Horror Month 2015, Day 2: Cannibal Holocaust and Blair Witch Project

Robot's Pajamas Horror Month 2015

“I am so sick of found footage movies…”

Every so often, I find myself in these conversations about horror movies and the state of genre as a whole, typically with people who have a tendency to have an over-inflated view of the importance of horror movies in pop culture in general. I typically only last about 3 to 5 minutes as a rule in these conversations before my sanity saving defense mechanisms kick in (I learned a lot in those court-appointed anger management classes) and I find an out to move on with my life.

horror month punch

Pictured above: Dramatization of the conclusion of my one hundred and fourteenth conversation about how crazy “A Serbian Film” was .

Inevitably, the conversation comes to the subject of found footage films, and of course, someone has to make the statement:

“Ugh, found footage movies.   I can’t stand those anymore.”

Or similarly:

“That shaky cam shit sucks.  Why can’t they just make the movie normal?”

Well, simply put, when a screenwriter or director decides that the screenplay or movie will be in the found footage format, the message that is sent to the audience implicitly is “this really happened”. Whether it’s motivated purely by cost (found footage movies typically cost far, far less to make) or by the full narrative intention to make a found footage film, the intention is clear and the desired effect is the same – to impart a sense of realism and truth to an otherwise unrealistic situation. So, obviously, when a narrative device is overused, or if you like, a sub-genre (another term that has a tendency to raise homicidal thoughts in the author) is beaten to death, people and audiences are going to get sick of it.

horror month pow

“Fantastic Four” was the first ring of the bell, superhero movies. It tolls for thee.

Which is shame, though, because despite the influx of your Grave Encounters, As Above So Below, Lucky Bastard (yes, it’s like half porn half horror and completely stupid), The Mirror, and Inner Demons, you have absolute gems like The Sacrament (triggered my PTSD and I never want to see it again ever), The Den, and [REC]. Above them all, set upon the Mount Olympus of found footage movies, are the seminal movies The Blair Witch Project and Cannibal Holocaust.

Let me get this out of the way right away, and it’s a claim that no other found footage movie can make, and it’s one that immediately legitimized the claim of realism of both:

People actually thought the actors/people in Cannibal Holocaust were murdered, and the film students in Blair Witch had disappeared.

In the case of Cannibal Holocaust, the director Ruggero Deodato was arrested first for obscenity. Then, after a French magazine posited that the deaths were real, Deodato got a free first-class upgrade in his charges to include murder.  That’s kind of a big deal.

cannibal holocaust spit

Seems legit

Deodato shot himself in the foot, too – he went so far as to make his principal leads stay out of any other television show, commercial, movie, or other name-clearing public appearances. In short, Deodato was actually too effective in generating the sense of realism. The charges were eventually dropped (hilariously, just having the leads show up alive was not enough – Deodato also had to explain how he was able to accomplish the shishkabob you see above).

How does the movie itself stand up? Bizarre, sometimes silly, sometimes absolutely horrifying, and extremely difficult to watch. It’s the kind of movie you should probably never admit to seeing more than once or twice, especially to someone who’s seen it as well – lest that person begin to wonder how totally broken your moral compass is.

Also, the animal killings are real.

The Blair Witch Project, insofar as the movie is concerned, is like the antithesis of Cannibal Holocaust. CH is known far and wide for its hyper-graphic and unflinching depictions of rape, murder, torture, animal killing, and uh, cannibalism. BWP has none of that. In fact, there’s no graphic display of anything in the BWP, unless you count the up-nostril shot of Heather Donohue’s schnozz:

blair witch project heather scared

ZOOM OUT PLEASE!!!

While BWP was far more readily accessible by a more widespread audience, reactions were quite divisive. It really was an either love it or hate it experience – to date I have not met a person who said “yeah, well it was okay.” Ironically, the most vocal complaint of BWP is the lack of violence, gore, and murder that is found in CH – “dude, they just walk around and get lost in the forest.  In the end the camera falls down, and one guy is standing in the corner.” I’ve directed those people to CH, who then get back to me and tell me I’m fucked up for recommending that disgusting movie.

There’s no pleasing some people.

Regardless of Heather Donohue’s potential for post-nasal drip or minor gripes from closet gore-hounds, the influence of BWP can’t be denied. Aside from establishing the precedent that amateur filmmakers with the right approach can turn pennies (comparatively) into millions. The Blair Witch Project became a sensation, propelled its stars to flavor of the month status. The realistic aspect of the movie was propelled largely in part to the documentary that preceded it that played on the Sci-Fi network (before it became a 24-hour garbage network). But strangely, the found footage deluge didn’t really hit until four or five years ago.  For some reason, I think rushing the abomination that was Blair Witch 2: Book of Nobody Gives a Shit killed the momentum (1 made millions, 2 lost millions).

But still. Blair Witch grossed close to 250 million dollars. By comparison, Fantastic Four has only grossed 160 million.

fantastic four miles teller

Ultimately, 100 times more horrifying than anything Cannibal Holocaust or Blair Witch could ever muster.

Cannibal Holocaust and Blair Witch Project are the father and drunk uncle (but still super cool to watch football with) of today’s found footage films.  For all intents and purposes, movies like Paranormal Activity and [REC] are the descendants of Blair Witch, and The Bay and The Sacrament owe their allegiance to Cannibal Holocaust.  This Halloween, if you are going to do the found footage thing, start from the beginning, and start with the best.

Today’s guest review was by Wally Quigley, a creative writer and director as well as a fan of horror movies. Last year he reviewed Dawn of the Dead.