In the past few years there has been a rash of "found footage" horror films, from the J.J. Abrams-produced CLOVERFIELD to horror maestro George A. Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD.  The modern spate of these films comes from the parameters of experimentation successfully explored by THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT a decade ago: create a monstrous opposition to characters fleshed out entirely by their presence on screen, utilizing only their viewpoint - the camera - to put a distinct subjective mark on the developing events.  Some are small snapshots of epic-sized events, as in CLOVERFIELD and DIARY, while others deal in specific afflictions, like the apartment building outbreak in [REC] (remade in the U.S., well, I might add, as QUARANTINE) or the documentary crew's supernatural encounters in BLAIR WITCH.

Small-scale documentation of large-scale disaster in CLOVERFIELD.

The found footage in all these films relates "truth" to the audience.  The aesthetic choice of first-person video or newsgrade HD-tape to tell the story is, after all, something we are used to from our own exposure to home videos and the nightly news.  Its image is grainier, usually a bit darker, and somehow seems less artificial than film, especially the often well-lit, detached, third-person omniscient narratives of mainstream filmmaking.  Interestingly enough, the lighting and camera movement is often less natural in these films than in any other type of film, with light having to be filtered and created in various locations, and the camera movement much more pronounced than even regular head movement, all to produce the illusion of how things really look.

An interesting example of artificial lighting used to strong effect can be seen on the SYFY network's reality show GHOST HUNTERS.  Regardless of what evidence the TAPS crew turns up and how you feel about it personally, the use of infrared light (IR) gives credence to the reality that they're running around in the dark in supposedly haunted locations.  But with a second look at the show, the illusion is apparant, as artificial IR is placed throughout so the cameras shooting in IR have something to generate an image with among all the darkness.  This does nothing to diminish any evidence - doors and objects moving or manifesting by themselves would presumably do so with or without the IR running.  The light is purely for the benefit of viewing this version of reality - one in which we can see things happening in the dark, and static cameras without nightvision would serve only to mostly generate what is easily the most dismissable paranormal activity: electronic voice phenomena and unexplained noises.  Likewise, the ending of [REC], which employs IR, is so effective because, much thanks to shows like GHOST HUNTERS, the audience is already accustomed to that mode of camera function as portraying "real" darkness, even though it is just as artificial as the light that allows us to see heroines hiding in closed closets at night in slasher movies like HALLOWEEN.

GHOST HUNTERS crew Dave Tango and Steve Gonzalves. 
Notice the IR illumination of the dark and how it shapes your perception of what these guys are dealing with.

Which brings me to the latest film in this lineage: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.  An interesting correllary to GHOST HUNTERS due to its presentation (a static camera captures much of the activity while the characters are sleeping or not around entirely) and its subject mattter, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is an oddity because its decisions of what to show and not show ultimately make it feel more false than even the contrived voice-over narration does DIARY OF THE DEAD.  How does this happen?

"Night Vision" via lamp in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

First, the lighting design is typical Hollywood naturalism.  There is no IR, and the characters are actually shown turning on and testing lights in various rooms that will allow the camera to see anything that may happen.  Even the scenes in the bedroom are lit by a lamp turned against the wall to reflect the light.  This is actually the most contrived aesthetic choice in the film.  Who sleeps with a lamp bright enough to light up the room on, and why NOT use the camera's nightvision function?  Would IR be such a distraction from realism the audience would reject it?  I doubt it, especially given the use of IR to present reality in other shows and films the audience would be accustomed to.

The main characters of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY aren't really interested in what's going on.

Second, the final few scenes give up too much information, with very little precedent from earlier in the same movie.  The final shot of a demonic morphing face coming straight at the camera is too much, especially given that what has happened is already wholly apparant to anyone remotely familiar with the past forty years of genre films.  Before the last twenty minutes, there are hints dropped that the force plaguing the couple may be demonic, but there is nothing aside from a website that gives any concrete evidence on the subject - at least until the final moments of the film.  Conspicously, the absence of the oft-mentioned and discussed demonologist is another detriment to the film's effectiveness.  Part of what makes the ending of a film like BLAIR WITCH compelling is the huge amount of back story provided at the beginning of the "documentary" that puts the events of the ending - the crew ending up in the basement of the old house, finding one of them facing a corner like reports had stated - into proper perspective.

The final moments of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and [REC]

Hell, even in CLOVERFIELD and DIARY OF THE DEAD, where the monsters are highly visible, the characters attempt to understand what's happening, and in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT the film sets out to be explictily about the monstrous history of the witch and teach people about it before developint into the found footage day-in-the-life tropes of its film crew.  The lack of interest in the "Big Bad" (to borrow a phrase from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) actually enhances the falseness of the final scene.  No matter how many times the camera's presence is invoked as causing the increased frequency of events, it's hardly convincing that a possessed woman would crawl toward the camera, smile while her face morphs into a demonic grimace and then lunge toward the screen, attacking the camera and - that's it.  There's not really an ending.  The entire film's pretense of reality is completely gone at this point.  Unlike the many other "found footage" films, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY's aesthetic choices forego reality too many times to be convincing.

Going briefly back to GHOST HUNTERS and its own found footage - the evidence reviewed after the investigation - I find it interesting that what may make the infrared aesthetic seem more realistic is the fact that so much of the GHOST HUNTERS footage could be actaual paranormal activity.  Sure, during the show, it's a lot of people wandering around talking about hearing noises and seeing things out of the corner of their eyes, but when a camera is set up and there's no one else around, how do you really argue with that?  There are just too many pieces of video captured by the TAPS crew that just can't be explained away easily.  The footage is there, it's made crystal clear by the IR, and it's convincing.  In a way, seeing is believing, and if the process of accepting footage as reality begins with IR and its ability to illuminate the darkness, it may just be forever associated with it whenever we process realism any time thereafter.

Luckily, I don't think the found footage genre is going to die out any time soon.  Romero is working on a sequel to DIARY, and there's an oddball out there called THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES that incorporates found footage techniques, as well as the current release THE FOURTH KIND which purports to show real footage during the film's reenactment of them.  Though POUGHKEEPSIE has yet to get a wide release, I hope these films can add to the discussion of found footage aesthetics in new and interesting ways, and hopefully, enable us to look further into our perceptions of reality.

For those of you unfamiliar with GHOST HUNTERS, check out the link below.  It will give you some idea of the evidence they collect, and the aesthetics I discussed above.


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