Tag Found Footage

[REC] (2007)

[REC] (2007)

One Witness. One Camera

A reporter and her cameraman are trailing a crew of firefighters during a night shift in Barcelona when they’re called to an incident at an apartment block where an old woman is trapped inside her flat and is screaming. However once inside the building, the group, along with the residents, find themselves being quarantined inside by the military who refuse to allow them to leave. Its not long before they realise that they are locked inside the building with a horde of zombies.

 

I’ve been hard on found footage films in the past, slamming them for being a one-trick pony which, by the old mantra, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s face it – The Blair Witch Project did everything that these films do back in 1995 (though you can go back to 1980’s brutal Cannibal Holocaust to see an early prototype of what this sub-genre would become) and the rest of the bunch have been simply happy to rehash the same tropes time and time again. Can anyone honestly say there’s any difference between the Paranormal Activity films? But that was until [REC] came along. I’d hasten to say that this was the finest found footage film that has ever been made.

There’s nothing unusual about the setup – a zombie flick set inside a building hardly sounds like the most original idea – but it’s the manner in which the material is presented which works brilliantly. After a nice slow build, meeting the reporter and firefighters and arriving at the building, everything seems to be going along swimmingly, with a suitable build of uneasy tension. Then there are sudden explosive bouts of savagery and violence which puncture the atmosphere and come out of nowhere to throw the viewer off-guard. The claustrophobic tension is unpalpable at times and the viewer feels like they’re stuck inside the apartment block along with the characters, as the narrow corridors and dark rooms really allow for things to appear from nowhere – and they do! It almost seems as if everything is happening in real time and because of that, there’s no let-up in the tension. Even when the characters appear to be safe in a room, you know that they’re not.

From the moment the first zombie attacks right until the last shot of the film, the mix of slow-burner shocks and out-of-your-seat jumps will keep you on your toes throughout. The fact that none of the actors were known to Western audiences makes this more effective as we don’t know which actors are ‘named’ or not in Spain. There’s a realism and unpredictability that comes with that, keeping you on the edge of your seat and not being able to work out who dies next or when. Allegedly co-directors Juame Balagueró and Paco Plaza kept some of the scares secret from the cast to draw actual screams and reactions from them during filming – it works! Unlike a normal film where scares can be telegraphed, there are a number of moments here which don’t happen in the centre of the shot: things popping in from the left or the right of camera or happening in the background where you don’t get a clear view. There’s lots of the usual found footage shenanigans including the camera not working at convenient moments and shaking whenever the user is running, forcing you to miss some key things that will either annoy you or intrigue you. But that’s where [REC] is genuinely frightening. The nauseating movements of the camera combined with the knowledge that anything can happen at any time really make this a thrill ride you’ll not forget in a hurry.

A lot of people will be familiar with [REC] via its American remake counterpart, Quarantine, an equally impressive piece which virtually covers this shot-by-shot. But there’s something about the rawness of this Spanish language version which gives it that extra edge. Forget the subtitles – you don’t need to read them to get the full effect of this masterpiece. The actors, including the fantastic Manuela Velasco, do an admirable job of conveying their panic, their fear, and their frustration without the need to understand what they’re actually saying. You can see what they’re up against – snipers with orders to shoot on sight stopping them from getting near the windows, and hordes of red-eyed, snarling 28 Days Later-style zombies prowling the apartment block looking for their next victim. But it’s potentially the final five minutes or so of [REC] that shift this into the upper echelons of horror – an intense, unnerving cat-and-mouse game of hide-and-seek with something even more malevolent and deadly than the ravenous monsters below, and with a sucker punch ending that leaves a dry taste in the mouth lingering long after the credits have rolled.

 

One of the best horror films to come out of Europe – heck, the world – in the past thirty years, [REC] is a fantastic rollercoaster of thrills, chills and spills. I’d thought modern horror films had lost the potential to scare an audience so accustomed to the methods used by filmmakers, but I was wrong. This should be essential viewing for any true horror fan: a near flawless exercise in sustained tension and genuine fear.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Cloverfield (2008)

Cloverfield (2008)

Some thing has found us

New Yorker Rob is ready to leave to start a new job in Japan when his friends hold a going away party from him. Things get complicated for Rob and his friends when what seems to be an earthquake rocks the city and a massive explosion is seen in the distance. Fearing a terrorist attack, the party goers flee down into the street below but are confronted by a giant monster which has suddenly started to attack New York.

