Rating: 4 out of 5.

The found footage subgenre, popularized by such milestone horror films as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, finally gets a much-needed expansive documentary! The Found Footage Phenomenon charts the origins of this increasingly popular subgenre of horror. Talking head interviews with plentiful horror directors (including Rob Savage, Oren Peli, and more), surprising trends, the influence from War of the Worlds radio broadcasting, and more… it is all here in this extremely comprehensive documentary! 

Creative VHS-style opening credits set the mood immediately for a film focused on characters that record their exploits. We chart the course of these features, from early days to their massive boom in popularity, post-Paranormal Activity and Google acquiring YouTube. The ones that caused the biggest ripple effects in the genre naturally get the largest chunk of screen time. 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust pulled off its marketing so well —going so far as to require the actors to sign a contract not working for a year to keep their fictional ‘deaths’ plausible—that director Ruggero Deodato came under fire from authorities. 1999’s seminal classic The Blair Witch Project (“the most profitable film ever made”) would later replicate this marketing tactic in a unique way. Since the film came about just as the Internet was really getting off the ground, the website became a medium for the mythology and the legend of the Blair Witch. I can personally attest to this film’s power, as I saw it at the impressionable young age of eight at a drive-in theater with my family and a massive crowd—I remember the energy, and how people believed it had really happened. Back then, using google to come up with a quick list of actors, especially for an indie picture, wasn’t exactly a thing. Later on, 2007’s Paranormal Activity would become a juggernaut through word-of-mouth screenings and audience passion despite being made on a shoestring budget. One can certainly make these movies on the cheap, but savvy audience members will be able to spot inauthenticity from a mile away. 

One of things that impressed me the most about this insightful documentary is that, in addition to covering the obvious and mainstream, The Found Footage Phenomenon delves into the lesser-seen, smaller flicks that deserve to have more eyeballs on them. I added a few movies to my watchlist that I had never even heard of before, and if that is not a testament to the far-reaching nature of the films covered, I don’t know what is. The movie I was most excited to see receive somewhat lengthy coverage is one I would personally rank among my scariest films of all time: 2011’s Megan is Missing. Last year, it went viral on TikTok as young people connected to it, but naturally, it was showered with its fair share of haters too. When I first watched, it chilled me to the bone. It exemplifies everything it means to be found footage, and pushes the envelope in a big way. Hearing writer/director Michael Goi share a story about real-life inspirations (especially for those graphic fetish photographs of Megan in distress!) only adds to the grimy level of realism and creepiness.

As they say in The Found Footage Phenomenon, we now live in a world of found footage. Nearly everyone has a camera right at their fingertips, attached to their cell phone. Where will this subgenre go next? Found footage will continue to grow and evolve, and shifting trends will support its spreading influence on pop culture. It may take another boost in technology for another true evolution, but it is a medium that appears here to stay for good. I am thankful that this movie put quite a lot of found footage on my radar, as well as made me reconsider several classics (Man Bites Dog, REC, The Last Broadcast) that have been on my watchlist forever. For any fan of horror documentaries, this is one you simply will not want to miss.

The Found Footage Phenomenon screened at 2021’s Fantastic Fest.

2 thoughts on “Fantastic Fest 2021: The Found Footage Phenomenon

  1. Nice review of the doc, Josh. “Megan Is Missing” was a film that was only going to work in the found footage aesthetic. In a way, it was liberating to make a movie that not only embraced the use of limited resources, but made those limited resources an essential part of the artistic approach. You don’t need cranes, VFX, and a truckload of lights to make a movie. You need an idea.

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