In an effort to shine some light on the people who make the darkness, this article is the first in a continuing series about great filmmakers, technicians, and other creative individuals whose contributions to horror film cannot be underestimated.
Today’s creator: Peter Watkins.
Real to Reel
Though the fake documentary film has gotten a bad reputation in recent years due to the glut of inexpensive, amateur, and knock-off films that always come in the wake of a popular movement, some of the most interesting and groundbreaking horror films have been… fake documentaries.
From The Last Exorcism to Lake Mungo, The Poughkeepsie Tapes to REC to Trollhunter, the fake doc (or found footage) film has a number of great films to its credit. Some credit Paranormal Activity with the current boom in found footage horror, but slightly older film fans know that The Blair Witch Project redefined horror just before the turn of the century with its convincing realism, its grittiness, and its brilliant marketing campaign.
More well-versed horror aficionados recognize that much of what made The Blair Witch Project so effective was explored years earlier in 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, which used the conceit of a documentary crew traveling to the Amazon only to be captured and killed by a local tribe.
But who invented the fake documentary? Whose idea was it to spend the time and effort to write a fictional narrative, then photograph it as if it were taking place in reality? Orson Welles was using the fake news style for small segments in Citizen Kane as far back as 1941, and director Federico Fellini is credited with making the first full-length fake documentary in 1970, called The Clowns. But another filmmaker beat him to it by six years, won an Oscar for one of his fake docs, and made several of the best fake doc films of all time.
In 1964, director Peter Watkins made The Battle of Culloden for BBC, a documentary-style film about the battle in 1746 that filmed it as if cameras were present for the proceedings. It was daring, controversial, and very political. It led to his next film, The War Game.
The equally controversial film was so convincing that it was pulled from BBC, but still aired elsewhere and ended up actually winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966! The world was so unaccustomed to the idea of a false documentary style that the film beat out other real documentary films for an Oscar.
Watkins would find critical acclaim for that film and several others that also utilized the fictional documentary format, including Evening Land and the very interesting historical biopic about the artist Edvard Munch. Those movies did the seemingly impossible: they legitimized the phenomenon of the fake documentary as a real and valuable storytelling device for film.
However, his most enduring and powerful work is also his most popular and one of the few which embraced clear genre elements. 1971’s Punishment Park showed an eerie alternate present where political undesirables are put through a grueling game in the desert similar to the Richard Bachman novel The Long Walk.
The film confronts many issues of the time, allegorically speaking about Vietnam, counterculture protest, political division, and governmental overreach. As shockingly modern in its content as anything on current news, the film is the best kind of genre storytelling that uses its subject to talk about bigger themes.
So if you like the way the documentary style was used to comment on religion in The Last Exorcism, xenophobia in Cannibal Holocaust, reality television in Series 7: The Contenders, or environmentalism in The Bay, you have Peter Watkins to thank for inventing the method they used.