 

One of the better ‘found footage’ films out there, Cloverfield uses its gimmick to maximum effect as much as possible. They’re a Marmite kind of film – you’ll generally love them or hate them and I tend to fall into the latter more often than not. There’s only so much disbelief I can hold when idiots continue to film whatever is happening using their cameras or mobile phones, even putting themselves in danger to do so. If you or I were in the situations that people find themselves facing in these type of films, the last thing I’d want to do is ensure that I’m recording everything as some morbid memorial for when I’m killed off. You’ll up sticks and run like the wind. Jerky or frenetic camera movements, out-of-focus shots, not quite getting a clear look at things in the sense of a traditional film – these are all hallmarks of the found footage film and Cloverfield has them in abundance. You can almost forgive some of them here due to the nature of the chaos that erupts during some scenes but it can be frustrating at times to be teased with a good look at the monster only to be robbed at the last minute. These hallmarks weren’t as common back when Cloverfield first hit the cinema and so the novelty factor was still fresh.

Fresh is what Cloverfield feels like for the majority of its running time, at least the last two thirds of the film. It’s not your traditional giant monster movie and offers up a unique approach to the material. Ever wondered what it would be like being stuck in a city whilst Godzilla and friends did a number on it? Well here’s a first-person look at just that. In many ways, Cloverfield is the film that the most recent Godzilla film so clearly wanted to be. There are some great scenes of destruction, all seen from the ground up and the characters always feel a moment or two away from certain death. As soon as the film kicks into gear with the first attack about twenty minutes in, Cloverfield rarely lets up. With a budget of $25m, a paltry figure given today’s blockbusters, these scenes are especially effective in conveying a sense that this is carnage on a grand scale. The very famous trailer with the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty flying down the street gives the audience a flavour of what to expect. Equally as effective and chilling in its realism is the scene in which the monster destroys the Brooklyn Bridge. Seeing a giant monster attack from a human’s point of view certainly makes the experience something unlike anything Toho ever cranked out for Godzilla.

Cloverfield does seemingly take an eternity to get going which is its main drawback. I can understand the need to engage with the characters but this is not a traditional character-driven narrative in the sense of a normal film. Found footage films rely on the nature of the situation to sell the story, rather than characters – they’re meant to behave in the same way that the audience would behave being in their situation, not try to sell the story through dialogue or expression. However, the first twenty minutes or so here runs like someone’s awful home movie compilation. Then as soon as the monster strikes, all of this build-up is literally out of the window because we now only see the world through the eyes of one person. We can’t hear conversations that characters are having across the street (whereas in a traditional film we become omniscient and can see and hear everything). We can’t go and explore anywhere else. We’re stuck wherever the cameraman goes – and if the other characters aren’t with him, tough! It’s at this point where characterisation is virtually pointless in a film like this because the audience is just wanting a first-person experience be it a giant monster attack, a zombie attack ([REC] or Diary of the Dead), ghostly encounters (Paranormal Activity), stranded in outer space (Apollo 18) or trapped under the ground (As Above, So Below).

The good thing is that with the found footage approach, there comes a deliberate attempt to withhold as much information about what is going on as possible. There’s no explanation scene in which some scientist reveals the entire plot for the benefit of those unable to work things out. Hell, you don’t even get a good solid look at the monster. Cloverfield skimps on the details and hopes that the sucker punches to the gut that it continually delivers are enough to keep you guessing and holding on for more information. It’s a fine line to tread but the film works to leave the audience on tender hooks. Yes, you may feel a little frustrated when you finish watching but I’d rather scratch my head in a positive way and let my brain do some imaginative guessing than be spoon-fed everything Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich-style.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect to Cloverfield is its post-9/11 subtext in which the audience is placed smack bang in the middle of an unprecedented catastrophic scenario. We watch the horrific events unfold through the lens of the camera, unable to take our gaze away from what is happening. From the images of buildings collapsing, loud, fiery explosions raining debris down from skyscrapers and then, in the most uncanny shot of the film, a dust cloud slowly working its way along streets, engulfing those who dared to escape its grasp, Cloverfield will be harrowing viewing for anyone who sat through 9/11 in the comfort of their living room, eyes glued to the TV.

 

I’ve tried to be rather vague with more specific details of Cloverfield because it’s worth a watch without knowing too much about it. The first-person experience really hammers home some of the intensity of the destruction and chaos, whilst leaving the audience craving more. Ironically, the only way they’d have gotten more is if Cloverfield had been a traditional monster movie with shifting focus on characters and narratives – but then this would have taken away the personal, eye-level experience to which Cloverfield works so well to create. Arguably the pinnacle of the found footage genre, though that’s not really hard to become.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

As Above, So Below (2014)

As Above, So Below (2014)

The only way out is down.

Archaeologist Scarlet Marlowe is obsessed with finding the famous Philosopher’s Stone and, after her search takes her to Iran, she finally believes she has found its resting place in a secret chamber in the Catacombs of Paris. Hiring a team of urban explorers who frequent the underground caverns and know their way around, Scarlet and her team head below the surface to find the elusive stone. However, once they venture into areas of the caverns that tourists are forbidden to enter, they soon become lost and come to the stark realisation that they are not alone down there.

