Tuesday 1 November 2011
Looking back, I don't think anyone expected the glut of found footage movies that we have today. Sure it was, and still is, a relatively cheap and cheerful way to make a movie and the format is perfect for horror, but could anyone alive in 1999 anticipate the sheer volume of found footage we'd have twelve years later? Me, I'm kinda surprised it took this long.
Not everyone likes found footage. They can cause headaches and nausea, and for the physically unaffected they can be hard to engage with. I'm rarely bothered by the camerawork (except in the case of The Butcher) and I'll buy into almost any premise (but not Frozen), so I'm a good audience for found footage films.
For academic reasons, I don't refer to found footage as cinema verite although the two filmmaking techniques have a similar goal: to document reality. But in found footage movies, the documentary aspect of the film is part of the narrative--it is, in fact, the premise. Found footage should also not be confused with straight-up mocumentaries. Fake docs such as The Poughkeepsie Tapes and Lake Mungo, are documentaries produced after the fact that attempt to tell the complete story of the event. In the case of The Poughkeepsie Tapes, the film is about a stash of videos found in the former dwelling of a prolific serial killer. Lake Mungo chronicles one family's struggle to deal with a very personal haunting. Mocumentaries are finished products, but found footage films have been edited together from existing footage and can vary in conceit from amateur, such as Paranormal Activity, to professional quality, such as REC.
By my count, I've seen 13 found footage movies which have varied in quality from amazing to awful. The vast majority of these films are about hauntings, and because I'm such a sucker for ghost stories, they have all freaked me out at some point. Even the ones that are shit. Grave Encounters, the most recent found footage film I've seen, creeped me out enough that I had to call Lady Dinwhistle to calm me down.
Grave Encounters is a ghost hunting television show hosted by Lance Preston. For the show's sixth episode, the crew spends the night locked inside Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. The film chronicle's the crew's time inside the building as they look for and eventually encounter the supernatural.
Taking a cue from The Last Exorcism, the ghost hunters aren't true believers; their show is one of many that capitalizes on cheap entertainment. Postmodern in the extreme, the "behind the scenes" footage exposes the scripted and structured nature of reality television. The film, which we've been told has been edited for time (74 hours of tape was recovered at the scene), has also been edited to show us how the producers create the "reality" of the Grave Encounters television show.
When it turns out the hospital really is haunted, the characters are forced to undergo a sudden and difficult paradigm shift. The constructed reality of the TV show is usurped by the true reality of the hospital. Normally this is where many found footage ghost hunting plots end, with the imagined thing proving to be real. Grave Encounters takes it a step further by altering reality itself.
A world unto its own exists inside the hospital, and once the characters are initiated into that world, the hospital, for lack of a better term, starts fucking with them. What happens isn't a breakdown of reality, but rather in the same way that Lance Preston is building a fake supernatural reality for his audience, the hospital reconstructs its physical reality for the crew.
The film makes the most of its location, and name-checks Danvers State Hospital, suggesting similar events to Session 9 will take place in Grave Encounters. But where the former limited itself to ghostly manifestations of mental illness, the latter goes all out with the whole "haunted hospital" thing. Insanity isn't a plot point, but the film, it could be argued, goes crazy with the torments it heaps upon the characters.
Grave Encouters, while certainly not the worst ghost-hunting/haunting movie I've seen, isn't the best. It drags. It goes on for too long and stops being scary. It never stops being interesting, but there is a point in the film when atmosphere gives way to jump scares, and suspense is replaced with waiting. The film is definitely worth seeing, especially if you enjoy found footage films, but know that once the plot is played out, there's still ten minutes to go.
Note: In my review of The Last Exorcism, I define it as a mocumentary because it exhibits a finished quality similar to Lake Mungo (which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest horror mocumentaries ever made). Strictly speaking, The Last Exorcism is a found footage movie because of how it ends, but it has been larely filmed and edited as a professional documentary, and maintains its look and feel until the last few minutes of the film.