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FANTASTIC FEST 2021 REVIEW! Do we need a documentary on found footage films and the genre as a whole? I say NO! But then I saw Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott’s The Found Footage Phenomenon, and now I’m a solid YES! The filmmakers have fashioned an exhaustive history of the genre. As the film states, this genre is so specific that I was amazed that there was enough interesting material to cover its one-hour and forty-minute runtime. While it’s a pretty straightforward doc structure-wise, I was glued to every minute of this phenomenon.

The co-writers/co-directors hit all the tentpoles you’d expect. It starts with Orson Welles’ radio play, War of the Worlds, then Geovanni Molina’s Cannibal Zombie, and finally the iconic The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity franchise. But, of course, those latter titles are two indie films that hit the lottery like no other.

What’s impressive about The Found Footage Phenomenon are its subjects. First, the interview list is extensive, including Molina talking about his thought process for including such realistic murders and actual abuse of animals, which presented ethical issues then, just like today. Then there was the government investigation as to the whereabouts of his missing actors after the premiere. Then the documentary becomes a who’s who list of filmmakers, including Eduardo Sanchez from Blair Witch and Oren Peli of Paranormal Activity.

“…a documentary on found footage films…”

To me, the gold found here comes from the discussions surrounding the genre because it is truly like no other in cinema. Why is found footage horror more terrifying than narrative-driven horror tales? Found footage films that succeed do so because of the imperfections inherent in the style that make the experience feel more authentic. No successful found footage title could ever star a known celebrity, and they can’t ever have a large budget. Sanchez wisely realized that a sequel to The Blair Witch Project would never work, so his sequel wasn’t a found-footage movie, but straight horror and any attempt to make a found footage movie by the studio was seen as a rip-off.

The other interesting discussion revolves around how culture and technology influence the genre and help innovate it. For example, The Blair Witch Project was shot on film. As technology improved and became much more affordable, Paranormal Activity was shot on home-bought security cameras. Cloverfield then used “cellphones” combined with CG as part of its coverage. Having nothing to do with technology, the events of 9/11 and the creation of YouTube would also play a vital role in the evolution of the found footage genre.

There are not a lot of frills when it comes to the doc with its talking-head interviews and an endless supply of fair-use clips. But, Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott are quite thorough in chronicling the history of found footage and its iterations. In addition, the film experts and filmmakers interviewed throughout have great stories and profound insights to make The Found Footage Phenomenon a must-see for fans of the genre and cinema history buffs; or anyone who enjoys talking about why and what makes film and movies so awesome.

The Found Footage Phenomenon screened at the 2021 Fantastic Fest.

The Found Footage Phenomenon (2021)

Directed and Written: Sarah Appleton, Phillip Escott

Starring: Eduardo Sanchez, Oren Peli, Geovanni Molina, etc.

Movie score: 8.5/10

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"…a must-see for fans of the genre and cinema history buffs..."

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