“Dr. Seward’s Diary.
(Kept in phonograph)”
Thus begins a passage in Bram Stoker’s celebrated horror novel Dracula. Though we know from the start that this is a piece of fiction, due in part to countless adaptations and persistence in popular culture, the book’s epistolary presentation (meaning that it reveals the story through a series of letters, journal entries, audio recordings and etc.) results in a higher level of realism and tangibility than a regular novel could hope to achieve through narrative alone.
Naturally, Dracula isn’t the only example of epistolary storytelling done right. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also used the format to inject further believability into an already enthralling plot, and many recent novels have taken this a step further, like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. With ever-evolving artistic and technological media, it was only a matter of time before these ideas jumped to the big screen.
Found-Footage, despite being considered by many critics as just a lazy cash-grab, is just the natural evolution of older storytelling techniques translated into a new medium. Stoker used every element of media that was available to him at the time to formulate a cohesive tale, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine him or even Mary Shelley including a video-diary in one of their works. These recent films are doing the same, but on a different narrative level.
It’s generally accepted that Cannibal Holocaust is the first of its kind, despite having conventional filmic elements as well. In my opinion, the first proper Found-Footage production was U.F.O Alien Abduction (also known as the McPherson Tapes, and later remade as Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County), a horror movie directed by Dean Alioto and released in 1989. The film begins as a home-movie chronicling the Van Heese family during a birthday party. All hell breaks loose when the power goes out and the family has to deal with hostile alien invaders in a secluded area.
This film is an obvious precursor to both The Last Broadcast and king of Found-Footage, The Blair Witch Project. Many of the modern clichés we know and love (to hate) started here, and no doubt influenced Eduardo Sanchez, Daniel Myrick and even Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos in their work. What really makes the picture stand out as a founding father of found-footage, however, is the un-interrupted use of a home-video camera to record the horrific events.
The Blair Witch Project would go on to become one of the most successful films in the sub-genre, and eventually spread this method of filmmaking to the masses. The Paranormal Activity Franchise, V/H/S and many others owe their existence to this film’s ingenious marketing and scary plausibility. Though it is one of my personal favorite films, criticism regarding the simplistic narrative is mostly well founded, and this is a problem these movies sadly still face today.
It’s quite apparent that this sub-genre isn’t being used, at least most of the time, to its full potential. It’s unfair to expect that every found-footage film will be good, but there is a disproportionate amount of knock-offs and lazy direction/writing. It’s almost certainly due to how cheap these flicks are to make, but there should be more filmmakers out there willing to experiment and provide actual character development and more nuanced stories.
Another strange point about found-footage is why it usually gravitates towards horror. The epistolary novel is considered to have originated with Diego de San Pedro’s Prison of Love, which is as far removed from horror as can be. Though there are a few non-horror-related features, almost none of them are worth mentioning. Nevertheless, a possible explanation for this preference is that, when it comes to film, the genre most comfortable with radical changes and extremism is horror. When done right, horror films tend to defy the usual tropes and present us with a new and startling experience.
That’s not to say that all decent Found-Footage films are scary. Josh Trank’s sleeper hit Chronicle took audiences by surprise with its modest presentation and ambitious superhero (or supervillain, if you prefer) origin story. The story was grounded in a very personal point of view which made even the more outlandish scenes seem believable. The climax also brilliantly used the concept to its advantage, but I’d rather not spoil the fun here.
In any case, if better storytelling is possible within this sub-genre, where did found-footage go wrong? The fact is, it did not. Film is still a relatively young medium of expression. Most examples of what future film enthusiasts will consider ‘classics’ haven’t been produced yet. There might also be some radical change in technology that renders film as we know it obsolete. Literature, on the other hand, has had far more time to develop new forms of storytelling and better authors, not to mention the fact that producing a book is usually less money and time-consuming than a feature film. In time, it’s not only possible but likely that we’ll get new and better found-footage films that can compete with The Godfather or even Metropolis.
Even other media is adapting and including concepts similar to both epistolary storytelling and found-footage. Games where backstory is told through notes and recordings like Bioshock are simply following an extensively old storytelling tradition. Recent releases like Slender and Outlast also serve as examples for ‘Found-Footage games’. Social Media and online video have also changed our way of comprehending stories, and multimedia series like Marble Hornets use almost every possible digital outlet as a means for extending the narrative, from fake Twitter accounts to YouTube.
Ultimately, Found-Footage films have a long way to go in terms of maturing as a serious genre, but they’re getting there. A story told through specific points of view is only as good as the characters who tell it, so generic and undeveloped scripts are not enough. I hope to see more filmmakers in the future that can take these films seriously and treat them like actual art and not just a cheap thrill. It would even be interesting to see more structurally faithful adaptations of similar literary stories. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I think Dracula would best be enjoyed as a Found-Footage film, but I sure as hell would buy a ticket for that.