Richard J. Leskosky: Taking the air out of scare

Richard J. Leskosky: Taking the air out of scare

Halloween's approaching, so now is the traditional time to write about scary movies.

One of the things that scares me about contemporary cinema is the excessive reliance on fake found footage. I've seen too much of it, I'm sick and tired of it and I fear it's only going to proliferate more as some of the films employing it make big profits on slender investments.

What I'm talking about got its start with and is perhaps still best exemplified by the 1998 horror film "The Blair Witch Project," which purported to consist of footage found in the woods near Burkittsville, Md., a year after three film students disappeared there while filming a documentary on local legends about a murderous witch. Things go horribly wrong for the students, and one of them uses the camera to record her own emotional responses.

The footage ends with the camera being dropped, with presumably horrible things happening out of its view.

Made for $20,000 to $25,000 (and eventually released at a cost of about $7 million), the film went on to gross around $250 million at box offices around the world (that's not counting video sales and rentals). Hollywood couldn't ignore those figures, so we've seen loads of films exploiting the found-footage gimmick since then.

(What it does tend to ignore is that "Blair Witch" also benefited from a clever online promotion that reinforced the notion that its story really happened.)

That means shots often badly framed or out of focus, shaky images and swish pans as the "cameraman" runs in terror from whatever is pursuing him, gaps in the editing (while the camera is turned off between recording incidents), characters speaking directly to the camera to express their misgivings about what's going on or leave messages for loved ones they'll likely never see again, and a final dropping of the camera to suggest the fate of the "camera crew."

Even with a professional cinematographer behind the camera, this is all going to be fairly cheap to shoot, which is a primary motivation for using this gimmick. Usually, the actors are unfamiliar faces: If we don't recognize them from other movies or TV, they must be real.

In any case, they don't collect big salaries. Even the breaks in the narrative have a money-saving function: having an actor comment on what just happened while the camera was turned off costs way less than actually filming that event.

In artistic or narrative terms, the apparent crudeness of the footage is supposed to guarantee its authenticity, make us believe that what we're seeing actually happened.

Sometimes, as in "Chronicle" from earlier this year (which actually worked pretty well as science fiction), the makers of the film appear to cull video from a variety of sources, including security cameras and news footage, which presumably further confirms the authenticity of the images.

Those security cameras and red light cameras are just about everywhere these days. Everyone with a smartphone has a video camera handy. And most digital cameras now also allow you to shoot video.

Huge popular websites such as YouTube offer literally millions of amateur and/or candid videos of everything from kittens being cute to Hulk Hogan being intimate.

"Cops," which has been on Fox TV for more than 20 years, has cameramen following (as in literally running after) police officers as they arrest criminals on the streets. Many popular shows on broadcast TV and cable these days are reality shows ("Survivor," for example, or "Bad Girls Club" or "Jersey Shore" or "Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares").

Less seen nowadays (sadly) but nonetheless probably an unacknowledged influence on these productions was the documentary film movement of the 1960s wherein filmmakers such as Fredrick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers developed an observational style which dispensed with any sort of voiceover commentary or expressed point of view.

They just followed their subjects around until they became used to having the cameras present and acted normally.

That led to the groundbreaking 1973 PBS series "An American Family," which in turn ultimately spawned "The Real World" on MTV. And the race for the real (or to the bottom) was on!

So we know what all those reality shows look like and recognize they represent something more or less "real" — or at least as real as things can get with a camera crew in the same room recording everything about people desperate for some particle of celebrity status. And movie studios figure that the same techniques (or what look like the same techniques) will ensure more audience involvement with the characters and events because they "look real."

Well, OK, but a whole feature-length film of this? Do you really want to pay $10 to watch jerky camera movements that might cause motion sickness when viewed on the big screen — or that scream, "We made this really cheaply, but you still have to pay full price to see it"?

Apparently a lot of people still do, considering the success of the "Paranormal Activity" films, now in their fourth installment. But really, the frights in those and most other such horror films still come from more traditional gimmicks such as delaying the appearance of the expected menace and then popping it into the scene unexpectedly.

Occasionally, the found-footage device makes sense in a horror film, especially when used sparingly. All "The Ring" films, for example, and the current "Sinister" hinge their central horror on a supernatural being who can enter a character's world from a video or an 8mm film, respectively, and wreak havoc.

As for doing a whole film as found footage put together after the disappearance of the characters who supposedly shot it, that has become a tired cliche. As soon as you see a note at the beginning of a horror or science fiction film that it represents found footage or you see a camera crew recording everything, you know that nobody's getting out of this alive or in one piece.

If you make your film well, you do not need reality show trappings to achieve that necessary suspension of disbelief in your audience. Try watching, for instance, Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980), Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979) or John Carpenter's "Halloween" (1978). All very well-made films, meticulously crafted using the best Hollywood techniques and scary as anything made today.

Unfortunately, the fake found footage practice has spread to other genres with perhaps even more dubious results. It certainly did not help, for example, the 2010 gross-out comedy "The Virginity Hit."

"End of Watch," an interesting look at the relationship between two police partners in the same cruiser (and coming full circle to "Cops"), now in theaters, is certainly not helped by so much (all?) of its action being videoed by Jake Gyllenhaal's character. Everything we see there would have been believable without that, in large part because the acting is so convincing.

That does, however, bring up another annoying aspect of fake found footage: the explanation of why someone is actually recording all this.

In "End of Watch," for example, we hear that Gyllenhaal's cop is taking courses to advance his career and has a filmmaking elective this semester. He carries a camcorder everywhere, and this ticks off the other cops — and at least one viewer — and adds nothing to the story but does take up screen time.

These films have added one thing to the lexicon of filmic signs, though: the dropped camera representing the death/disappearance of the cameraman, a rare instance of the cinema actually being able simply to show the absence of something.

Despite all my complaints, I will recommend a recent found-footage horror film that hits all the standard notes for this gimmick but is so off-the-wall that it succeeds nonetheless: Norway's 2010 "Trollhunter," which combines comedy, nature documentary and political satire.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

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