Ever since Paranormal Activity blew up at the box office in 2009, the horror genre has been overrun by low budget "found footage" films, most of which you've probably never heard of unless you also happened to be scouring the genre sections of your chosen video store (real or virtual) for horror movies to watch every day. In a rare case of Hollywood seemingly knowing better, despite the success of Cloverfield and Quarantine (a bigger budgeted remake of the Spanish film [Rec]), the studios haven't really cashed in on the trend - only Paramount seems to be interested in staying in the game with annual (or not?) Activity sequels. Case in point, Lionsgate brought us The Last Exorcism in 2010, but despite its success they didn't bother with the followup - CBS Films released that one, and it dropped the found footage approach to boot. Other studios have found some success with comedies (Warner's Project X) or superhero films (FOX's Chronicle, due for a sequel soon), but when it comes to horror, outside of the PA sequels, there really hasn't been all that much hitting the multiplexes.
But let me assure you, there's no shortage of these things. If you scour the DTV and indie market, and if you love these sort of movies, you can probably find a dozen new ones to watch every month. Unfortunately, as with any popular horror trend, this means a lot of people come out of the woodwork trying to cash in, and manage to get their movie sold despite the fact that they had no idea what they were doing when they made it. However, this is a unique format in that even the best made ones look like the worst at a glance; when The Asylum slapped together Paranormal Entity, their obligatory "Mockbuster" of Paranormal Activity, its budget wasn't that much lower than the film it was ripping off (not usually the case for their Transmorphers and Atlantic Rim type movies). Back in the 80s, when everyone was making their own slasher film, it didn't take much effort to spot the no-budget, amateurish entries trying to blend in with the studio offerings like My Bloody Valentine and Terror Train. You'd also have shot on video types like Sledgehammer, a dead giveaway for its origins (and budget) when stacked against their 35mm, Panavision brethren.
But that doesn't work with found footage - even the Paranormal sequels (funded by Paramount, unlike the original independent production that they picked up) are shot with the same digital cameras (or Skype-cams) that you or I could buy, and a key element to these things is that the actors be relatively/completely unknown so that we can buy into their "reality" (something Quarantine completely botched - even the barely seen camera guy was recognizable). I recently got into a bit of an argument on Twitter over whether or not it was fair to judge the loathed The Devil Inside on the same level as something like Absence (a horrid recent entry about the strange aftermath of a woman's miscarriage), as I think it IS fair to do so - the fact that Paramount picked the former out of a hat to be released on thousands of screens doesn't mean shit, as it just as easily could have been the other. Sure, I'd never bother to seriously compare Pacific Rim to its Asylum counterpart, but when it comes to found footage movies, they're all starting from more or less the same point - a few amateur actors, a camera or two, and (in some but not all cases) an idea. And thus, unfortunately, there's no easy way to spot the gems in a sea of turds - you have to just keep hoping for the best and watching as many as you find.
But that's getting to be too much of a hassle, even for someone with my unique constitution for this sort of thing. The problem is, much like 3D, found footage is a tool that can be used to enhance a story in the right hands, or a nightmare with someone who doesn't know what the hell they are doing. And more often than not lately, I'm watching films that fall into the latter category. It's not hard to see the appeal to make these things, but so few of them are made by people who actually consider what they're doing. Take the recent Frankenstein's Army, which had to clunkily insert so many explanations for how it would work ("I've never seen a camera that can do that!" says our English-speaking Russian protagonist about the 16:9, color film camera with sync sound being used in the middle of WWII) that I had to constantly keep wondering why the director opted to use the format in the first place. Or Amber Alert, where the heroine had to keep putting her own little brother (the cameraman) in horrible danger in order to make sure they filmed every moment of their attempt to rescue a stranger.
But my "favorite" example has to be Darkest Night, where some sort of EMP goes off and kills all lights and cell phones (not the service, the phones themselves die), but leaves the camera miraculously intact. And the icing on the cake was the cameraman himself, who would have to stand around and film private conversations, death scenes, sex scenes, etc all without taking an active part in the proceedings. Thus, right before he picks up the camera from a typically chatty (read: obnoxious) teenager, we are told he is autistic and doesn't talk much, "explaining" why he would stand perfectly still and get a great master shot of one of his own family members being murdered by the demonic presence. Again, if you have to make so many explanations for why things are being filmed, maybe you should just shoot it like a normal movie?
Of course, without an autistic cameraman to use (I'm still not sure if this is genius or insanely insensitive. Probably a bit of both), all FF films have to explain why people keep filming, so the audience can get their money shots. The fact that The Blair Witch Project and PA1 did just fine without any such thing is probably not worth mentioning to these "filmmakers", and so we have movies like The Zombie Diaries (both of em), where people nonchalantly film their friends being devoured by flesh eating undead rather than drop the goddamn camera and help (or even just turn and run the fuck away). I joked last week that the protagonists of a lot of these movies appear to be sociopaths that are unusually skilled at walking/running backwards through unfamiliar areas - how else can you explain the mindset of these people? So many of these filmmakers appear to forget that their camera - more often than not being operated by a trained cameraman instead of the actor - is being held by an active participant in the story (another thing Blair Witch got right - the three actors were the only ones who ever held the cameras, save for a shot or two in the (reshot) interview sequence early on), rendering most of their actions confusing, and on a subconscious level leaving the audience forgetting that they're watching someone's POV on the proceedings.
Now, no film in the genre is exempt from this; even Blair Witch has a couple of "Why are they filming? moments (though much less than any other - and there are just as many moments where they DIDN'T film and merely talked about it later, like when Josh heard sounds during the first night). I can forgive, quite easily, a few such instances as long as I get the sense that the filmmakers are trying their best to use the format properly. But you gotta meet me halfway, and so many of the ones I've mentioned (and many, many more - I haven't even gotten into all the Bigfoot ones I've seen) don't even come close. And even though I compared it to 3D in terms of it being a tool, in a way bad implementation of a POV aesthetic is much, much worse than bad 3D - at least there I can switch to the 2D version. But when I see a great concept being destroyed by an ill-fitting "gimmick" like Frankenstein's Army, it just makes me sad AND angry - all those great monsters, wasted on a movie that by design barely gets to put them to any use (it'd be even worse if they were sticking to the actual technology available at that time).
So, to repeat: I'm done. I always have to watch a few of them every month for my Netflix job, and as an early champion of the first PA I feel sort of obligated to stick with the series even though the last one is probably one of the worst FF films I've seen yet (yes, I'd even say PA4 was worse than Devil Inside). But otherwise, unless I hear from trusted allies that one of them is worth seeking out, I'm sitting the found footage genre out for a while. There are only so many times I can say aloud "Why are they filming this?" (or, even better "Why were they already filming?" when a scene starts with something completely uninteresting, a few moments BEFORE the scary thing happens) before I have to start asking "Why am I WATCHING this?" Life's too short to risk seeing another Amber Alert.