, selecting a smaller number of ‘big’ names for their talking heads to discuss the landmarks like Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. This allows lesser-known titles to take centre stage, with increased access to the creatives behind them. Insight from the likes of Eduardo Sanchez (terming the style of Blair Witch as POV cinema) and others about the techniques involved in creating the films, including the dreaded reliance on long-takes, makes for an engaging dive.

Utilising Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Shellie McMurdo as academic anchors among the creatives works well, allowing them to elaborate on the theories behind why the films are so popular. There is also a touch on the historical origins of the genre, including that the Dracula novel itself may be the first. The relationship between the real, hyper-real and fake are all discussed throughout, along with probing the enduring appeal to viewers.

Like other recent horror documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, The Found Footage Phenomenon echoes in its construction the feel of the films it seeks to cover, offering clips of the subgenres most effective moments to illustrate the form. There is, to some degree, a teasing of what is about to be seen, especially as the documentary covers the early ‘Mondo’ films where the lines between if an event is staged or archive footage and later heads into the idea of the use of found footage in ‘extreme’ horror. That sense of accidentally stumbling into witnessing something terrible is a major part of the appeal within found footage and the documentary itself cleverly exploits this.

There is a sense that this could be in multiple parts and still have ground to cover and the selection may feel lacking to some, but refreshingly, this means space is made for those lesser-known or lesser-appreciated films that are worth adding to your watchlist to further explore the form’s abilities. That the form itself is still disputed in terms of what is and isn’t a found footage does occasionally mean there are some titles featured that could be argued don’t quite fit, but happily the film allows for multiple interpretations while still connecting to the wider themes.

The blend of discussion around cultural and social context, coupled with the technical and creative insights from directors and writers makes for fascinating viewing, even if there is plenty left to explore by the end.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

The Found Footage Phenomenon screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021 on 23rd September. See the schedule for more information.

Author: ScaredSheepless

Film and television fan, with a particular love for horror.

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