Cinema/TV, Film Notes

FrightFest review – The Found Footage Phenomenon

My notes on The Found Footage Phenomenon

In 1764, Horace Walpole pretended that his gothic novel The Castle of Otranto was a translation (‘by William Marshall, Gent’) from an Italian manuscript printed in Naples in 1529 which he had discovered in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the North of England.  In 1823, James Hogg went Walpole one better and published an article in Blackwood’s Magazine about the discovery of a mysterious manuscript along with ‘a Scots mummy’ … and a year later published (anonymously) his novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.  In both cases, the trappings of authenticity – and the distancing effect of discovery, editing and translation of supposedly real manuscripts – lent weight and credence to fantastic tales.  Similarly, Bram Stoker – probably inspired by Wilkie Collins’ use of multiple narrators – arranged Dracula as if it were an assembly of documents to testify to the veracity of the tale.  All that was before the cinema was invented …

This picks up the story with Dracula, takes in Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, and makes mention of Peeping Tom (1960) and David Holzman’s Diary (1966), though not The Quatermass Xperiment or the works of Peter Watkins before assessing such possible patient zeros of found footage horror as Cannibal Holocaust and Ghostwatch … then, filmmakers Sarah Appleton and Philip Escott get to the wave which began with The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project at the end of the 20th century and has been refreshed, often thanks to technological change, via Paranormal Activity, [REC], Megan is Missing, Creep, Host and any number of found footage films.  It now seems like a mode rather than a genre, and a range of interviewees – mostly makers of found footage films, with a few experts like Alexandra Heller-Nicolas thrown in – discuss their own works, experiences with production and distrubution, and the effect and appeal of the form.

The immediate takeaway, as ever, is that there have been an awful lot of found footage films … almost certainly because they are (or are perceived to be) easy and cheap to make, though a couple of the filmmakers give the lie to this by stressing ways in which habits formed in regular filmmaking have to be broken or apparently artless technique has to be finessed to seem authentic.  Extra points for witty credits and a thrumming Simon Boswell score.

Here’s the FrightFest listing.


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