Fantastic Fest 2021 – The Found Footage Phenomenon

By Naomi Roper

I love Found Footage movies. I don’t really care who knows it. Yes I know it’s now seen as a terribly naff and very overused format but when done correctly it can be incredibly effective. The name changing on the grave in The Borderlands, Michael in the corner in The Blair Witch Project, the body drop in [Rec], the footage from the lake in Lake Mungo, the clown moving position in Hell House LLC – all of these moments are incredibly disturbing and haunting and have way more power than any jump scare. 

So it’s exciting to see a documentary dedicated to my personal favourite horror genre. The Found Footage Phenomenon by directors Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott looks at the origins of found footage (from Dracula to War of the Worlds, Peeping Tom and the Mondo Faces of Death series). It then zips through some of the classics of the genre pulling together an impressive list of filmmakers including André Øvredal (Troll Hunter), Jaume Balagueró  ([Rec]), Kōji Shiraishi (Noroi: The Curse), Patrick Brice (Creep) to name but a few. Ruggero Deodato speaks about Cannibal Holocaust and how people thought he’d actually murdered his actors. Eduardo Sánchez talks at length about The Blair Witch Project and how its marketing helped propel it to be a global success. Arriving just as the internet was becoming a thing and before Google was such an integral part of our lives the Blair Witch website (complete with missing posters for its stars and updates on the search for them) lead people to believe the film was truly real. Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler of The Last Broadcast also pop up to slightly begrudge the fact that they were first but The Blair Witch Project got all the glory.

I was particularly delighted to see a deeply unapologetic Stephen Volk interviewed for the masterpiece that is Ghostwatch (still hasn’t been repeated by the BBC since airing!) 

Joining the filmmakers are a number of film critics and academics who pitch in with their insights.

At 1 hour 40 minutes this is a zippy affair and a perfect primer for those unfamiliar with the genre. As a found-footage enthusiast, I couldn’t help wishing it was far more expansive but perhaps there can be a part two further down the line. Certainly, there are some glaring omissions and Screen Life movies (a sub-genre of found footage where everything you see is the contents of someone’s computer/phone screen) aren’t included bar a one-liner about the Unfriended series and Rob Savage (of recent critical darling Host) showing up to chat.

The lack of any actors at all (except for in archival footage) in the interviews is an odd choice but perhaps they weren’t as enthused to talk as the filmmakers featured are. I also found myself getting frustrated over some of the choices (some less than stellar examples of the genre are included) but isn’t that the fun of documentaries like this? Arguing with your friends over what should be included and getting mortally offended when your faves don’t make the cut. As someone who loves the genre it’s exciting knowing that The Found Footage Phenomenon might encourage people to check out slightly lesser-known found footage films like Lake Mungo, The Borderlands, Creep, did I mention Lake Mungo? (Not so subliminal message go watch Lake Mungo it will haunt you forever).

Plus documentaries like this spark people to provide recommendations of films that weren’t featured which I love. For those films which either weren’t mentioned or barely mentioned I would recommend Cloverfield, Grave Encounters, Hell House LLC and its completely batshit sequels, The Tunnel, The Bay, The Visit, They’re Watching, Willow Creek, The Conspiracy, The Last Exorcism and As Above, So Below.  For Screen Life films I’d recommend The Den, the Unfriended series, Host, #Blue_Whale and Open Windows.

The Found Footage Phenomenon is a great intro to an often maligned genre.

The Found Footage Phenomenon had its US premiere at Fantastic Fest.