A Trail of Found Footage Movies

For 10 years, the found footage craze drowned us into a fury of release but what was the first one?

A woman is seen looking terrified over a black background. Only the upper part of her face can be seen.
Promotional Material for The Blair With Project

You remember the found footage craziness? When every studio tried to turn every movie idea, they had into a project which could be shot with a handheld camera and a tiny budget? What’s interesting is this trend started with Paranormal Activity and for a time it seemed like every executive from Hell and beyond thought this was THE way of milking spectators out of money. I mean, Romero had to do a found footage movies, there were talks of David Bruckner having to shoot a Friday the 13th found footage. Craziness, I told you.

What’s more interesting is that, despite popular belief the found footage is not a genre per se. There exists polar (Exhibit A), war flick (De Palma’s Redacted), comedy (Tika Waititi’s What we do in the Shadows) but yeah, the genre is mainly known for its horror component, with the two flagships being Paranormal Activity and the Blair Witch Project.

This, I always find intriguing, the Blair Witch Project debuted in 1999 to both commercial and critical acclaim. But the mode didn’t really take before Paranormal Activity? I have my own opinion on this, I guess even though people state The Blair Witch Project only cost $60,000, they often times forgot the promotional material (at least two documentaries) which came out alongside it in order to sell the hype. I remember those documentaries, in a pre-internet era. It was difficult for the 10 years old that I was not to believe in it. Nowadays I still think those were a good watch. Still, executives may have seen the success of found footage as built on too much effort, and we all know big companies do not like to sweat, they like to throw away money at stuff and see what sticks.

For me, the found footage filmmaking really hit me because of both Balaguero/Plaza’s REC and Reeves’ Cloverfield. These two movies left an imprint in me which led me to try and see as many of those as I could watch. An interesting trait I passed to my girlfriend. There’s something raw and natural with a found footage flick that you can’t fell any other way, and it’s really no wonder that this special trend gave us 2013 most awesome horror game. Sorry Amnesia: A Machine for pigs.

In a dark corridor, a man brandishing a shotgun is ready to open a door.
Still from Alien Abduction

There was a craze, this should be proof enough could been taken out of this filmmaking fashion. If the world produces something en masse, there is bound to be at least a few good picks along the road. But this is not a piece about advice. We all know it I don’t do review. I prefer history.

One thing which always baffled me with the found footage genre was that aside from the hate people always resort to: “Oh yeah, it’s the genre that was invented in the 70s with Cannibal Holocaust.” To which I always wanna respond: “No, it’s not”. The Deodato movie is a straight one in his direction until some people watch a tape and then for maybe, 20 minutes in turns into a found footage. To me, this is like saying the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre directed by Marcus Nispel is a found footage because of its opening and ending. A found footage is shot in its entirety as a film which was shot by some random person and then found. This is a set of minds which makes it quite difficult to achieve the desired effect and is also the explanation of why so many so-called found footage failed. You cannot have extra diegetic music (well, except if you’re REC), you have to think your editing as something which cannot have been done in post-production, a very real puzzle.

With that out of the way, when people think of first found footage, they immediately think of The Blair Witch Project. A quick google research would prove you that a year before, the Last Broadcast hit the shelves and also was a found footage flick which was overshadowed by the manic success of Myrik and Sanchez’s movie. To me, the Last Broadcast cannot be said to be a REAL found footage movie because of its ending but I still would recommend you to watch it, on any given day.

Search hard enough and you might stumble upon Alien Abduction: Incident at Lake County or The McPherson Tape. The movie was shot on the budget and retells of a family having to deal with alien visitors on a party night. While it’s more well-known version was released in 1998, it shall be noted the its first iteration was screened in 1989. As a side-note, I would add that Man Bites Dog, a black and white movie in which a film student crew follows a serial killer alongside his prowling nights and day was shot and released in 1992. Since it’s a Belgian film, it tends to be forgotten but both Kid Cudi and Shia Leboeuf’s Maniac alongside Joe Lynch’s Avi Shankar-produced short film Truth in Journalism paint homage to it. So, it definitely may be worth the watch. Oh, and we could also add Romain Gavras’ videoclip for the song Stress by Justice to this list.

A man is seen turning is back to the camera, wlaking towards the sea. Black and white.
Still from Les Documents Interdits

In 1989, France also saw the release of a tv series featuring 13 episodes, all of which were found footage short films. The show presented those forbidden documents — as this is how the title is translated — as having been found in desolate area and presenting evidence of the disappearance of their maker. Some talks about witchcraft, other of aliens, mermaid, military experiment.

Les Documents Interdits is definitely worth a watch, what with its format of a narrator lazily voicing over the protagonist speaking sometimes in Russian or whatever. There’s a dark reality to those pieces. Funnily enough, I first heard of them while talking with one of my best friends who saw them as a kid and believed they were real and recounted them to me. I searched a fair share of my life for those videos on the dark side of YouTube only to find them while intending to solve the mystery of the first found footage. Another interesting titbit is my friend probably wasn’t the only one fooled by this video since way after their release Jean-Teddy Phillipe, the mastermind behind them released two new anniversary episodes, both featuring a way more humorous overtone so has not to fool the viewer anymore.

If you see this, you may well find the ancestor to BBC’s Ghostwatch in the Le Cas Ferguson episode. But we’re still in 1989 and I can safely say that a found footage shouldn’t have a voiced over dubbing because through this process it will begin to walk the line of the mockumentary, which existed way before. Hye Orson Wells’ F for Fake!

A big white bag is seen hanging in a lush forest.
Still from Guinea Pig

While searching for the first found footage, it never crossed my mind that I, for one, already seen it, and two that it could be part of my already massive collection. Enter Guinea Pig: The Devil’s Experiment, released in 1985.

On Facebook, I once wrote a review of the movie, which was more of a memoire. You see, I’ve bought this movie when I was maybe 16 years old, while grabbing a pack of cigarette in my local tobacco shop. Being the horror fiend that I was, I instantly recognized the DVD which sited on the shelves next to a bunch of magazines. So, I bought it and watched it and didn’t like it and never came back to it.

Few things are known about the movie, some say Hideshi Hino was behind the whole saga because he wanted to turned his horror manga into movies, but this fact seems to be contradicted by the evidence that the first movie contains to ties to Hino. Although the famous mangaka directed the second one, and based quite a few sequels — for the series possess six movies — on his work.

The franchise is mostly famous for Charlie Sheen having asked the FBI to investigate the whole affair after a friend sent him a copy. But he did so on the second episode which is edited and possesses camera work which you wouldn’t find in a real snuff movie. The first Guinea Pig, though, presented as a movie sent to the producer in a white envelope, is presented as a real experiment on pain.

It stars three male protagonists torturing a woman til her death and borders and BDSM art performance thanks to the apparition of maggots or decaying meat. Let me be clear. The Devil’s Experiment is not for anybody although it may very well be the first genuine found footage. Shot and mixed and edited as if it was raw, visceral real images.

I’ll leave you on this though, when I first watched this movie, as a teenager I couldn’t see the reason behind it. But I am thirty years old, with a cinematographic background way wider than it was. Nowadays I can see how the filmmaker borrowed from the Roman Porno Japanese movies in order to build a fetishist aesthetic, how every of his shots are thought out as having been done by a team of cruel mean, why he used two cameras with different white balances.

The Devil’s Experiment is the found footage movie I never recommended to anyone. It may be why I searched for it for so long.

Next week we’ll see the release of Crooked Christmas!

Releasing a paper every Friday.

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