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Shudder Secrets: The Found Footage Phenomenon

Lately, Shudder has added some stellar documentaries to its catalog. These include Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror and now, The Found Footage Phenomenon. This latest doc is an impressive exploration of the polarizing subgenre. Some love it. Some hate it. But even for the horror consumer who isn’t the biggest found footage fan, this doc warrants attention. It’s an interesting exploration of the subgenre’s history and cultural context, packed with director interviews and some intriguing insight by scholars.

Since we live in an age where everything is filmed and shared on social media, be it the murder of George Floyd or something trivial like what we had for lunch, it’s about time this subgenre had its own documentary. Even for a lukewarm fan like me, this film, directed by Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott, made me appreciate the subgenre more. The doc isn’t 90 minutes about The Blair Witch Project or Cannibal Holocaust, important staples of the subgenre. It features films that may have flown under the radar. Meanwhile, well-known movies, like Peeping Tom, are recontextualized through a found footage lens. This is another bonus. Even for found footage fanatics, this doc likely will provide some new insight

Defining Found Footage and Its History

The doc opens as sort of a loose conversation that attempts to define the subgenre. Creatives give their interpretation. Clif Prowse, director of Afflicted says, “When found footage is done well, it feels like you’re watching real people in real situations, and that means there are real stakes.” Creep director Patrick Brice adds that the films look like they were made by characters within the movie. The footage draws you in. Dean Alioto, director of one of the first found footage films, UFO Abduction/The McPherson Tape, compares found footage to contraband. It’s like discovering someone’s journal.

Others address the subgenre’s realism and the contradiction of using “reality” for stories about the unreal. Host director Rob Savage adds, “Your goal always, as a horror director, is to make people forget they’re sitting in a cinema. A really good found footage movie can do that because it’s using an aesthetic that’s become such a part of our lives.”

The filmmakers don’t necessarily point to a specific movie as the “first” found footage film, but they do dive into some history. Sean Hogan, writer of The Borderlands, for instance, calls the beginning of Peeping Tom a mini found footage film. Another commentator notes so much of that classic is about filmmaking itself. The camera is ever-present and becomes “literally dangerous.”

Others point to Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, which caused hysteria. Of course, there’s adequate time given to Cannibal Holocaust, a movie that was banned in several countries because of its animal cruelty scenes and its realistic depictions of human violence. As Savage says, even if you know the movie isn’t real, it feels “so authentic.” For film fans in general, the doc’s first 20-25 minutes make for a thought-provoking conversation and dive into the subgenre’s history.

The Found Footage Phenomenon Shares Insight on Films We Love

Even though the doc gives a lot of time and love to lesser-known found footage movies, it does provide interesting insight on some of the biggest, not only Cannibal Holocaust, but also The Blair Witch Project, Rec, and others. In fact, the segments about the cultural context and timing of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity make for some of the most fascinating segments. These are projects that fell at the right place and right time, tapping into the zeitgeist.

At one point, Blair Witch co-director Eduardo Sanchez comments, “We never knew we’d be on the cover of Time and Newsweek.” Director André Øvredal, meanwhile, notes that film helped rejuvenate the horror genre at a time when it desperately needed it in the late 1990s. The analysis of the film’s marketing techniques is especially fascinating. The film’s website enhanced the movie’s mythology while making the audience think the filmmakers actually went missing.  Sanchez adds that the site was used as another layer of storytelling.

Yet, it seems unimaginable that any filmmaker could do what the co-directors of Blair Witch did with marketing. Such a website wouldn’t work today. It would be spoiled almost immediately. Had the movie dropped before the internet’s rise or a few years after it, it’s unlikely it would have found such massive success.

There are plenty of interesting tidbits with director Oren Peli about the wild success of Paranormal Activity, too, including the marketing centered around test screenings and audience reactions. Again, for film films in general, there’s much here to enjoy.

When Does Found Footage Become Mere Exploitation?

The doc’s closing 20 minutes end in a similar fashion to its beginning. It entails a wide-ranging conversation about how much is too much. When is found footage mere exploitation? Is Cannibal Holocaust simply a video nasty and nothing more? What about films like Hate Crime or Megan Is Missing, which looks and feels like a snuff film?

I’ll admit my feelings on a few of these films changed after some commentary by their directors. Hate Crime director James Cullen Bressack says, “The easiest way to get into someone’s conscience is through fear…if someone else made the film who wasn’t Jewish… I think that would be going too far.” Yet, as a Jewish filmmaker, and one who admits on camera he’s faced antisemitism, he’s addressing his fears and anxieties.

And though I admit feeling revulsion after my one and only screening of Megan Is Missing, the doc changed my feelings about it, due to director Michael Goi’s comments. Though the film is 11 years old, viewers still write him letters. To my surprise, women send him introspective letters, addressing their online habits. Guys, however, are “all over the map,” angry about how helpless the movie made them feel. In the age of social media, the film has taken on new relevance, hence its recent surge in popularity and discussion on mediums like TikTok.

The Future of Found Footage

Undoubtedly, found footage will continue. It’s a subgenre that responds to changes in technology and our fears surrounding that. I’m sure we’ll see more films featuring screen time like Unfriended or Host. In fact, Savage’s commentary about Host’s success is another highlightHe notes he couldn’t have made that movie at any other point in history. We all went through the pandemic and lockdowns together, sharing “the same reality.”

At a little more than 90 minutes, The Found Footage Phenomenon is a lean documentary. Yet, it succeeds in exploring the subgenre’s history. It also highlights some lesser-known films, while providing interesting tidbits about the major successes and underdog stories. Most intriguing, though, is the commentary about the subgenre’s cultural context and how it responds and evolves based upon changes in technology that ignite new fears and anxieties. This is a must-watch for found footage fans.

The documentary comes to Shudder on May 19. For more on the streaming service’s content, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column.