found footage movie

Wicked Wednesday: The McPherson Tape (1989)

As an adult, the horror movies that scare me the most are home invasion films. Black Christmas (my steadfast favourite) gets to me every time. The leering, the creeping – it all makes my skin crawl. Anything where someone is there that shouldn’t be. But as a child, there was one thing that scared me the most: aliens. And in The McPherson Tape, both my fears meet in the middle to shake hands.

The McPherson Tape is one of the earliest examples of the found footage style. Written, directed, produced and filmed by Dean Alioto, this movie is done a shoestring budget and is remarkably convincing for its age. The recording claims to show the last footage of the Van Heeses family before their disappearance years earlier.

In 1983, the Van Hesses gather to celebrate Michelle’s 5th birthday. The camera operator, Mike, irritates his family right off the bat. He refuses to put down the camera, insisting he capture every moment on the night. Now, as this is the 80s, this is absolutely believable. My dad had one of those VHS cameras, and it went everywhere with us. And what do we have to show for it? Hours of footage my family looking grumpy and having mundane conversations.

As the night carries on, Mike continues to film the family as they celebrate. After Michelle blows out her candles, the family discover the lights won’t turn back on. Mike and his brothers, Eric and Jason, go to examine the breaker. But even still, the lights in the house remain off.

When they see something in the woods, they go off together to find the source of the strange light. And while they expect to see the neighbours, they instead spot a group of extra terrestrials and their spaceship.

The boys all run home when they realise they’ve been spotted by the aliens. The women back at the house are utterly confused, and the family soon begins to argue, especially as to whether or not they should stay in the house or flee.

But the aliens have their own ideas. They begin to attack the house. When one of the brothers kills an alien, its corpse is brought back into the house. Why does it need to be inside? It’s not really explained. Though I guess it does make for a fun trophy…?

Eventually, the Van Heeses calm down. They decide to all head home for the night, believing the excitement to be over. But of course it’s not! These aliens aren’t going to go home quietly.

As the family begins to try to fight their for their escape, they soon discover that the aliens are both smarter and more powerful than any human could be. After all, the family are never to be seen again.

By today’s standards, the budget means there are some very basic effects (think alien masks and black leotards). But I know that if I would have seen this as a child in the 90s, I would have 100% been convinced. The technology’s lack of finesse adds to the ambience. You’re not always certain of what you’re looking at.

Movies like this are always remarkable because of what they achieve with so little. The cast are really convincing in this. While no one is related, they all bicker like they’ve spent too many days together. Though it should be noted, that for those of us who are sensitive to noise, it can be really difficult to hear what’s going on.

This movie ticked all the boxes for me: it’s convincing as hell (minus those little alien dudes), it’s pace keeps moving, and it has an ending that makes you shout “COME ON! NO!” If you’re able to look beyond dated technology and are able to appreciate achievements like this (a la Bad Ben) this is a classic found footage movie that does the trick.

Wicked Wednesday: Grave Encounters (2011)

People love ghost hunting shows. I, for one, have never seen a single episode of Ghost Hunters or Ghost Adventures, but I really love the idea of them. My memory tells me that there used to even be tours of these shows, as I recall seeing promotions at venues in Milwaukee. But I honestly think that was just a really weak fever dream.

Found footage movie Grave Encounters shows us what happens when one of these ghost hunting squads finally find what they’re looking for.

Grave Encounters opens as many in the genre do, with an introduction explaining that everyone is already dead. The crew of a fictional ghost hunting show, Grave Encounters, went missing while investigating ghosts in the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. The footage shown is supposedly unaltered and raw (though that’s definitely not true as in the beginning we definitely have edits and inserts of footage).

According to legend, Collingwood had a doctor, Arthur Friedkin, who performed lobotomies and unethical experiments on his patients. It wasn’t until he was called by those very patients that his work stopped. But the hospital has been supposedly haunted since.

The hospital caretaker agrees to lock the TV show crew into the hospital. Not sure why this was necessary to actually do. But TV. Whatever. They also have steady cams set up throughout the hospital to get footage from around the hospital.

At first, the group experience nothing in particular. They hear ‘noises’ that are really there and speak to ghosts that aren’t real. It isn’t until they begin to pack up in the morning that they realise something is wrong.