 

The found footage sub-genre sees no sign of slowing down with the latest offering, As Above, So Below. I’ve never been the biggest fan of these films, save for some truly exceptional efforts like Spanish zombie flick [REC]. However the lure of As Above, So Below wasn’t so much the genre but the setting. I was about to set off to go to Paris for the first time in February and was booked in to take a trip down to the Catacombs when this came along and I (foolishly) decided it would be a good idea to watch first before I went down.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Catacombes de Paris, they are a vast underground labyrinth of caverns and tunnels which hold the remains of around six million people dating back to the 18th Century. These people aren’t just buried here in coffins – their skulls and bones line the passages like some macabre artist has been working for centuries. The tunnels stretch for miles and miles and much of it is out of bounds to the public due to the danger of collapse. However there is a large section of the catacombs which are open to the public. Having nervously set foot in the catacombs myself in 2015, I can assure you that they are not a place you would want to get trapped in. Between the limestone roof leaking water and showing obvious signs of cracks, to lots of fenced-off ‘no-go’ areas, there is also the matter of millions of skulls and bones stacked and assorted in all manner of shapes and patterns. It’s claustrophobic beyond belief and there is a truly unnerving, eerie silence down there. The artificial lighting set up for tourists soaks the remains in a ghostly glow, almost giving the skulls a strange smile as you walk past. You won’t experience anything like it in the world. Such a place is straight out of a nightmare and if this didn’t actually exist, you’d think that it was some far-fetched version of Hell that a Gothic writer had dreamt up.

It’s the perfect place to set a horror film and for the most part, As Above, So Below does a great job of utilising the location to perfection – the film was shot in the real catacombs for the most part, with some set pieces necessitating the use of sets for safety reasons. The film plays upon the fear of collapse, being stranded below the surface in a remote, unhospitable location and unable to find a way out just like Neil Marshall expertly did in The Descent many years ago. The use of the Go-Pro cams really adds to the claustrophobia as we share the characters tortuous decisions on whether to crawl through tunnels barely wide enough to breathe. You’ll be holding your breath along with the characters during some of these scenes. What adds to the realism is knowing that the real camera crew would never have been able to film in such tight spaces and so the Go-Pro cams become essential. The silence that fills these tombs is eerie and unforgiving – you could scream in there until you had no vocal chords left and no one would hear you.

Like The Descent, the film manages to get your heart racing long before anything untoward actually happens to the characters. Having suffered the ordeal of being trapped underground with them, you’re already to chill out but that’s when the strange things begin to happen and the characters realise they’re not alone. But this is where the film quickly unravels. The clichés of the found footage sub-genre come thick and fast: ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ sightings of weird things in the corner of the frame, characters talking directly into the camera, obligatory green ‘night vision’ shots, death of the cameraman (come on – it always happens, it has to happen for the footage to be ‘found’ by someone else) and so forth.

Not only does the film suffer from these clichés but it then sets itself out into some video game-like puzzle solving quest where the characters must solve the next riddle or find the next secret passage in order to progress into the next section. UK readers will be familiar with Channel 4 gameshow The Crystal Maze and this feels like a big budget version of that during the second half of the film. Think of a horror version of Indiana Jones when he’s exploring all of his ancient archaeological sites.

The problem is that the script, with all of its allusions to Hell and the Satanic theme that shines constantly through, can only go one place after the build-up as it writes itself into a corner. The finale is wholly anticlimactic and happens far too fast especially given how slow and methodical the build-up had been. Once the original terror of being trapped underground had been established, the levels of fear don’t really go much higher despite the explorers finding all manner of weird and wonderful (and deadly) things down there. Suspense and tension could have been ramped up far more and the finale stretched out more to give the film a much needed release. But hey, I’m not a filmmaker, so what do I know? Actually the one thing I do know is that I like Perdita Weeks very much. As some sort of nerdier version of Lara Croft, Weeks looks pretty, comes off as quite a nice person and has a reasonable range of skills so I would expect big things in the coming years.

 

The excellent set-up and amazing location fill the screen with the promise that As Above, So Below will end up being a standout horror film. Sadly, this is not the case as the film hurtles through the usual found footage clichés with aplomb. It’s deliberately paced, has a lot of suggestion in there rather than visuals and can be annoying at times but you could do a lot worse in this sub-genre.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

Frankenstein's Army (2013)

What is dead may never die

Towards the end of World War 2, a group of Russian soldiers pushing into German territory stumble upon a secret Nazi lab that has been conducting unthinkable experiments based upon the work of Dr Victor Frankenstein.

