The found footage genre can be both the best friend, and greatest enemy, of horror moviegoers. There are great successes like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. But there also giant flops like The Gallows and Apollo 18. It's like every time we see a commercial for one of these flicks, we have hopes that it can actually scare us. Most times, we leave the theater gravely disappointed. Many fans and critics have called for a production halt to all found footage movies, and I understand where they're coming from. My only issue is the chance that we might miss a diamond in the rough. With that being said, I've done a little study of the sub-genre and compiled a list of do's and don'ts. If you combine these steps with my Rules of Horror article, I believe we can actually produce some quality in an age of mediocracy.
DO: Make Believable Characters
I know I mentioned this in my other article, but it's one of the most critical mistakes horror writers are making nowadays. Too often we see the same teenagers going where they're not supposed to, or a guide who has never seen this particular stretch of wood or cave before. Real characterization will make or break any horror movie, especially a found footage film. This is what made Paranormal Activity so real to us. Micah and Katie argued and flirted like an actual couple. They were in their house the entire film and that made for a believable scenario, and they fed off of each other really well. Watching that movie made us feel like we were really watching and actual couple go through something terrifying, and that made it scarier because we thought it could happen to us.
DON'T: Throw in Unnecessary Characters
This kind of goes hand in hand with the DO above, but it happens entirely too often. We see these casts of more than five characters wandering around with one or two video cameras and we're sitting there wondering what in the hell they're doing there. I think that, in most cases, a lot of these characters are written, just so that they can add one more cool death or jump scare to the film. The problem with this is that, when you're dealing with the concept of found footage, only a few people can get quality screen time. With bigger casts, there's no room to develop all of your characters and make anyone believable. Yeah, maybe you'll sacrifice a death scene you've been thinking about, but there's a good chance it's probably necessary.
DO: Use Long Takes
Some of the best scenes to come out of this genre have been those without breaks. When the audience doesn't have a chance to look away from a stressful situation, anxiety has the chance to build. The climax of Willow Creek is literally just a fifteen minute scene of two people sitting in a tent. That sounds boring when you say it, but it was actually an extremely well-shot sequence. You could hear sounds outside getting closer while watching the couple inside the tent get more and more terrified. As you watched their fear grow, you could feel the tension growing as a viewer and you found yourself hoping that a break would come any minute. Scenes like this also allow the actors a chance to really hone their craft and work for the film. I think this brings an element of realism to a genre that desperately needs it.
DON'T: Over-Edit Everything
Most producers of found footage movies should have fired their editors. The problem isn't that they aren't good at what they do, it's that they've done too much. I understand that a quick cut here and there can make for a scarier scene, but why would there be cuts in the middle of someone running through the woods? See how that doesn't make any sense? When we see cuts being made in unnecessary places, we throw all thoughts of realism out the window. I know I keep touching on realism, but I have a reason. IT'S SUPPOSED TO LOOK REAL!!!!! The entire basis of the genre is to make people believe that the film is real, so why would you go back and change that in post? Great question, I know. Moving on.
DO: Use Multiple Sources
One aspect of found footage that can really bring the story to life is the ability to use multiple points of view. Most of the time this is done with one or two cameras being held by a couple of characters. Some directors go even further and add in devices like Skype and video messaging, or old videos that have already been shot. These devices allow the viewer to take in multiple stories, while still building the fear of the tale at hand. I especially think using old home videos can be particularly useful. V/H/S is a great example of that. I believe the best example is in Sinister. While the film itself isn't found footage, the videos that were found in the attic proved to be the most terrifying part of the film while still being a great plot device.
DON'T: Sob Uncontrollably
I understand that people cry when they're scared. It's human nature. What isn't necessary is holding a camera in front of your face while snot comes out of your nose. We have seen enough girls get to the end of a movie and sit in the corner crying, realizing there's nothing left to do. When the characters lose hope in the situation, the audience loses hope in the film.
DO: Utilize Compact Space
One of the biggest causes of anxiety in an audience is claustrophobia. When we feel like there is nowhere to go and fear is around every corner, we get SUPER stressed. Wide open spaces can be scary because bad things can come from anywhere, but tight spaces are scarier because your greatest fears are only inches away. Whether you're moving through a winding crawlspace, cave diving, or just trying to navigate a dark apartment complex, the opportunity to put terror that close is hard for an audience to overcome.
DON'T: Try So Hard
Much like the bad cuts and edits, directors can also do way too much. The need to try and throw in added storylines to build extra scares just takes away from what's really going on. Take As Above, So Below for example. This film was actually building something scary for a bit, but then they had a couple of scenes where a character got sucked into an imaginary car and another experiences slight schizophrenia under the water. Once it got too out of hand, I lost interest. Even though there were scary moments that followed, I had already been far removed from the story.
DO: HAVE A REASON FOR THE CAMERA
This may be the biggest problem facing found footage movies. Characters just have cameras in their hands for no reason. When that's the case, the rest of the film just kinda stops making sense. When I look at the good found footage films, each one has this in common: they give the characters an actual reason to have a camera. This year's The Visit is a great example of this. The older sister was getting into documentaries and wanted to capture footage of her and her brother meeting their grandparents for the first time. I know this isn't the best storyline, but I never once questioned why the characters still had their cameras out. When the audience starts questioning motives, scares just don't quite work.
DON'T: Make Nudity a Priority
I'm not sure what it is about horror movies, but it's like they think we will only watch them if there's a prospect of seeing a naked Scream Queen. I'm not sure what it's gonna take to get these filmmakers to understand it just isn't necessary. In every found footage movie featuring a couple, there's undoubtably a scene where the man tries to convince is partner to have sex on the camera. That has really gotten old. Seriously, it can stop whenever. We won't miss it.