When cameraman Matt goes to pickup the steady cams, he doesn’t come back. The group go together to look for him, but he’s seemingly vanished without a trace.

Once the group admit that they can’t find Matt alone, they go to the front entrance as the caretaker should have already unlocked them. Only…it’s still locked. And while it’s well past sunrise, it’s still pitch black outside.

The cast and crew of Grave Encounters soon find themselves in a living nightmare. The building changes itself. There’s guest appearances from not-so-ex-patients. And in true found-footage fashion, they’re all picked off in various supernatural fashions.

Unlike many found footage movies, you get to see everyone’s demise in detail. Everyone gets their moment of screentime unlike the Blair Witch Projects and Last Broadcasts. But that, unfortunately, really slowed down the pace for me. I love a bit of unseen terror in horror. We also get waaaay too many glitch effects. We get it. Ghosts are there. We get it. We get it.

That being said, I fairly enjoyed Grave Encounters. The set up in particular.

In many ways, the successes of Grave Encounters reminded me of Hell House LLC. Both are fun, modern takes on the found footage film. Most importantly, they both have good explanations for why they’re filming. That’s always a key element for me in this genre.

But Hell House works for me in ways that Grace Encounters doesn’t. For one, while a spooky abandoned asylum is cool setting – it did feel a bit…wrong. I didn’t think the patients should be a part of the haunting. Why not make it a full-on sadistic set of doctors. Many of them were the real villains of the era, at least more than the patients were were.

The footage at the beginning of the film reminded me of Geraldo Rivera’s now-iconic expose on Willowbrook State School. None of those poor souls should be doomed to “haunt” anyone. It feeds back into the idea that people with mental illnesses or disabilities are something to be scared of. And if that wasn’t what the film was trying to get across, it was doing a piss poor job of showing me otherwise.

Wicked Wednesday: Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes (2012)

As the world is seemingly getting smaller, the mysteries of the world seem a bit sillier. And yet, so many of us love the unknown.

This lingering obsession is seen in shows like Ancient Aliens. But increasingly, people are turning to true crime, the unknown more about what we know: ourselves.

In the found-footage movie Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes, a group of contemporary filmmakers head to Northern California where they plan on speaking to a man who claims to have found the body of a Sasquatch. Their leader, the unlikable Sean, believes that their new documentary will be network gold.

When the group arrive, they struggle to find the home of the man they seek. They find a path, but their van gets stuck in the mud. They eventually come face-to-face with Mr Drybeck (played by Frank Ashmore, who absolutely steals the show). The eccentric man takes the group to his cabin in the woods, which is only powered by a generator.

Some of the filmmakers are more excited than others. On one end of the spectrum is sound buy Kevin, who is as meek as a mouse and believes everything Drybeck tells them. Robin, the producer, is a bit more relaxed. She ‘greets the forest people’ with her shaman skills (or something).

That first night, things immediately go south. Something attacks the group from outside the cabin – much to Sea’s delight. And in the morning, Drybeck drives off in his jeep without the filmmakers. In a panic, Kevin goes off on his own to retrieve the van while wearing a body cam.

The remaining group look at the damage done to the cabin and find large scratch marks and urine on the walls. They later find footprints and a nest. Robin is attacked by an unseen something, but is saved by Drybeck, who has returned.

The attack injures Robin pretty severely, hindering her ability to walk. Sean and cameraman Darryl insist on getting her to a hospital, but when they try to leave, they find every road block by large trees.

Sean agrees to stay at the cabin. Drybeck promises to take the remaining men with him to a sea cave to look at the Sasquatch body he’d found. That leaves Robin all alone.

It’s unsurprising when everything goes south from there. But is it the Sasquatch that are really to blame? Or are they really trying to protect people from the spirit world? Since this is found-footage, you don’t really get a lick of an answer.

So…The Lost Coast Tapes isn’t…great. Though I guess it’s as much as you can hope for from a bigfoot movie. Awkwardly acted, but stronger at other points. Confusing camera use (as per usual with the lesser of this genre). Sometimes entertaining. And surprisingly, very few of those scenes where it’s just the shake-y cam pointed at the ground.

