You think you know the “original” “found footage film?” You’re wrong if you think that was “The Blair Witch Project,” the breakout blockbuster in the genre, still probably the most profitable film ever made.
But no, that “first” would be “The McPherson Tape,” a micro-budget and for years little-seen alien abduction thriller shot, VHS “home movie style” and turned into movie back in 1989.
In the documentary “The Found Footage Phenomenon,” now on Shudder, we learn that fact, and that the term “found footage” wasn’t coined until years after “Blair Witch,” which came out ten years after “McPherson.” “Blair Witch” co-director Eduardo Sanchez mentions that before the label, “we just called it ‘POV cinema,’ ‘first person cinema'” and the like, before horror’s version of the “mockumentary” got a label all its own.
A lot of filmmakers and the occasional author/expert on the phenomenon that gave us “Paranormal Activity” and its many sequels and imitators show up here to talk about “the camera as another character” and of the “fake” genre of frights “supposedly shot in the real world,” and the communal “lie that we all share in while we watch” these films.
“Diary of the Living Dead” is mentioned, in which George A. Romero tried to make his mark as one of the godfathers of the genre (there are “first person” sequences in his “Night of the Living Dead”), and a lot of the pre-history of this “faddish” phenomenon is laid out, placing the films within the horror tradition of “Dracula” and Steven King’s “Carrie,” literary “first person” horror using letters/reports/court filings about supernatural things that “really happened” as a literary device.
The “snuff cinema” of “Mondo Cane” and grisly imitations like “Cannibal Holocaust” led to the BBC “sanctioned” (a “presenter” starred in it) “Ghostwatch” and a camera crew capturing (fake) “first person murders” of “Man Bites Dog.” They all owe something to bits of 1960’s Michael Powell shocker “Peeping Tom,” which is folded into this documentary that becomes a blur of talking heads and a drone of repeated points hammered home, a bit of back and forth among filmmakers about who-did-what-first in this or that corner of horror and leading to too-short snippets of the actual films.
“Found Footage” is interesting in so far as it sets certain records straight, but overloading it with interviews means there’s a lot of talk about how the confluence of video-then-phone cameras capturing shocking bits of post-9/11 reality and the spike in screen violence thanks to late ’60s/early ’70s coverage of The Vietnam War. But devoting any time here to the tenuous connection the genre might have with snuff films seems a serious case of mission creep. Most of these films aren’t really “shockumentaries,” even if they’re a somewhat dubiously legitimate antecedent to their existence.
Precious little is done with how such films achieve their effects, and how those effects mimic “home movies” and Youtube “reality” and heighten their impact with fans.
What co-directors Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott have filmed is a collection of testimonials making their case, a lot of people talking up essential, historic entries in the genre, and a staggering amount of repetitious visual clutter and chatter.
Cut one third of the interviews out, let Alioto, Sanchez and a few others give detailed accounts of what they were trying to achieve and why, and show lots of footage of the filmmakers doing what they set out to do and experts commenting on the context of the times, the tech, etc., and you’d have a more watchable, more focused film.
Rating: unrated, horror violence, some profanity
Cast: Interviews with Eduardo Sanchez, Patrick Brice, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Dean Alioto, Shellie McMurdo, Aislin Clarke, Lance Weiler, Stephen Volk, many others.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott. A Shudder release.
Running time: 1:41