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A grainy extreme close-up of the face of a frightened woman crawling along the floor, green-tinted as if seen through a night-vision camera in 2007’s [REC] Image: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

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Is found-footage horror a dead genre?

Why low-fi, low-budget horror is still a viral success — and why it’s had to find new forms in movies like Skinamarink

By the early 2010s, it seemed like the only way to make any kind of successful horror movie was to frame it as a found-footage film. A mode of storytelling relaunched in 1999 by The Blair Witch Project and carried on by Paranormal Activity and its followers, the technique was all about simulating the idea that a given movie wasn’t professionally filmed, but had somehow captured real events. It was designed to look and feel like mundane footage shot by ordinary people, eventually escalating into something terrifying.

On paper, this approach could make horror features more intense for audience members by making a film feel more immersive or believable, like something ripped from reality. Arguably more important for the bigwigs in Hollywood, found-footage movies’ rough visuals and rip-and-grip production made them cheaper to produce than normal horror fare. But what’s rampant one day in the moviegoing scene tends to become scarce the next. The traditional found-footage horror movie has mostly died off over the last decade, even as core tenets of the genre have endured in other kinds of scary storytelling.

The original incarnation of found-footage horror cinema could’ve lasted longer if it weren’t for that fatal flaw of burnout. Much as with the onslaught of hastily assembled digital 3D features after Avatar’s success in 2009, every studio in Hollywood began to release found-footage movies in the 2000s in the hopes of striking it rich at the box office with the next Blair Witch Project. Since these titles were so cheap to make, they could be hastily assembled by the most ramshackle of operations. Even the always cash-strapped Weinstein Company was able to churn out Apollo 18 in 2011.

Joshua Leonard, in a grubby flannel and heavy backpack, stands in a forest gaping at the camera in The Blair Witch Project.
Josh from The Blair Witch Project
Photo: Artisan Entertainment

With so many found-footage horror movies in the ecosystem, the subgenre’s cliches became glaringly apparent to moviegoers. The relentless shaky-cam work began to register as nauseating, and as a pro forma element rather than a unique detail of the cinematography. Titles like The Gallows struggled to concoct clever reasons why characters kept filming the events around them, even during chaotic, scary mayhem. This kind of lazy writing, inspiring incessant “Why don’t they put the camera down?!” jokes on the internet, quickly drowned out any potential excitement for new found-footage titles.

It didn’t help that found-footage movies struggled with a “live by the sword, die by the sword” problem. The excitement of using comparatively new filmmaking technology, like high-end portable digital cameras, to drive the plots of movies like Cloverfield lent these projects a sense of realism and made them relatable. The characters on screen were using tools familiar to average moviegoers. As technology became more and more integral to the lives of everyday people, it seemed like found-footage horror movies were uniquely situated to register as relevant to the global cinematic landscape.

Nowhere was found-footage horror fare’s capacity to be blisteringly current more apparent than in The Blair Witch Project. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s film emerged from a decade of cinema where aspiring filmmakers were trying to use minimal financial means to make the next Clerks or El Mariachi. Capturing a trio of amateur filmmakers through their own cameras as they descend into dark madness was a perfect way to make a horror movie frighteningly relevant to 1990s pop culture. No other style of visual horror could quite crystallize that element like found-footage cinema.

A couple huddles in bed, pointing fearfully at something offscreen, in a grainy, low-resolution camera image from 2007’s Paranormal Activity Image: Blumhouse Productions

But the later entries in this genre stopped feeling artistically novel or technologically relevant. Specifically, many of them felt behind the times in terms of how in-universe characters were recording spooky occurrences. As late as 2015, titles like Project Almanac were still centered on young characters walking around with big video cameras, but that just wasn’t how people recorded everyday footage anymore. In the age of the smartphone and Zoom calls, the concept of younger people using professional cameras to capture unusual events felt laughably old-school.

