Found Footage Festival

My creative energies have been at a low ebb lately, so I’m killing my weekends with mind-numbing diversions hoping it’ll jar something loose.

This morning’s viewing, Grave Encounters 2, got me thinking about the “found footage” method of moviemaking. I have something of a love-hate relationship with found footage movies; it feels too often like a lazy, cheap approach to making a movie rather than a thought-out storytelling choice, which is why, perhaps, so many of them are terrible (to wit: Grave Encounters 2). Yet when such films are good, they tend to be very good (in my opinion).

Some thoughts on why found footage films are either great or awful:

WHY FOUND FOOTAGE MOVIES WORK

They put the audience in the middle of the action. When you watch a movie, you tend to do so as an objective viewer; you are a spectator, not a participant. The found footage approach turns the adventure into a subjective one; the action is happening to the viewer, and that leads to a more immersive and visceral experience — which is why horror movies use this method far more than any other genre (I don’t think a found footage rom-com would work so well).

They feel more natural. The Blair Witch Project — not the first found footage movie, but the one that put the style on the map — was marketed, very effectively, as the result of a real documentary film project gone wrong, but it was not just the documentary-style storytelling that sold that conceit. The cast did not have a script, they instead worked from an outline and often vague instructions fed to them by the directors during the shoot. That meant they improvised their dialog and reacted more naturally to what the filmmakers threw at them, so their performances felt less like, well, performances.

They open up the field for smaller productions. As said above, found footage movies allow people to make movies on shoestring budgets because they don’t have to worry about slick professional lighting and sound, hiring large crews — all the things that inflate the cost of a movie. Paranormal Activity was made for $15,000, which is pocket change in Hollywood terms (and its domestic gross was $107.9 million, making it one of the most profitable movies ever made in terms of R.O.I.).

Night vision. Night vision shots are friggin’ creepy (when done well). The use of night vision in the original [rec] worked brilliantly for some of its jump-scare moments, as did the tunnel scene in Cloverfield.

WHY FOUND FOOTAGE MOVIES FAIL

Sometimes, it’s just hard to accept that people ALWAYS have a camera on. This applies to good and bad found footage movies alike, because they both have scenes in which, if you stopped to think about it, it makes no sense whatsoever for a character to have their camera on and, conveniently, pointing toward the action. It’s one of the conceits audiences have to accept going in, but even in the best of such films, I tend to think at least once, “Yeah, that dude’s really going to sprint his ass off with the camera still up on his shoulder.” Just once I’d like to see a running-with-the-camera shot to end with the character plowing face-first into a wall or tripping down some stairs.

Some actors simply cannot improvise well. In the aforementioned Grave Encounters 2, the characters spend a lot of time in the opening act cursing like Marines. In a scripted movie, excessive cursing in the dialog is a sign of a lazy writer trying to make things edgy. In an improvised movie, casual F-bombs are a verbal manifestation of a mental hesitation, in the same way people use “um” or “like” or “you know?” in real life. Unfortunately, in  a movie, characters spouting “Fuckety-fuck fuck” makes for excruciatingly dull dialog.

The story does not always hold together. The semi-improvised nature of found footage movies, at least in the hands of a filmmaker that doesn’t know what he or she is doing, means there is no firm roadmap to help dictate things like pacing. The original Grave Encounters, an under-appreciated little gem of a horror flick, had a great slow-burn build, so that when things went crazy, it felt like a proper climax to the long-building tension. Its sequel, however, spent the first half on set-up and launched headfirst into the wild stuff without taking any time to transition and build tension.

They open up the field for smaller productions. To paraphrase something I’ve said in other posts in regard to self-publishing, the great thing about modern technology is that it allows anyone to make a movie; the bad thing is, it allows anyone to make a movie. The found footage style, combined with the fact video cameras are now standard features in any given cell phone, means anyone can get a bunch of people together and shoot a movie in a weekend — without worrying about pesky things like whether anyone can act or whether their story is worth telling.

Scarily Bad Writing

Today is Halloween, my favorite holiday, so I suppose it’s appropriate I write about writing in horror movies.

Thanks to the miracle of streaming video, I now have access to a wealth of bad movies — my standard background noise when I write — and it never ceases to amaze me just how bottomless the pit of no-budget dreck is. There are many shortcomings to criticize here, everything from the acting and direction to the lighting and sound, but I’ll of course focus on the shoddy foundation of the script.

I go into this admitting that a successful horror movie relies more heavily on the quality of the production than of the script than other genres. My favorite scary movie of all time, Halloween, would not have been as great had it not been for John Carpenter’s skill at building suspense (and composing one of the eeriest, moodiest scores ever), and those are the kinds of things you just can’t write into a screenplay.

