Mike’s Review: The Found Footage Phenomenon (2021)

★★★★  out of ★★★★★
Directed by Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott.

If we’ve learned anything it’s that horror movies are one big bag of smoke and mirrors. It’s a ruse, a put on, a sham. So much disbelief needs to be suspended to make the entire haunted house of cards structurally sound. If there’s any loose horror screws the entire effort collapses in a pile of unscary dust. 

But when it works? Oh boy, does it work!

It is precisely this give/take with the audience that makes found footage films so enticing. In its latest offering Shudder pulls the curtain back on one of the more polemic and rewarding forms of horror on the market. The Found Footage Phenomenon does a…ahem…phenomenal job at looking at the history, the touch-stone moments, the key films, and psychologically why this horror genre works so well. 

We all know it, or at least we think we do, but it’s UFO found footage director of the McPherson Tape, Dean Alioto, that boils found footage down to its most bare essence. Found footage is predicated on two things 1) a conceit that explains why someone is dragging a camera around with them, and maybe more importantly, 2) why they never put the damn camera down. 

If either of these devices fall apart then the entire effort falls apart. 

Interestingly, at its core, found footage is about taboo, the unattainable, the forbidden, and secret and personal things that are meant to be kept secret. The allure of stumbling on to a series of moldy VHS cassettes that were never meant to be seen is a strong one.  Not unlike your first beer, cigarette, or adult film, found footage preys on that reptilian part of your brain that’s screaming “…I probably shouldn’t be doing this, but it’s so exciting.”

ATMOSfx! Woo!
Is this thing working?

Whereas conventional horror lets you in on the gag through a more passive approach, found footage tells you that this IS a secret and you’re the only one that’s privy to this tawdry film. In addition to its titillating quality it also creates an immediate legitimacy through its documentary, government, and or experts in the field that are giving you an exclusive glimpse in to a tale that’s never been told. Whether it’s Rob Savage explaining his Covid-based Zoom horror show Host, or Ruggero Deodato explaining the savagery of the Vietnam War brought to life in the context of Cannibal Holocaust, the Found Footage Phenomenon brings these societal connections in to exceptionally clear focus. 

What makes Found Footage Phenomenon so compelling is the fact that it takes a deep dive in the genre and puts forth many found footage films that are out-of-print or still difficult to find on your also-rand streaming service. Things like Ghostwatch, the Diary of David Holzman’s Diary, Snuff, Afflicted, Apartment 143, and Shirome

The film also manages to sprinkle in fascinating historical dissections of the cornerstone films like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, and Cannibal Holocaust, but these films are also deftly placed contextually among technological and societal happenings. It’s this cross section of elements that gives the audience a full and complete understanding about the elements that make these films so great. 

As several found footage filmmakers point out in the film, found footage films are cheap and nimble, but that doesn’t mean that they’re easy or without peril. To make them work the premise, the conceit, and the story all have to be exceptionally compelling. While anyone can pick up and iPhone and shoot footage of a friend or family member screaming, the reason why they simultaneously pick up the iPhone and don’t put it down must be explained in an unimpeachable way. 

If you were ever curious about found footage films or want to know a little bit more about why this genre clicks with audiences then the Found Footage Phenomenon will explain it all and have you begging for more.

The Found Footage Phenomenon is currently streaming on Shudder.

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