Credit: Shudder
by Steven Warner Featured Film Streaming Scene

The Found Footage Phenomenon — Sarah Appleton & Philip Escott

May 19, 2022

The Found Footage Phenomenon is a bland, talking head-heavy dud that feels like an incomplete Wikipedia article on its subject matter.

If anything, new documentary The Found Footage Phenomenon, premiering this week on Shudder, will give horror fans plenty of films to add to their ever-growing watchlists. Directors Phillip Escott and Sarah Appleton take on the titular subgenre, one which has proven wildly divisive since 1999’s low-budget masterwork The Blair Witch Project brought it kicking and screaming into the mainstream with merely a snap of a twig and a gooey stream of snot. Unfortunately, those searching for that same level of excitement are likely to be let down by The Found Footage Phenomenon, which brings together various filmmakers and cinematic scholars and presents their findings in the most banal way possible: a series of talking-head interviews interspersed with film clips, exuding all the artistry of a throwaway Syfy Channel special hosted by the likes of Eli Roth. Not that there aren’t a few diamonds to be found amongst the lumps of coal, as Escott and Appleton strive for a certain level of thoroughness in chronicling the history of the much-maligned subgenre. Positing that epistolary novels such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula were the literary forefathers of found footage is a fun idea, and interrogating 1960’s Peeping Tom and 1967’s David Holzman’s Diary as early examples of the style will undoubtedly expose new eyes to these occasionally forgotten masterpieces.

The highlight, however, proves to be an extensive interview with Italian director Ruggero Deodato, who has plenty of stories to share about both the making and eventual reception of his infamous 1980 cult classic Cannibal Holocaust, which was inspired by the real-life horrors he and his family witnessed each night while watching the evening news. Deodato was rightfully pissed that his films were often hacked to death by censors, or else outright banned, while local news stations could show the most horrific atrocities imagined simply because it fell under the header of informational. Does that excuse the actual animal cruelty so brazenly portrayed in his film? Perhaps not. But there is a certain thrill in hearing Dedodato discuss how he screened Cannibal Holocaust for Sergio Leone, after which the legendary director described its second half as one of the most brilliant things he’d ever seen, and it’s pretty cool that we can also add Dedodata to the growing list of filmmakers — Spielberg and Cronenberg included — who have proven to make some of the cruelest and most controversial films of their careers while in the midst of a nasty divorce.

Unfortunately, the majority of The Found Footage Phenomenon is focused on filmmakers whose films, oddly enough, have made no real impact on the subgenre as a whole. Sure, we get a few thoughts from the likes of Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project) and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), and there are a handful of fun segments chronicling the likes of 1989’s DIY alien invasion thriller The McPherson Tape and the BBC’s notorious 1992 Halloween special Ghostwatch, but why spend ten minutes talking to the director of 2016’s Found Footage 3D, a film which this critic and horror lover has never even heard of, and which this documentary presents as some beloved masterpiece? There’s also too much time spent talking to directors whose found-footage features were actually produced first but were released after certain studio films stole their thunder, giving these individuals the opportunity to complain once more to anyone who will listen. (Pity the friends of these people.) And not for nothing, but I highly doubt 2006’s Zombie Diaries would have been a massive hit if the Weinstein brothers hadn’t buried it to instead promote George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, a film which made roughly two dollars in theaters and no one remembers fondly.

Speaking of, the documentary brings up the fact that filmmakers like Romero and Brian De Palma used the found footage format and channeled their “unique authorial voices” through it, but no one mentions that these movies are considered some of the worst of their respective careers, and made no cultural impact whatsoever. The Found Footage Phenomenon also seems to have a huge bias against Hollywood-funded films, as Cloverfield is pretty much shit-talked in the few brief moments it even gets mentioned, while the likes of Chronicle and The Devil Inside aren’t even addressed. Screen-life thrillers, a natural extension of found footage, also get the shaft here, save for the Zoom-made and Covid-set Host, which certainly wouldn’t exist without the likes of Unfriended and its sequel, two of the best horror flicks of the past decade. The Found Footage Phenomenon also suffers from a 100-minute runtime that only inspires repetition, although perhaps the choice to repeatedly discuss how the horror genre is cyclical is the ultimate form of meta comedy. This is a film that needed to be either 75-minutes or five hours to truly make an impact; instead, it’s caught in a strange limbo where it feels more like an incomplete Wikipedia article than anything else, the type of project where true horror fans — and those who would naturally gravitate toward documentaries such as this one — already know the info, while beginners will likely be bored. There simply isn’t a whole lot that impress or educates in this Phenomenon.

You can currently stream Sarah Appleton & Philip Escott’s The Found Footage Phenomenon on Shudder.