After catching a screening of the Korean hand-held torture porn flick The Butcher at last month's New York Asian Film Festival (thanks to Gail, who stays on top of such Eastern grisliness), I thought it was time to examine this increasingly popular trend of pseudo-documentary horror. The medium is characterized by shaky cameras and goals of ultra-realism (perhaps in attempt to blur the lines of that cure-all philosophy that makes watching horror films possible for so many: "It's only a movie"). But maybe even more importantly, there's a pervasive self-consciousness in these flicks, an exploration (and, often enough, palpable adoration) of filmmaking within these films. These movies love their cameras, but do the cameras love them back? The answer to that question is the key to deciding whether these movies actually work and deliver their promises.
Below, six movies of the genre are explored through this lens (Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, [Rec], Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead and The Butcher). It's not a comprehensive list of the genre, which also includes films I haven't seen (Home Movie and, sadly, Man Bites Dog) and ones probably not worth taking the time to talk about. Like Halloween: Resurrection. I mean, even a trash collector's got to have his limits, you know?
(Note that spoilers follow. I've kept most of the visible images PG-ish, but some of the hyper-linked images are NSFW. Click if you dare!)
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
What's it about? Nominally, it's about the retrieval and screening of footage left by four documentary filmmakers who enter the Amazon jungle to study cannibal tribes. The found footage (the POV centerpiece of Cannibal Holocaust) is described as "footage they paid for with their lives," but dignity and rationale are seemingly much more expensive, as neither can be found in this crowning achievement of cinematic filth by Italian Ruggero Deodato. Alternately moralistic (it indicts the whites who disturb foreign culture and those who want to market said disturbance) and sociopathic (too many ooga-boogaisms are curare to Deodato's compassion gland) make for truly tense viewing -- fuck the characters, you have no idea what this movie's going to do to you next. Chock full o' nuts, penis, abortion, rape and murder, it's a film that wants to break every taboo...and it achieves its goals as well as just about anything we call art. Any number of frames could convey the level of offensiveness that this movie reaches, but for the sake of brevity, this and this say plenty.
The camera loves it? Totally. Its concept and interest in media made it about 5,000 times more aware and valid than anything else it played alongside in the days of grindhouse, gutterbut cinema. It not only predicted the intertwining of truth-telling and celebrity that defines YouTube culture (as the group is slowed down by the increasingly restless natives, they vow to press on for "the chance to become famous"), but also the cinema of self-consciousness. When the crew enthusiastically film the burning of a village they helped start, it's clear that these assholes are making a lowest-common-denominator exploitation film of their own. Elsewhere, the professor denounces the footage as "offensive, dishonest and inhuman," critiquing not only the movie that he's watching, but the one he's starring in, too.
Realness level (1-10): 9. The elephant in the room has been slaughtered slowly for your entertainment. Cannibal Holocaust is billed as "the one that goes all the way," and so it does: countless examples of balls-out animal mutilation make this an impossible viewing experience for many including me -- after several aborted attempts (I bail at the first incident, a tightly shot rodent stabbing, every time), I was finally able to watch this film via the Animal-Cruelty Free Version on the 2005 DVD reissue. The animal thing is sort of a catch-22: the movie is so much better than it (I mean, its innovative concept makes it the grandfather of every other film described in this post), but it also plays such a big part in this film's unabated notoriety. Would people even know to mimic its concept if the dying animals didn't burn it onto public consciousness?
(And speaking of realness and innovation, Deodato made his fictional four-member film crew sign contracts pledging not to appear in any type of media for a year after Cannibal Holocaust's release to make it seem like they had truly died during filming. When he was summoned by court to prove that this film was a work of fiction in the weeks after its release, his bright idea made his task infinitely more difficult.)
In any event, the fact that thought-provoking media and social commentary could arise from a movie that gleefully exploits whatever it can get on its pole makes Cannibal Holocaust the cinematic equivalent of turning a ho into a housewife. Miracles do happen. This, freakishly enough, is one of them.
(For an alternate, appropriately brutal take on the film's internal conflict, Eric Henderson said it best when he explained that CanHol is "artful enough to demand serious critical consideration, yet foul enough to christen you a pervert for even bothering.")
