Fads in movies are curious things. Everyone complains that there’s no originality in Hollywood, and yet when a truly unique film or filmmaking technique comes out, everyone is quick to just on the bandwagon to make their own version of it. Audiences are just as much to blame, because they consume the imitators as readily as the studios are to churn our these facsimiles . Lethal Weapon is a huge hit, suddenly every other movie is a buddy cop adventure. Big was big, so we’re inundated with body switching films. American Pie was a runaway success, lo and behold we have a new slew of teenage sex comedies. Currently, we’re living in a time of “found footage” movies where to conceit is that some “real” people filmed video of a horrendous, usually supernatural, occurrence that resulted in a dismal end for our heroic videographers, and sometime later their footage was found and edited together as the movie we’re now seeing. The Blair Witch Project successfully pioneered that concept, artfully confusing everyone as to whether or not it was real or fiction. More than a decade later, that genre is going strong with varying results. Even George Romero got in on this trend.
A few years back, another micro-budget horror film followed the formula of Blair Witch using a minimal cast, simply location, and a video camera to record a “real” event that led to a tragic, mysterious end to the characters. Paranormal Activity made a splash on the film festival circuit so Paramount bought it and released as-is (after considering remaking it with a big budget and name actors). Audiences loved it, and it has spawned (so far) two sequels. The story is about a couple living together, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (playing characters with their own names), experience strange things at night–random thumping, scraping sounds, things found in other places than where they were left–so they decide to start videotaping their lives. In particular, Micah connects the video camera to his computer, allowing it to record their bedroom all night long. This is where it gets creepy: the bedroom door moves by itself; lights turn on and off; Katie gets out of bed and stands there staring at her sleeping boyfriend for hours at a time. A lot is made from little things like noises in the dark and objects moving on their own. This movie forgoes the gore that is so extreme in too many modern horror films and goes back to the old days of creeping out its audience using mood and suggestion. And creepy it is; this is one of the scariest movies to come along in a while. Why? Because it seems real. The characters don’t seem like actors in a movie reading lines, but real people reacting to a bizarre situation that they don’t understand. It’s also refreshing that Katie looks like a girl you’d meet in real life and not a Hollywood anorexia victim. This is a simple movie that sets out to do one thing–scare it’s audience. It does it well.
TrollHunter borrows heavily from Blair Witch as well. Like the earlier film, this is about three film students, two guys and a girl, who end up in the woods shooting a documentary about a mythological creature. This film was made in Norway (yes, you have to read subtitles) and benefits from that location. The story is uniquely Norwegian, dealing with, as the title suggests, trolls. The students record their activities as they track down a guy they think is a bear poacher. He drives an SUV with gouges on the side and sleeps during the day in a motor home that smells something awful and is equipped with flood lights that are on all night. It turns out that he’s a government agent who tracks down trolls living in the mountains and forests to kill them if they get too close to civilization. Having done this line of work for 30 years, he figures it’s time that the world knows about the trolls, the existence of which the government has been keeping secret, so he allows the students to tag along with him on his nightly excursions. This turns into a whole lot of fun as their camera’s night vision (taking a clue from Cloverfield) picks up the giant monstrosities coming after them (one of them has three heads). Like Paranormal, the characters seem like real people, though they tend to be more one-dimensional. The effects are impressive, combining CGI creatures into a documentary-like filmmaking style. The only problem is that they tend to be too cartoonish. In fact, that’s something that the film as a whole has to contend with, that the situation is rather goofy even if they’re trying to treat it seriously. For instance, the trolls can smell Christian blood. An issue was raised when one character confessed to being Muslim. I wish they had pursued that further. Another thing is that the trolls either explode or turn to stone when sunlight (or a tanning bulb) hits them. There is a scientific reason for this given, and some other myths about trolls are said to be too ridiculous to consider. We see a tribe of trolls using a deserted mine shaft as shelter during the day, but what about the scores of others that apparently exist in the countryside of Norway? Do they dig their own tunnels? This could have been explored much deeper. The tone of the movie was mostly one of fun, because at the end of the day, this is still a movie about trolls. It can’t be taken too seriously. However, the ending was much too dark and left too much open to be satisfying; one is left to wonder if the filmmakers were prepared for a sequel rather than giving a solid conclusion.
Both of these films made the most of the “found footage” motif. In both, the camera almost seemed like its own character and played an important role in the story. Gone is the concept that a movie is a magic window for the audience to magically see any angle anywhere anytime. We are only allowed to see what the characters choose to point the camera at so our vision is limited. This plays well when something is happening just offscreen. In a traditional film, this would smack of the director manipulating us; after all, it’s just as easy to point the camera at the mysterious threat as it is to withhold that information from the audience. But movies like Paranormal Activity and TrollHunter play for the YouTube audience–homemade movies that aren’t slick and polished featuring real-ish people and settings. There’s no music on the soundtrack, only the natural sounds picked up by the camera. Credits often aren’t found, at least at the beginning; instead, we are treated with text that explains how this footage was found and possibly the fact that the characters you’ll meet were never seen again. We know the ending from the outcome; the pleasure is seeing how we get there.
Is there overkill with this genre? Absolutely. Apollo 18 proved that audiences may be tiring of this format by bringing in a mere $17 million at the box office this year. Of course, it’s doubtful the filmmakers are complaining, since it only cost $5 million to produce. On those terms, the film was a success. The problem is finding the right story to tell in this manner. Is it right for every movie? Of course not. Was it right for Cloverfield or [REC]? Sure. Of course, it’s easy to say that because those films worked. It’s also easy to trash this format when a film like Apollo 18 doesn’t work. Is it the genre or is it the story? TrollHunter is planned to be remade in the US by Chris Columbus; it makes one wonder if the remake shouldn’t be done in a traditional style–still be about college filmmakers (though will it still be set in Norway due to the trolls?), but instead of seeing through their camera, how about we stand back objectively and see them holding the camera? At least then the remake would be different than the original and we could compare which manner of filmmaking tells the story in a more compelling manner.
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