THE REVEREND’S REVIEW
FT’s resident man of the cloth REVEREND PETER LAWS dons his dog collar and faces the flicks that Church forgot!
For a while I thought I invented found footage. Back in the 1990s my friends and I would rent horror movies from local video shops; when the credits rolled, I’d eject the film to cover the non-erase tab with Sellotape. Next, I’d grab the family camcorder and film us all reviewing the film we’d just watched: “So that was Demon Cop... what a load of shite.” Finally, I’d transfer the review onto the rental VHS, rewind it and return it, hoping that some viewer would ‘find’ our footage and enjoy it; although they may have called the police instead. You see, to make sure we weren’t recognised by the shop owner or fellow customers, we all wore freaky latex masks of elderly men. Fun for us... but troubling for finders, I suppose.
So, 10 years before The Blair Witch Project, my friends and I had already invented the found footage genre... or so I thought. In fact, a new documentary, The Found Footage Phenomenon, (streaming on Shudder) shows it was freaking people out long before our guerrilla efforts. From the ‘real’ gore of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) all the way back to Stoker’s Dracula (1897) – a book consisting of journal entries – creators have used the device of ‘found’ content.
It’s good to see an unsung pioneer of the genre, the alien invasion movie The McPherson Tape (1989), showcased. Here, a family party is invaded by ETs who land in the nearby woods. It’s a full and early embrace of the found footage æsthetic, with shaky, degraded home movie quality, overlapping, improvised dialogue, and a weird sense of confusion and chaos. Such elements obviously put off film distributors at the time – hence the film never got a proper release. Yet, its relentlessly lo-fi approach was precisely what gave it power. Some ufologists ‘found’ the video and proclaimed it a genuine record of alien abduction. When the director went on TV to confess, he was accused of being paid off by the government, which had allegedly funded a remake of the film in 1998 – all part of a disinformation campaign to discredit the original, ‘real’ video. Course it was.
That’s why found footage is important. Ghostwatch, Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity each chose a new way of telling a story that unlocked a profound level of fear in the audience: a nervy dread that what we’re seeing actually happened. Those familiar with the cultural landscape of horror won’t find a lot of new info here, yet for most, this will be a refreshing appraisal of a fascinating, if frustrating, art form (a few years back, every other review disc hitting my desk was found footage) and a welcome reminder of just how zeitgeisty these films were – and still can be: “Megan is Missing” is currently back, traumatising kids on TikTok.
So, if you ever buy an old VHS horror tape from a car boot sale in the North East, let the credits fully roll. If you spy a bunch of masked teenagers, don’t call the police – message me! It would be fun to see those bargain basement Barry Normans again: a found footage phenomenon, indeed.