12 Years After 'Blair Witch,' When Will the Found-Footage Horror Fad End?

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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?

meslow devil inside found footage paramount 615.jpg

Paramount

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.

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.

And—perhaps most importantly for a film that took such a range of narrative and technical risks—it was incredibly cheap to produce. For practical reasons, the found-footage genre tends to be the realm of the low-budget filmmaker. Traditional, expensive cinematic concerns, like a Hollywood score or a big-name cast, would only hurt the film's plausibility. Scripts can be improvised. Killers and creatures can be kept off-camera. It even plays better on the small screen: The Devil Inside—which opens, like Cloverfield, with the message "Do not duplicate" this film—loses some of its impact if the viewer stops to consider that it's simultaneously playing on thousands of other movie screens across the country. And when a low-budget found-footage film manages to capture the public's imagination, the rewards are enormous. The Blair Witch Project grossed almost $250 million worldwide on a budget of less than $60,000. The original Paranormal Activity, which was filmed on a micro-budget of $15,000, grossed well over $100 million in the United States alone. Even if it flops, The Devil Inside (which was produced for around $1 million) will have no trouble making its production budget back.

But will a found-footage movie ever again have the same impact The Blair Witch Project had? The Blair Witch Project was a phenomenon because it made found footage both plausible and palatable for a mainstream audience—and because it was released at a time in which both of those things was possible. The Devil Inside's obvious attempt at a Blair Witch-style "did it really happen?" marketing campaign seems ludicrous for a movie aimed at web-savvy filmgoers. The Devil Inside ends, rather abruptly, by inviting you to visit "The Rossi Files"—a tie-in website that features Screenwriting 101-style character biographies and a forum to "discuss the case further." But it's hard to imagine anyone being intrigued enough by this clichéd, obviously fictional movie to bother.

In the end, if The Devil Inside and its many recent sister films are any indication, found footage will have a hard time growing within the horror genre. It's disappointing, given the many virtues of found footage, that so little good work has been done with it. But some of the most effective recent entries in the genre—including Cloverfield and the stunning first act of District 9—have succeeded by applying the found footage format to science fiction. Next month sees the release of the promising-looking Chronicle, which takes a found-footage approach to the superhero genre. When horror filmmakers inevitably discard found footage for the next stylistic fad, there's no reason that creative, enterprising and low-budget filmmakers in other genres—romantic comedies, or inspirational sports movies—can't pick it right up again.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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