Niche horror documentaries like The Found Footage Phenomenon find themselves in precarious situations. Filmmakers attempt to explore and lecture about topics in ways that will inform the least observant audiences, but aren’t the target demographics for hyper-focused horror documentaries already beyond introductory explainers? The Found Footage Phenomenon will exclusively premiere on horror streamer Shudder—surely the platform’s dedicated users already know about found footage, its home video beginnings and its popularized backstory to date. Where Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror vocalizes vital, passionate truths with a documentarian’s urgency, The Found Footage Phenomenon is a subgenre clip-show represented by whichever movies’ talent appears as talking heads. That’s not to say there’s icky bias, just that this marshmallow-fluffy doc presents an incomplete picture.
The Found Footage Phenomenon is structured chronologically based on the first adaptations of found footage until the documentary’s production wrap, seemingly concluding around 2020’s Host. Creators Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott assemble interview subjects to chat about how found footage once took the world by storm thanks to The Blair Witch Project, then again with Paranormal Activity. You’ll hear from noteworthy found footage filmmakers like André Øvredal (TrollHunter), Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project) and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) alongside a few genre academics, such as decorated author and analyst Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. They’ll tell you about found footage techniques, what in-your-face cinematography accentuates and that’s about it—nothing beyond what could probably be ripped from DVD special features.
Frustratingly, marquee titles—primary discussion topics—are picked and chosen on whims. Dean Alioto extensively discusses his 1989 alien abduction flick The McPherson Tape, which producers (and Alioto) herald as the first “real” found footage horror film. There’s a note on the first-person perspective elements within Peeping Tom to set the stage, but nary a mention of Charles B. Pierce’s 1972 Bigfoot mockumentary The Legend of Boggy Creek despite acknowledging Ruggero Deodato’s The Cannibal Holocaust. Throughout The Found Footage Phenomenon, the documentary acts as if its pool of pundits are responsible for every single one of the subgenre’s milestones while ignoring influential benchmarks made by others who didn’t participate. Host is platformed as a marvelous “Screen Life” development, while something like 2013’s revolutionary Skype possession flick Unfriended earns barely a passing whisper (also ignoring the “Is Screen Life found footage?” debate).
For that reason alone, The Found Footage Phenomenon doesn’t ever reach levels of exceptional documentary insight. Filmmakers might drop anecdotes about how found footage films require grueling long takes or how Halloween-y practical effects require off-camera trickery, but it’s all been acknowledged before. There’s an emphasis on found footage’s unprecedented intimacy, along with the reasons why found footage suffered a gap between The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity (VHS versus advanced at-home camera options), which most dedicated horror fans already understand. Hence the docs’ ongoing issue with acting as a starter kit for found footage newbies while geared towards viewers already brimming with horror knowledge.
A better title for The Found Footage Phenomenon might be The Indie Found Footage Phenomenon, the way it narratively aims at microbudget, lesser-released titles like Steven DeGennaro’s Found Footage 3D (an on-screen subject), James Cullen Bressack’s Hate Crime (an on-screen subject) or Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s The Last Broadcast (on-screen subjects). When bigger-budget, more mainstream found footage titles are mentioned, it’s almost with disdain. It’s as if the subgenre should be reserved for projects with meager resources and fewer blockbuster means. Cloverfield gets pegged as something unbelievable—too Hollywood—with no mention about how found footage rewrote the book on monster movies, especially where Kaijus’ behemoth scales make the audience feel incredibly tiny (physically and existentially). Monsters, TrollHunter and JeruZalem directly benefited off Cloverfield’s influence, but that thread is immediately severed (despite TrollHunter and JeruZalem being used for B-roll transitions). Conversations always feel incomplete, only willing to engage with those who wanted to support the documentary—a cursory glance that ignores celebrated titles like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit because they don’t fit the doc’s do-it-yourself message.
That’s not to say The Found Footage Phenomenon wastes all talking points. The found footage lover in me smiled seeing Afflicted filmmakers Derek Lee and Clif Prowse reappear to chat about their action-heavy usage of vest rigs for their extreme parkour vampire flick. There’s a riveting section where filmmakers talk about The Zombie Diaries and Apartment 143 being labeled as copycats because Diary of the Dead and The Last Exorcism beat them to market, or worse, bought the rights and buried their releases. Michael Goi challenges the “repulsive” reactions to his chiller Megan Is Missing by revealing the countless emails sent by young female viewers who related to the resonating stranger-danger message about online—and offline—predators. These are the factoids I remember, but they’re overshadowed by the film’s inability to celebrate the tremendous breadth of a gigantic subgenre with its beginner’s guide intentions.
Early marketing for The Found Footage Phenomenon displayed a tagline that should have caused pause: “The Rise and Fall of a Modern Sensation.” Truth is, there’s never been a decline for those of us paying attention to how movies like The Monster Project, Hell House LLC, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, Therapy and plenty others have continued to push the boundaries of said undying “phenomenon.” The documentary charts already widely-covered highs, treating movies it hand-selects as the most prominent players in a massive space that it refuses to fully acknowledge out of sheer project magnitude. Maybe The Found Footage Phenomenon just isn’t meant for found footage obsessives like me? Appleton and Escott only capture a snapshot of a vaster movement with far more to say than what’s so minimally and repetitively presented in ways we’ve seen, heard and understood before.
Director: Sarah Appleton, Phillip Escott
Writer: Sarah Appleton, Phillip Escott
Release Date: May 19, 2022 (Shudder)
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.