The Devil Inside is the latest scary flick to rely on faked home video and documentary tapes to tell its story. Are these movies fooling anyone anymore?
Horror is a genre of copycats. From the holiday-themed slashers spawned by Halloween, to the slew of Japanese-horror remakes like The Ring, to the torture-porn grotesqueries of movies like the Saw franchise, Hollywood horror filmmakers race to embrace the latest genre fads like insecure tweens aping Justin Bieber's newest hairdo. The runaway success of the Paranormal Activity franchise over the past few years has brought us the latest of the "me too" horror trends: the found footage film.
The Devil Inside, which opens in theaters today, somehow manages a hat trick of clichéd horror tropes: It centers on an exorcism, it's "based on a true story," and it's a "found footage" film. Though the first two have been around as long as we've had The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist, Hollywood's love affair with the third is relatively new. The found-footage genre is built on the conceit that the movie was filmed not by a traditional, omniscient director, but by a character that exists within the film's world—and whose footage was discovered sometime after the events of the film. In The Devil Inside, our "window" characters are Michael, a documentary filmmaker, and Isabella, a woman attempting to discover what happened during an exorcism-gone-wrong in which her mother killed three people.
There's nothing unique about The Devil Inside's basic story (in fact, 2010 saw the release of another, better exorcism found-footage film: The Last Exorcism). Yet judging by the recent barrage of movies like these—from the highs of Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity to the lows of this past summer's Apollo 18—the found-footage craze didn't begin in earnest until 2007. The earliest cinematic example of the faux found footage comes in the form of a low-budget 1980 Italian exploitation flick called Cannibal Holocaust. It centers on a film crew that travels to the Amazon Basin for a documentary about the war between two cannibalistic tribes. The documentary's director—wanting ever-grislier content for his film—encourages his crew to commit a series of rapes and murders against the natives, eventually leading the cannibal tribe to seek bloody revenge.
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Cannibal Holocaust would be disturbing enough if it were a conventional horror film. But the extraordinary sense of realism achieved through the use of the found-footage style makes it stand apart from the countless other exploitation films of the era. Director Ruggero Deodato takes great pains to establish Cannibal Holocaust's sense of verisimilitude, infamously including scenes in which his actors commit real acts of violence against animals (including the disembowelment of a large turtle and the point-blank shooting of a pig). Even Cannibal Holocaust's faked violence, which included the deaths of the cast, was believable enough that 10 days after the film's release, Deodato was arrested and charged with murdering Cannibal Holocaust's stars—only proving his innocence by reassembling the (very much alive) cast and demonstrating how he had accomplished the gruesome effects in live court.
It's unsurprising, given the many troubling aspects of Cannibal Holocaust's production, that the film didn't spark a wider found-footage trend. Though the occasional found-footage film was released—including the 1992 French serial killer "documentary" Man Bites Dog and a clever TV movie called Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County—it wasn't until 1999's smash hit The Blair Witch Project that found footage emerged as a real force in contemporary horror cinema.
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The Blair Witch Project was fortunate enough to debut in the salad days of Internet film marketing, when "Google" wasn't a verb and Wikipedia didn't exist. The found-footage film—rare enough in 1999 that the style wasn't a genre unto itself yet—genuinely left many filmgoers questioning whether or not they were witnessing actual recovered footage. Even fans that were savvy enough to seek out The Blair Witch Project on the Internet Movie Database read that the film's stars were "missing, presumed dead." The Blair Witch Project was believable without being grisly, frightening without being repulsive, intriguing without providing all the answers. It was a snuff film with a safety net.