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
What's it about? Three documentary filmmakers enter the woods of Maryland to prove that a local legend, the Blair Witch, exists and...hey, this sounds just like Cannibal Holocaust! There's even a dead mouse and everything! And let's not forget the marketing scheme that blurred the lines of reality (it included a website that left little indication that this film was a work of fiction, a pseudo documentary on the Sci-Fi network, and the fact that the actors used their real names and laid low in the months of hype leading up toe the film's release) and helped The Blair Witch Project earn $140 million in the U.S. alone. If Cannibal Holocaust was the An American Family of its day (a seemingly one-off brilliant bit of format fuckery), Blair Witch was The Real World. As a cultural juggernaut, it took years for everyone to catch up with and start copying.
The camera loves it? Yeah, but it loves the camera infinitely more. Once things start to go bad for the filmmakers, the rolling camera becomes a near-constant point of argument as Josh and Mike implore lady boss Heather to put it down and get serious. "It's all I fucking have left, OK?" she finally explains. Not that it falls on deaf ears: before he's abducted and probably gets his tongue cut out, Josh notes, "I see why like this video camera so much. Because it's not quite reality. It's like a filtered reality, man. It's like you can pretend everything's not quite the way it is." Rarely does a movie get to share the joy of filmmaking so explicitly.
Realness level: 7. The only thing we're told about this footage is that it's found, when clearly, more than that has been done two it: they use both a black-and-white 16-mm and a camcorder, and since we see footage from both, clearly what we're seeing has been edited together. There's no explanation for it as there is in Cannibal Holocaust (the found footage has been prepared for television by an editor who threw on some "stock music," which just happens to be what I think is the best score in film history by Ritz Ortolani), so we can only guess that they left that part out or think we're too stupid to notice that this found footage has been treated.
But then, there's the stuff that works, like the lack of violence in the film, which left many feeling cheated. Look, I get that trying to make sticks and stones into hostility is silly, but I'd also be hard-pressed to choose a film that better exploited the fear of the unknown (even the reveal of Josh's remains plays into this, as the film quality is such that you can't fucking tell what exactly is wrapped up in that bundle). The blood-and-explanation thirsty masses left disappointed, but that makes The Blair Witch Project all the more worthy of a second look. It runs (or is that dances?) circles around its reputation.
What's it about? A plucky Spanish TV-magazine (While You're Asleep) host Ángela films a night in the life of a fire department that's called to check out the strange-goings on at an apartment building. What at first seems like a domestic disturbance turns out to be an infection of Romero-itis, as people are turned into the kind of neck-tendon chomping zombies we've come to expect from cinema. Running up and down stairs ensues.
The camera loves it? Who cares, when it hates us so much? This silly movie thinks you're so stupid that you need a visual representation of a tape being rewound: when Ángela decides to review footage, it shows the image backing up, with rewind-lines and everything...
...Or maybe the film itself is too stupid to realize that cameras cannot record and rewind at the same time.
Realness level: 0. This movie is more ridiculously choreographed than a line of Cloverfield monsters doing Tai Chi in Central Park. And, as a result, it isn't scary in the least. Everything falls into place so swiftly: plastic drops in front of a window Ángela & co. stand in front of when they realize they're being quarantined; a conversation about a little girl's tonsillitis is interrupted by her zombie attack on her mother, as though she was just waiting for the right moment to seroconvert; an infected doctor crashes through a glass door a guy just happens to be standing in front of, but not before he can reveal a way of escape and the location of a necessary key; using just the light of a camera, Ángela is able to locate a set of keys within a minute of entering a completely strange apartment; and then, in seconds, she's able to select the proper key from a packed chain while being chased by zombies; she rewinds a scientist's reel-to-reel tape to the exact point at which he's explaining the cause of infection, wrapping up the film with previously unavailable exposition. And on and on. For people trapped in a building infested by zombies, this bunch is awfully lucky.
(P.S. [Rec] is getting what looks like shot-for-shot English-language remake treatment this fall via Quarantine. God help us all.)
What's it about? Godzilla for the YouTube set.
