“The lights are off, but there’s no one home”- The rise and decline in quality of horror films in recent decades – Part 4



Unlike the sub-genres discussed previously – which utilise a variety of jump-cuts and edits to create an uncomfortable and terrifying atmosphere – the genre of found footage is presented as if it was discovered on a singular hand-held camera. The camera work is done by the actors themselves giving it a very authentic feel as the performances feel far more natural and the footage is often incomplete. Beginning in 1980 with Cannibal Holocaust, the go-to prime example for horror found footage is The Blair Witch Project directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez in 1999. The film focuses on three individuals who are documenting their trip to the Burkittsville Woods. Their goal is to uncover the truth surrounding the legend of the Blair Witch. Entirely shot using a hand-held camera, the film is a truly terrifying cinematic experience, especially its final ten minutes. I wish everyone the best of luck having a good night sleep after watching the last ten minutes of this film.

The film was a huge success upon release grossing over $250 million worldwide on a budget of $60,000 making it one of the most profitable films ever made and also being hailed by critics as one of the scariest films ever made. Part of the film’s success was due to the fact that audiences and critics were unsure if the footage that they had just viewed was ‘real’ or fictional (*cough, false sense of security) This, once again, is a great example of how horror should be used. Make the audience believe that they are safe with real footage. Once the terror kicks in, the audience will grow uncomfortable – not knowing what will happen next due to their recent exposure to this kind of filmmaking.


Years later in 2009, there was the release of another incredibly suspenseful found-footage horror film known as Paranormal Activity directed by Oran Peli. The film focused on a couple who were being threatened by a supernatural entity, all of which is captured on a handheld camera. One sequence in particular is truly effective. The woman (Katie Featherson) goes down stairs in the middle of the night upon hearing strange noises. She makes her way down stairs before she starts screaming hysterically. Her boyfriend (Micah Sloat) hears her cries and rushes to her aid. There is the sound of loud bangs, crashes and scream all the while this is unfolding the camera stays still on a tripod in the bedroom. None of the action is captured on film, it is only heard.

This is one of the most suspenseful moments I have ever seen on film. We have no idea what is happening and our imagination as to what exactly is going on makes it all the more terrifying. It relates to the idea of the supernatural boogeyman or monster. The less one shows the more terrifying the creature becomes because there is nothing more powerful than our imagination. This is where a stagnation can be noticed with regards to the genre of found footage in terms of its quality. It is because of the decision to show more and focus less on the story. The Paranormal Activity series has fallen victim to this with its fifth instalment released in 2015 and in the format of 3D (yes I’m not joking). It is still shot in found footage but it goes against everything that the original film stood for. This can also be seen in another film of the same genre released in 2010 titled The Last Exorcism, directed by Daniel Stamm. Although it was praised by critics upon its release, I found the film to be very formulaic especially in its final moments. The film makes the ridiculous decision to incorporate computer generated imagery and it just does not suit the found footage genre at all. Found footage works at its best when restraints are made and the filmmakers decide not to show a majority of the action. In this sub-genre subtlety is key and a perfect example of showing rather than telling.

A still from Spanish found-footage horror Rec

In conclusion, the popularity of horror cinema is largely due to the wide variety of sub genres that can be tackled. Sometimes alterations are made and they work in the favour of certain directors and other times it leads to a dip in quality and a strong sense of déjà vu. If anything can be taken away from this article it would have to be that true horror can be discovered when filmmakers offer the audience members locations and characters that they are accustomed to but then pull the sheet over the table and reveal something far more horrifying. It can also be seen when filmmakers and storytellers leave a lot to the imagination of their viewer thus leaving a lasting impact on them. When an audience member is unable to shake the thought of what they just viewed out of their mind, then you know that it has been a good horror film. Sean Moriarty


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