REVIEW: The Found Footage Phenomenon (2021)

dir. Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott

Found Footage has always been a bit of an outlier in the horror landscape, the peculiar nature of purposefully capturing accidental reality on film being simultaneously easy to execute, yet difficult to successfully pull off. But the subgenre’s power to change the trajectory of filmmaking is undeniable, and the few entries to break through to mainstream audiences have become massive hits, propelling the horror genre forward. The Found Footage Phenomenon examines this curious category from its earliest origins to most recent outputs. By examining key films such as Peeping Tom, Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity – along with many in between – directors Sarah Appleton and Phillip Escott explore the way found footage not only reflects our changing cultural fears, but serves as a timestamp on our collective lives. 

The loosely structured documentary chronologically follows the first instances of the style through its various evolutions with changing technology. Notable found footage directors such as André Øvredal (Trollhunter), Lesley Manning (Ghostwatch) and Patrick Brice (Creep) describe their behind the scenes experiences, as well as the impact of films that inspired them to attempt the complicated medium. Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) provides interesting insight into the creation process for his infamous exploitation film, whilst Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project) discusses the functionality and pitfalls of creating of-the-moment work. Genre expert Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Found Footage Horror Films) is particularly compelling with her extensive knowledge and eloquent description of each film’s cultural impact, and Lance Weiler (The Last Broadcast) provides poignant commentary on the freedom of experimental creation and the subgenre’s legacy. 

A compelling through-line is the democratization of filmmaking and technological accessibility inherent to a genre based on real people and daily life. But directors repeatedly note the immense skill required to fake “authentic” reality, given audiences’ growing familiarity with the format. Michael Goi (Megan is Missing) and James Cullen Bressack (Hate Crime) describe how their intensely disturbing films demonstrate the often nihilistic quality of found footage stories, as well as the genre’s capacity to make powerful social statements. 

Although The Found Footage Phenomenon could possibly benefit from a bit more structural clarity and interviews with performers, overall Appleton and Escott wonderfully deconstruct the subgenre whilst highlighting lesser known entries important to its development. And despite the film’s subtitle implying a downfall, the documentary intentionally ends on an abrupt note, suggesting that the story of found footage is far from over.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Jenn Adams

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