The camera loves it? Yes! The most exciting thing about Cloverfield isn't its (admittedly crafty) reflection of the I-must-document-this contemporary mindset ("This is gonna be important! People are gonna watch this!" says our cameraman), but the contrast between the great big monster and the tiny little production. It makes clever use of its limited budget -- we see just snatches of the monster that's destroying New York, since we're on the ground watching through a little hand-held. There's no place for sweeping shots of the monster by design, and so Cloverfield makes frugality into something of an art.
Realness level: 5. I like Cloverfield a lot, but it's not without its share of ridiculousness. From cell phones ringing in a fucking subway station in the midst of all this chaos, to the group randomly exiting an underground tunnel only to find that it's their intended destination to the camera's tape lasting precisely as long as their monster ordeal (after the camera hits the ground one last time, we see footage that was already on the tape with principal character Rob explaining that there are "like, three seconds left"). On the other hand, the lack of information these kids have is so real, it's suffocating, and the fact that they're all to some degree annoying, petty, unrealistic assholes is far too real. So I guess this counts as an endorsement of douchebaggery, which feels...uh, weird.
Diary of the Dead (2008)
What's it about? Night of the Living Dead for the YouTube set.
And the similarity of that description and the Cloverfield one is purely intentional -- released just a month after Cloverfield, the lumbering Diary of the Dead just felt redundant and graceless compared to the slithering Cloverfield. The fact that George Romero basically set out to update Night of the Living Dead (unlike any of that film's follow-ups, zombies aren't a fact of life to these characters, but a new phenomenon) only proves how uninterested in originality Romero is.
The camera loves it? Well, it certainly doesn't hate it (a zombie flick through a amateur's handheld is at least novel), but more importantly, its characters are simply smitten. The camera gives them the chance to pontificate on its powers (in a pretty awesome choice of words, the barrier of the lens makes them "inoculated" from being affected by the evil that unfurls in front of them). What constitutes the truth (citizen reporting versus more traditional sources) is discussed alongside the state of humanity (the painfully heavy-handed last line of the film is, "Are we worth saving? You tell me."). Kinda gross, but at least the movie-within-a-movie set-up allows Romero to explain why his zombies are so slow (their ankles would snap off if they moved too fast, we learn during the shooting of a student horror film). That's worth something, isn't it?
Realness level: 6. At least three points are deducted for an on-screen visual that signals a dying battery (that shit does not record!). Besides that, this movie apologizes for itself in a funny way: all the tediousness of naval-gazing and self-importance is illustrated in just how boring this shit is. Lifelike to a fault, it is.
The Butcher (2008)
What's it about? A real-time set-up follows the slow torture of two unwilling participants and (per the cameras mounted on their heads) directors of a snuff film in this Korean export. The plot is stripped to the bone: the victims sit and wait and then are brutalized and then one spends the rest of the movie trying to escape. End of a somewhat agonizing 80 minutes that manages to out-torture-porn even Saw III. That's no easy feat.
Does the camera love it? No. Everything hates everything in this movie. Forcing the victims to film the abuse at hand definitely pushes the exploitation to a new high. Or, depending on how you look at it: a new low.
Realness level: 3. I was with this movie till the very end. I was even forgiving of some minor improbabilities. When set free, our protagonist of sorts spends a few minutes looking for shoes when anyone else in his situation would have enough panic and adrenaline to develop temporary heels of steel. (Also, my friend Justin pointed out that the cameras mounted on the heads of the victims catch the faces of their tormentors, which they probably wouldn't want to put out there if they were effectively creating evidence of first-degree murder. Just a hunch.) But then, after a bear trap and other obstacles, the guy gets free. And stays free! The last shot of the film is him slumped over his steering wheel crying. Now, all along we've switched back and forth between cameras, sometimes seeing it from his perspective and sometimes from his captors'. It would be impossible for this cut-together footage to exist if he escaped -- the movie disproves itself. The prospect of it implying that he was somehow caught after the footage we see is highly unlikely -- the movie, at that point, has spent almost an hour and a half being as literal as possible. Why would it pick the last five seconds to get figurative?
And that illustrates the major pitfall within these films -- in order for them to act like cinema, they have to resort to certain cheats that betray their meager set-up. Hand-held horror would seem to be an increasingly easy medium to dabble in, but a nearly impossible one to master.