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Found footage horror

The Blair Witch Project legitimized a disreputable genre, ushering it into the mainstream. Photo credit: Artisan Entertainment

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It's the spookiest month, and thus the spookiest Three Easy Pieces, where I examine a corner of pop culture from its birth to today. I'm thinking, now, of horror movies. While horror has classically been shrugged off by the snooty gatekeepers of fine cinema, there's one subgenre that's even more maligned: that of found footage horror. What may have had its intentions in the best place -- allowing small crews with tiny budgets to make efficient creep-fests -- quickly turned into a way for studios to make lazy moneymakers for pennies. But does the form have merit?

BIRTH: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Honorable mention: Man Bites DogUFO Abduction

Found footage horror found its origins in the tasteless, brazenly disreputable subgenre known as "mondo films." Sold as quasi-documentaries about international cultures, mondo films were largely faked depictions of depravity, and frequently depicted supposedly titillating acts of violence and sex. These were childishly transgressive films made in the service of documenting taboo subjects -- and collecting the dollars of the morbidly curious.

Cannibal Holocaust -- even its name a taunting, juvenile jab -- continued the mondo tradition, making a splash with its purported depiction of a documentary film crew flying to the Amazon and being murdered by a local tribe. Similarly following in the mondo tradition, the film is a racist, artlessly constructed attempt at shocking the squares. The thing is, their gambit actually worked a little too well, with director Ruggero Deodato being arrested and charged in the presumed deaths of the film's stars. Only after presenting the still-alive actors was he cleared. Though no actors were harmed, the film is despicably responsible for the deaths of a few animals.

Found footage horror, at its onset, is off to a very bad start.

DEVELOPMENT: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Honorable mention: Paranormal ActivityRECCloverfield

The Blair Witch Project was a bombshell shot into the battlefield between independent film and the mainstream. Not only did it raise $250 million, made on a paltry budget of $60,000, it was a critically acclaimed blow for not only horror movies, but the low-rent neighborhood of found footage. As explored in the previous entry, found footage horror was largely a huckster's game, fueled by baiting and switching clueless moviegoers searching for a cheap thrill. While Blair Witch played a somewhat similarly coy game about the true nature of this so-called documentary -- fooling many people in the process, thanks in large part to the lack of Google -- the film never stooped to the carnival geek garishness of its predecessors.

Much of Blair Witch's success, cinematically, stems from directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez allowing their amateur cast to do much of the filming on their own, allowing for tons of improvisation. Only a loose outline was given to the actors, with notes surreptitiously given to them as to where they were to wander next. With surprise after surprise being thrown at the actors, their fear is part performance and part lived-in nightmare, lending a credibility to Blair Witch. Its success paved the way for Paranormal Activity and the subsequent glut of found footage that has only recently begun to subside.

TODAY: Creep (2014)
Honorable mention: The Visit, Willow Creek, Unfriended, Found Footage 3D

A filmmaker answers an ad to meet a strange guy at a cabin and document him; that's all the setup you need for Creep, a film that establishes its innate terror for those in the freelance industry in just a few words. Of course it's a bad idea to meet a stranger in the woods, but money's money, and so begins Creep's ingenious dissection of societal pressures and the dangers of being polite. Filmmaker Aaron (director Patrick Brice) is immediately put off by his client, Josef (mumblecore godfather Mark Duplass), who claims to be dying of cancer and wants to film some videos for his unborn son.

From the get-go, Aaron recognizes that something's off about Josef, from his touchy-feely manner to his disquieting oversharing. Naturally, this escalates, with all of us unanimously pleading with Aaron to get out. While any camp counselor shouldn't have sympathy for Jason Voorhees, the found footage verisimilitude of Creep necessitates that Aaron act like a human being, and so tragedy is inevitable. A sequel to Creep was made last year, further subverting the horror tropes it wonderfully flipped before.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: A Star is Born?

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