Deja Viscera: Found Footage
Every month, Ryan Horner and Marcus Irving offer up six picks for horror fans that are a little off the beaten path, in Deja Viscera.
Some people just love to hate on the found footage subgenre. This distaste stems from a mixture of over-saturation and lack of believability. While shooting a film in found footage can help with budgetary concerns, by its very nature, it defies logic. When film already asks that we suspend our disbelief, found footage has to be that much more truthful. Yet, with the appropriate skills and patience, the medium can offer a vital intimacy to a sparse, character-driven narrative. It brings claustrophobia to REC, a reckless abandon to Cloverfield, and a frightening realism to Willow Creek. Here are three found footage films that are unfairly risking anonymity.
The Midnight Swim (2014) d. Sarah Adina Smith
Spirit Lake is deep. So deep, in fact, that no diver has managed to find the bottom. When Dr. Amelia Brooks falls into its depths, never to return, her three half-children go to their mother’s lakeside home to try and gain some closure; yet, something draws them toward the lake. Something has a song it wants them to sing. There is a subtle mysticism that glistens on the surface of The Midnight Swim. Sarah Adina Smith crafts a practically non-existent eidolon, lingering in the background, a faint whisper that permeates the darkness in the mind. June, the youngest sister, feels that pull more than anyone. She is odd. So odd, in fact, than no one has been able to figure her out. She carries a camera with her everywhere she goes, always filming — the artifice of film offering a separation from the natural world which seems, altogether, too stressful. The found footage aspect fosters a palpable intimacy between the characters that borders on the uncomfortable. It slowly worms through the three sister’s lives, unspooling years of repressed anger, love, mental illness, and skepticism. It plays off like a family drama, but silent specters hang in the air. It may take its time but The Midnight Swim is a fascinating slow burn into ghost filled waters with some wonderful performances and immersive cinematography.
The Den (2013) d. Zachary Donohue
Admittedly, The Den is a little ridiculous. It’s like a conglomeration of the morbidly playful Saw and the absurdly nihilistic The Strangers where rules are made to be broken for no reason at all. And if you think found footage is reviled, try recommending a movie framed almost entirely through webcams. I know it sounds unpleasant. This may rekindle painfully awkward memories of Unfriended and I apologize, but The Den makes it work. It’s definitely a stretch, but what it sometimes lacks in plausibility, it makes up for in its wonderful pacing and genuine air of tension. I found myself unnerved. It’s a home invasion picture for the virtually inclined. With technology ever more frequently becoming the basis for how we communicate, it’s often a more fragile landscape than our actual homes. Donohue taps directly into modern paranoia. The Den isn’t concerned with teaching lessons or even making you like the people that it’s about. Instead, it just wants you to feel vulnerable — naked. All I can say is that I’m not usually this tempted to block my laptop camera.
Exists (2014) d. Eduardo Sanchez
If you think found footage just doesn’t work, here’s your answer: Eduardo Sanchez. The director of The Blair Witch Project comes back to the medium with the lean and mean Exists. You’ve heard the story before: A group of friends go to a cabin in the woods to party and relax but find themselves in peril. This time, the demon is the blurry beast himself — Bigfoot. Where last month’s recommendation, Altered (also from Sanchez), would tend toward farce, Exists takes itself seriously. It’s almost exhaustingly eventful, not seeking to reinvent the formula, but reveling in all of its best parts. The multiple-camera setup that clumsily plagued Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, for instance, is adeptly handled in Exists to accurately track movement. The immediacy of found footage speaks directly to Sanchez’s sensibilities. It’s not important to him that we understand these characters. It’s important that we fall directly into their lives. All of this is to say: Exists is scarily immersive. It isn’t a subtle slow burn; in fact, it’s quite brazen in its delivery. This non-stop quality elevates it as one of the most anxious additions to the found footage genre I’ve seen. With Altered and Exists in his pocket, I hope Sanchez keeps breathing life into decaying lore.
- Ryan Horner
The found footage subgenre is one of the most divisive to be found in horror. Personally, I feel that when used well, it's among the most effective ways to make the viewer feel like they are a part of the movie. On the other hand, when it's bad, it can be confusing and nauseating. Overall I would call myself a fan, and my picks each reflect a different aspect of what makes the low budget genre so interesting.
V/H/S 2 (2013) d. Various Directors
Horror anthologies are about as hit and miss as you can get. The sequel to the 2012 collection of shorts raises the bar to the point where I would say not only are there no bad segments, I can say that they are nearly all excellent. The stories include a throwback story of kids fighting back against an alien intruder, a man grappling with his new cybernetic eye implant that haunts him with images of the dead, and a bike rider who encounters a horde of zombies in the woods. All are presented as mysterious VHS tapes found in a dead teens apartment discovered by a pair of private investigators. The segment directed by Gareth Evans (The Raid) is my favorite of the bunch, a story of a documentary film crew investigating a cultish compound in Indonesia. Soon after the crew are welcomed in all hell breaks loose and the four must fight their way out before the truly shocking ending.
As Above, So Below (2014) d. John Erick Dowdle
The catacombs that lie beneath Paris have always fascinated me, they are a naturally sinister area in which to set a horror film. Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) is an archeologist on a treasure hunt searching for an ancient artifact believed to be hidden in the mass graves that lie just beneath the surface of Paris. She, her boyfriend (Ben Feldman), and a crew of locals that know the tombs well head underground, evading police and eventually pushing through to the secret on top of the secret, a literal hell portal hidden in the catacombs. The explorers drop one by one as Scarlett gets closer and closer to her goal. The claustrophobic caverns and beautiful lighting are As Above/So Below's greatest strengths. The tension level is raised again and again as our heroes suffer through demons and pools of blood as the terror of knowing it's too late to turn around sinks in.
The Sacrament (2013) d. Ti West
Ti West's brilliant horror film is one of the most unique experiences I've ever had with a movie. I'll warn you right now it's a little graphic and gross. I've been scared plenty of times by a movie before, but I've never come close to the amount of dread that The Sacrament filled me with. The film is unofficially a telling of the Jonestown Massacre, the horrific event that ended in over 900 Americans in a cult taking their own lives at the same time in Guyana. The Sacrament brings this unimaginable terror to life in disgusting ways. When the leader, known simply as Father (Gene Jones, No Country for Old Men), decides the time is right, he hosts a large event for all of the members of the commune. They are all forced to drink a cyanide laced drink and soon begin to die. We see them foaming at the mouth, rolling around, screaming, attempting to get away only to be shot. It's unbelievably grim, some know what is happening and are ready, most are terrified but do it anyway, even forcing it into their children's mouths. The camera forces you to watch as our main character's (a VICE News film crew) are in the middle of the fray. It's not sensationalized, it feels real, and I simply could not handle the gruesome imagery in the scene that felt like it lasted hours. I grabbed an empty Doritos bag that was in the trash and threw up in it, sitting with the contents for the remainder of the film because the revolting smell wasn't bothering me nearly as much as what was happening on screen (Editor's Note: Eww, gross.). I can't think of higher praise for a horror film, and it's something I will never forget.