But is there really room in our modern world for this type of found-footage film anymore? I suppose there’s a small slice of the audience who care. We make found-footage movies to be convinced by what’s on (or not on) screen. Going into movies like this is strange because we’re already certain that these creatures don’t exist.

….right?

Scares are very difficult to come by here. And I think that’s more the subject’s fault than anything.

Though, if there is a good big foot movie. Please send it my way.

Wicked Wednesday: Mr Jones (2013)

Found footage films are pretty “Marmite”. Some people love them, others hate them. For me, I think the bigger question while watching found footage movies is why? Very few stories are enhanced this way. Do certain stories need to be found footage? Can the story be better told in a more traditional way?

In most cases, the found footage style is a waste. A ploy to get asses in seats.

Mr Jones is one of the more tough ones to figure out. For one, it falls into the category of “these people are way too attractive to be actual humans”. Think of all the reasons why Blair Witch failed and Blair Witch Project succeeded: are your actors believable? One of the best examples of this is Bad Ben (you’ve watched it already, haven’t you?). But I always find it difficult to enjoy a found footage movie when everyone in the movie looks way too good too be all together in the same setting.

The premise is on the lofty side too. A young couple decide to go out into the wilderness to stay in a cabin for a few months. It’s their sort of “reconnecting” opportunity as their relationship has been going through a rough patch.

Husband Scott is a documentary maker, trying to get work done out in the wild. But he quickly realises that he has no point in mind for his new film, and it doesn’t help matters when he quits taking his medication.

When his wife, Penny, finds out about his self-treatment, she becomes upset. The couple continue to be on the rocks until one night. A group of birds attack the house. And the following day, Scott’s backpack (containing the car keys) is stolen by a hooded figure.

He and Penny eventually track down the figure and find a home filled with strange scarecrow-type figures straight out of the Blair Witch’s house. But while Scott becomes paranoid, Penny becomes absolutely jubilant. When they return to their cabin, she informs Scott that the man they followed is “Mr. Jones” – a Banksy-esque artist whose work is worth millions as the artists himself stays anonymous.

The couple quickly decide to make money off their find and focus Scott’s documentary on Mr. Jones. Scott goes to New York where he begins collecting interviews with various art collectors, experts and the people who have received pieces from Mr. Jones unsolicited. The collectors love Mr. Jones. The experts love exploring the artist’s use of protective charms as his motifs. And the people who’ve received the art? Well, they’re haunted by a nightmare.

Penny, meanwhile, stays in the country where she bumps into Mr. Jones. She notices that the ‘artist’ wears a creepy burlap sack mask. But the man seems harmless.

When Scott returns, the couple decide to step up their game and break into Mr. Jones’s house again. Scott leaves Penny outside to keep watch as he goes through a hatch. He finds an endless maze-like tunnel. He eventually comes across a room, set up in a shrine-style manner filled with the scarecrows.

Scott sees one of the figures, a baby, and steals it from its spot. Meanwhile, Penny comes across Mr. Jones again. When Scott finds her, she doesn’t seem to remember what happened to them.

What follows is a seemingly endless second half of the movie. A little like that tunnel system ol’ Jones has. The couple see doplegangers, dream-like nightmares and other pointless stuff!

It’s a movie that started off with a fairly great idea and plummeted into the world of We Didn’t Finish the Script.

In many way Mr Jones struggled. And it wasn’t just the ending (and the ending was loooooong).

While the use of the high-end cameras was neatly explained away, it just felt silly. The viewer isn’t stupid and can see right through the flimsy premise. There really was no need for the dual perspective cameras, which much of the ‘footage’ relies on. And there was really no need to be filming themselves. Scott wanted to make a nature documentary, why was he filming arguments with his wife? I mean, who edited this footage anyway? Penny?

I also found it distracting that the characters didn’t really stay in character. Scott goes off his medication, but it’s quickly forgotten after the first few minutes. If it was alluded to again, it was way too subtle. And if you were to ask me to characterise Penny, I couldn’t. One minute she’s adventurous, the next she’s boo-hooing because she’s walking in the dark.

Mr Jones will probably hit the right chord with a certain type of person. But unfortunately, I was not one of them. It’s really a found-footage movie that needed to do a lot more soul searching.