The ever-expanding treasure trove of information on the internet also kept found-footage creators from convincingly swaying moviegoers into believing that what they were watching was “real.” Back in 1999, The Blair Witch Project hinged its entire marketing campaign on pretending that the three young people featured in the film were actually missing, and that the film provided clues about their disappearance. This promotional concept, sustained for months in the late 1990s, would be debunked within a few hours on Twitter today. Rampant cynicism and easy access to tools like Wikipedia have ensured that a core appeal of early found-footage horror movies can no longer exist in 2023.

But that doesn’t mean everything about this style of filmmaking is dead. Certain tenets of the found-footage genre have evolved with the times into the screenlife subgenre. Films like Unfriended, Profile, Searching, and Missing take place entirely on computer screens. The characters are still being filmed by amateur means while facing intense scenarios, but now it’s through screen capture. There’s also a more incidental nature to how characters’ actions are recorded, with protagonists often unaware they’re being filmed.

Other horror movies are capturing the raw, immersive feeling of found-footage movies in different ways. The recent horror phenomenon Skinamarink depicts its inexplicable suburban frights through cinematography evoking old, grainy home videos. Director Kyle Edward Ball designed Skinamarink to look like something you’d find on a blank VHS tape in a garage-sale bin. This keeps the film rooted in the hallmark of vintage found-footage fare of depicting something chilling hiding in plain sight, only perceivable through the lens of an ordinary camera.

A young boy sits in a dim, blue hallway with his back to the camera, facing a series of open doorways, in a typically grainy, fuzzy shot from the horror movie Skinamarink Image: Shudder

Skinamarink, unlike its found-footage predecessors, never pretends that a discernible in-universe character is holding the camera. Most spiritual successors to the likes of Paranormal Activity have avoided the pretense that audiences are watching “real” people. Searching and Missing are anchored by recognizable actors John Cho and Storm Reid, respectively. And the opening credits of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair — an earlier grainy, immersive horror movie that captures the same voyeuristic vibe as Skinamarink — introduces lead performer Anna Cobb as making “her feature film debut.” Though Fair tells its story largely through self-playing YouTube playlists and Skype calls, it still creates a discernible barrier between reality and its frightening story.

Classic found-footage movies usually explain the presence of a camera by having someone controlling it (like T.J. Miller’s character Hud in Cloverfield) or making it clear to the viewer that the camera is fixed to a tripod or a similar object (like the original Paranormal Activity movies). The new horror movies following in their wake aren’t meant to be “real” pieces of footage. That gives directors more flexibility around what the audience sees. Missing, for instance, flips across time to show the desktop activity of both its protagonist and her mother. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair cuts between eerie videos being watched by tormented teen Casey (Cobb) and concerned adult JLB (Michael J. Rogers).

Skinamarink goes the furthest with this deviation by framing many of its shots in such an aloof manner that moviegoers can’t even see the faces of the two young protagonists. While certain shots place viewers directly into a character’s point of view, most of the time, Skinamarink is capturing staples of a suburban home (toys on the floor, the basement, the living room) from angles and vantage points as unusual as the events that have befallen its central characters.

Casey, covered in glow in the dark facepaint and holding a stuffed animal’s eyeball in front of her left eye, gazes ominously into her webcam in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Image: Utopia

Just the positioning of the camera is designed to make viewers uneasy because of the dissonance between the unorthodox camera angles and the grainy look evoking familiar home movies. These evocative choices in Skinamarink’s camerawork would be impossible to realize if the movie kept the camera permanently locked in a character’s hands.

No movie genre ever really stays dead, not as long as throwbacks, revivals, and movies inspired by the past are still being made. That’s just as true for found-footage horror movies as it is for musicals and Westerns. (Look at the recent found-footage movie The Outwaters for proof.) But the original incarnation of this genre, the boom that dominated the early 2010s, is basically defunct. Found-footage horror has evolved into more visually flexible fare that captures the same dynamic in new ways. It’s glaringly apparent what killed the trend, but it’s just as obvious that key facets of the genre are continuing to captivate and frighten moviegoers today. They’re just popping out of the shadows in very different ways.

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