 

Are you old enough to have played any of the Wolfenstein games? They were a successful series of first-person shooters set during WW2 and had the player facing off against waves of monstrous Nazi experiments in Castle Wolfenstein. They played upon the weird and perverse fascination that many people have regarding the Nazis and their experiments on the occult. In the darker days of WW2, it was long rumoured that Hitler and his top brass were looking for ways to win the war and the occult was one direction that they tried to take. It’s proven to be a gold mine for filmmakers over the years with everyone from Hellboy to Indiana Jones confronting Nazis who were attempting some black magic rituals.

Frankenstein’s Army is Wolfenstein brought to life, an vividly imaginative and concept-fuelled horror film which not only follows in the footsteps of films which dealt with the Nazi occult but stamps its own madcap mark on the sub-genre. Forget Dead Snow, Outpost or Iron Sky, this is the new benchmark of Nazi-themed horror, a uniquely perverse assault on the senses which takes no prisoners, leaves no idea unturned and will have you cheering and squirming in equal measure.

First things first though – enough of the found footage horror films already! With The Blair Witch Project being fourteen years old and Cloverfield coming up on five years, it’s about time that filmmakers put that fad to bed despite the odd success (Troll Hunter, I’m looking at you). Frankenstein’s Army shoe-horns this gimmicky, over-exposed plot device into the film for reasons unknown and it’s a mixed bag as to how successful it is. The situations that the cameraman finds himself in are too contrived for him to feasibly hold the camera and record everything in the face of overwhelming danger (let’s face it, confronted with those zom-bot monsters, you and I would run a mile). Other situations have characters coming up with reasons for the camera to be recording the action (the finale springs to mind). It forces the script to become too focused on the camera and less about what is going on. There’s just no need for the film to use this gimmick and it would have worked better without it.

However, at other times, Frankenstein’s Army uses the technique brilliantly, with the camera sometimes swinging around to reveal a monster half-glimpsed down a corridor or something moving around in the back of the shot. But it’s nothing that couldn’t have been achieved with a normal camera and you get the sense that you’re missing a lot of the great stuff because the camera is shaking or facing the wrong way.

After the initially drawn-out sequences of the Russian soldiers going about their mission, all hell literally breaks loose as Frankenstein’s army of cybernetic monsters springs into life. Human remains fused with machine parts, these hideous monsters are steam-punk inspired  Nazi creations right out of Hell. Frankenstein’s Army then plays its aces, unleashing some of the most surreal and nightmarish creatures to emerge over the past ten years. Though filmed on a low budget, Frankenstein’s Army packs in some incredible production design that would put the majority of Hollywood mega-budget films to shame. The tour of Frankenstein’s laboratory that takes place in the final third is simply a fright-fuelled trip through the warped mind of director Richard Raaphorst. It’s like a walk through a Nazi/occult-themed Halloween funhouse and the first-person point-of-view really hammers this home. Gloomy, damp, smoky visuals with machines rumbling in the background, screams and monstrous moans happening around the camera, and with the sight of hulking robotic zombies with knife-fingers or propellers for heads staggering from room to room with bloody, dismembered corpses lying around the floor, it’s an unforgettable scene. Grotesque, gurgling creatures emerge from behind doorways or heave themselves up out of chutes with no warning. It’s a claustrophobic setting, with no escape and a deadly surprise lurking around every corner.

Where Frankenstein’s Army will win most plaudits with genre lovers is with this large variety of practical effects-based monsters. The only comparison I can make with them is to think of the Cenobites from the Hellraiser films and how uniquely outlandish and terrifying they were when they appeared for the first time – like nothing you had ever seen before. The selection of Nazi monsters here has that same ‘wow’ factor. You won’t have seen anything as unearthly and as abhorrent as these monsters, each individually unique in their composition. Frankenstein’s traditional fleshy patchwork experimentations take on new life when fused with mechanical parts. In different hands, these monsters could have turned out cartoony and ridiculous. But director Richard Raaphorst treats them with respect, refusing to allow their dubious nature to dominate, and keeps them grounded in as much reality as possible.

If there is a big drawback with Frankenstein’s Army, it’s that I doubt it will find much affection outside of hardcore horror fans. The plot is too simple, the characters are thinly-sketched stereotypes and the film does seem to power ahead solely on its conceptual ideas and the “I wonder what we’ll see next” approach. Those expecting a torrent of blood will be disappointed as well. The majority of the gore is from freshly-dismembered corpses lying about Frankenstein’s lab rather than any damage the creatures do to the Russian soldiers.

 

In case you haven’t realised by reading this review, I loved Frankenstein’s Army. It’s one of the most rewarding horror films I’ve watched for a long time and whilst it’s not likely to be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no denying how original and creative it is. Sadly the use of the found footage approach restricts the scope of the great visuals that we get to experience, leaving the audience wanting to see more. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing given how the film ends.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