Horror classics like The Exorcist and modern greats like The Mist were very much dependent on quality stories to work as well as they did, but thoughtful horror I think tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

However, that’s no excuse for scriptwriters of low- and no-budget horror fare to fall down on the job so completely and with such regularity. I’ve picked up on a number of typical behaviors of Z-grade would-be horror auteurs in the scriptwriting phase, which I share now for your amusement as much as for your enlightenment.

MIKE’S TOP FIVE MISTAKES IN LOW-BUDGET HORROR SCRIPTS

1) Shamelessly rip off another, more successful movie

An easy target would be Paranormal Entity, a knock-off of Paranormal Activity from the nation’s foremost producer of low-budget mockbusters, The Asylum. But I’m going to pick on Methodic, a blatant rip-off of Halloween — which I picked up on even before I learned that the writer/director, Chris R. Notarile, originally wrote a script for a Halloween re-boot pitch. After Rob Zombie got the green light to do his version, Notarile made some changes to his script and filmed it as Methodic.

It’s impossible to watch the film without constantly thinking of the original. That’s a huge distraction, and an important element of successful horror is to keep the audience engrossed in the story. You can’t do that if your viewers are conducting an ongoing compare-and-contrast to a superior product.

2) Make every character completely unlikable

Rise of the Scarecrows is one of the most atrocious things I’ve ever watched, and that’s because every single character is vile, reprehensible, and completely unsympathetic. As the viewer, I wanted every single one of them to die and die horribly; I had no one to root for, and the conventional school of thought is that the audience wants the most likable characters to not just survive, but to defeat the threat. You can’t do that if every ostensible protagonist is an asshole.

George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead almost fails for that reason. The most sympathetic character in the film is Bub the zombie; there are maybe three human characters who are at all likable, and everyone else is repugnant, pathetic, annoying as hell, or such a non-entity it’s impossible to muster any feelings for them at all.

Yet many a former critic of the film has retracted their previous negative opinions and come to understand that these particular characters are people under the most relentlessly stressful situation imaginable, so of course they’re hair-triggered basket cases who spend most of their time screaming at each other. It makes sense.

And yet, Romero still had the presence of mind to give the audience a few truly sympathetic characters. He knew that without someone to root for, the movie would be intolerable.

It’s worth noting that some hardcore horror fans always root for the killer, and I wonder if some writers cater to this idea and intentionally craft a full menu of victims to be lined up and slaughtered for the audience’s entertainment, but frankly, that shtick gets really tired really fast.

3) Load the script with F-bombs

I am a big fan of profanity. I like it, I use it liberally in my speech and in my writing, and when used well it can be very effective — especially the word “fuck,” which is still a shocking word to more delicate sensibilities.

The problem is that many amateur writers rely on gratuitous profanity as a shortcut to inject their work with edginess and attitude, or because they think that’s how real people talk. I’ve known some people who rattle of fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck like a machine gun, but they aren’t that common, so it’s not only annoying to have an entire cast cursing like Marines, it’s unrealistic. Clunky dialog is a staple of bad horror, but relentless carpet F-bombing is a sure-fire way to draw the audience’s attention to weak dialog.

On that note…

4 ) Use this line at least once:

VICTIM (reacting to off-screen noise): Hello? Who’s there? Is someone out there? [CHARACTER] is that you? C’mon guys, you’re scaring me! This isn’t funny anymore!

Seriously, do you know how many times I’ve heard that line in a slasher film? It needs to be retired. Now.

5) End on a VERY down note

One big problem I have with modern horror, whether a studio-backed job or a no-budget backyard production, is how dark and nihilistic they tend to be. I’m not just talking about straight-up torture porn, but a lot of fright flicks are dedicated to bringing each and every character to a terrible, terrible end, and even when someone survives the experience, the writers and directors apparently can’t resist one last fuck-you to the audience by whipping out the last-minute surprise that makes it clear that no one got a happy ending.

Now, the downbeat ending can be done very well. The aforementioned The Mist is a great example of an effective down-note ending. You see it coming and when it happens you’re not surprised, but it’s still a huge emotional gut-punch — and that’s why it works. The main characters has suffered and fought to survive, and along the way you come to care about them (see rule #2), so when they meet with a terrible fate, it’s a more powerful experience.

Horror films from the 1970s and early 1980s often tempered a downbeat ending by injecting a shred of uncertainty or hope, or ended on a positive note tainted by a whiff of uncertainty: the original versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, the original Halloween and Friday the 13th, they all ended on mixed notes to great effect.