Pandemic Filmmaking and the Resurgence of Found Footage Horrors

I’ve had a passion for found-footage ever since I first laid eyes on The Blair Witch Project. I don’t think there’s any other sub-genre out there that can reduce filmmaking to its bare essentials and still craft highly effective stories that are just as impactful in your living room or laptop as they are on the big screen. In fact, I’m willing to wade through a sea of low-effort found-footage cash-grabs just to find those rare gems that prove all you really need to make a movie is a camera and an idea.

Now, in a world where movie theaters are no longer safe and big Hollywood productions have been deemed a health risk, it seems that found-footage has become more than just an aesthetic choice. The unique stylings of these down-to-earth movies might actually be the answer to pandemic filmmaking, and we’ve already seen at least one success story that could signal the beginning of a found-footage revolution.

Last month, Rob Savage’s Host took the horror world by storm and set a new precedent for homegrown scares with its unique production process. The first true quarantine movie was an immediate success once it released on Shudder, garnering loads of positive criticism from all over the world. It might not have been a perfect movie but pretty much everyone agreed that the minimalist approach to digital scares, not to mention the sheer tenacity behind such an ambitious long-distance project, made for a truly admirable picture.

Savage’s film works because it isn’t simply trying to exploit the pandemic for easy money, as we’ve seen some producers try to do almost immediately after quarantine began. Instead, the movie focuses on working within these hellish limitations to create something new and entertaining. Sure, the story is framed by friends getting together online due to the Coronavirus outbreak, but it’s really a classic ghost yarn about a séance gone horribly wrong. With universal elements like vengeful spirits and relatable characters, this tale could have been told long before (or even after) the virus hit, and it would still have resonated with viewers because of its eerily convincing approach.

Minimalist frights done right!

While the success of Host is sure to spark waves of copycat Zoom horror movies (though this particular Desktop found-footage formula had already been established by pre-pandemic films like V/H/S, The Den, Unfriended and even Searching), I’m actually glad that this won’t be a one-off thing. Savage himself has expressed interest in a follow-up, and there are several other found-footage movies coming up soon with equally interesting ideas on how to overcome quarantine.

Nigel Bach, creator of the DIY horror-comedy sensation Bad Ben, was also hard at work producing a new quarantine-themed entry in the series. The recently released Bad Ben: Pandemic features copious amounts of fan-made content via scripted Zoom meetings, providing scares (and laughs) on a much larger scale. Fan interaction has been an important part of this particular franchise since the beginning, so this is just the natural next step when producing no-budget horror while stuck at home.

It’s not just the indie world that’s having to adjust, however, as big studios have also realized that smaller, more realistic projects might be the only feasible way to produce new content under these circumstances. At this very moment, Michael Bay of all people is producing a pandemic thriller inspired by found-footage movies like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. Directed by Adam Mason, Songbird is set to release in 2021, with Bay himself claiming that it was filmed in a way that required “zero contact” between most of the crew.

Naturally, we should take Bay’s claims with a grain of salt, as I’m not sure if it’s possible to have a completely safe Hollywood production right now, even one benefiting from a reduced crew and online pre-production. Songbird will also reportedly feature a conspiratorial take on the virus, which might be a little irresponsible considering what’s going on in the real world. I have to admit that I’m still curious to see the end product, though.

DIY horror can still feature some familiar faces!

Beyond these upcoming projects, the rising popularity of pre-pandemic found-footage movies shot guerilla-style (pictures like the hyper-energetic Spree or the eerily believable Murder Death Koreatown) will also likely inspire a whole new generation of DIY filmmakers as we normalize the idea of home-grown content on premium services. With even the most popular of late-night talk shows becoming little more than televised livestreams in the absence of a proper crew, I think it’s safe to say that when theaters finally open up to a world starved for new content, studios will turn to these innovative creators for help.

Decades ago, the rise of easily-accessible consumer electronics helped to democratize filmmaking, opening the door for new creators with fresh ideas to innovate within the industry. Since The Blair Witch Project came on the scene and popularized the sub-genre, found-footage has basically been an extension of that democratization: a filmmaking language open to anyone and everyone willing to try their hand at storytelling. The only difference is that this language now happens to be one of our only options.

As I write this, there are probably hundreds more found-footage movies being produced in spite of the pandemic, and even if a lot of those are just riding on the coat-tails of successful projects like Host, I’m certain that we’ll also be seeing many more creative takes on horror coming from fresh new voices. The world may be a complicated place right now, but I think this is an opportunity for a found-footage renaissance. As long as everyone stays safe, I know that I’m really excited to see what this daring little sub-genre will offer us next.

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