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5 Thoughts on Shaky-Cam Horror Movies
Enough to make you bloody seasick.
By Matt Hoffman
October 01, 2010
5 Thoughts on Shaky-Cam Horror Movies
© Bob Trate
Ever since The Blair Witch Project hit theaters in 1999, the image of a terror-stricken face staring into a jiggling camera lens (preferably while whimpering “I am so scared right now”) has become a horror genre cliché, imitated and parodied to the point of omnipresence. Blair Witch wasn’t the first horror movie to masquerade as documentary footage, but its huge commercial success paved the way for legions of similarly structured films, including, most recently, this month’s Paranormal Activity 2. Whether you find shaky-cam horror to be clever and entertaining or gimmicky and nauseating, there’s no question that it is now a prominent subgenre, one that’s worth taking a closer look at. What are the advantages of shaky-cam? What are the drawbacks? And what appeal does shaky-cam hold for the audiences that keep coming back for more of it, Dramamine in hand?
1. Ugly Footage Isn’t Easy
First of all, kudos to the shaky-cam auteurs who manage to make their films look like actual amateur or shot-on-location footage. Many successful filmmakers seem so accustomed to working with high-tech cameras and veteran cinematographers that they forget what unpolished footage even looks like. In a shaky-cam feature, this ignorance can go a long way towards damaging the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.
In this regard, the subgenre’s record is mixed. Films like Blair Witch and 2007’s Paranormal Activity have convincingly rough visuals because their creators simply didn’t have the money for glossier production values. Relatively higher-budget productions like Cloverfield (2008), Spanish zombie flick [REC] (2007), and [REC]’s nearly identical American remake Quarantine (2008) often create a decent illusion of cheapness, but they usually can’t resist prettying themselves up, at least a little, with high-quality footage or meticulously lit environments. (As many have pointed out, Cloverfield has the added flaw of a longer running time than most camcorders have space for.) Many shaky-cam movies seem to just assume that the audience won’t think too much about the concept; the most unbelievable part of The Last Exorcism (2010) is not the demonic possession but the idea that an independent documentary filmmaker would be able to afford the type of camera needed to produce such crisp visuals.
2. “Turn That Damn Camera Off!”
However, the problem of producing believable images pales in comparison to the problem of creating a believable reason for the characters to keep the camera running. Most modern horror movies have to take pains to prevent their characters from calling for help on their cell phones (“No signal!”); shaky-cam movies have the added obligation of explaining why the protagonist feels compelled to continue filming, even in the midst of a zombie rampage/alien invasion/etc.
In some cases, such as Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity, the characters film for more or less altruistic motives, in the hopes of uncovering important information or raising awareness of their plight. “People are going to want to know how it all went down,” states Cloverfield’s hapless cameraman. More cynical films like [REC] or 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust focus on members of the news media, who are depicted as being more interested in getting shocking footage than in any moral or ethical concerns. Both explanations lend the shaky-cam concept some credibility, but only to a limited extent. Most people, no matter how courageous or greedy, would eventually just drop the damn camera and run for their lives. Last summer’s District 9 may have addressed this issue most effectively by simply ditching the handheld-camera conceit when it ceased to be plausible.
3. Just a Thrill Ride…
Of course, plausibility is not and has never been a horror movie prerequisite. Generally speaking, the real purpose of shaky-cam is not to provide the information necessary to the storyline in the most efficient way, but rather to make the audience feel as though they are inside the story, experiencing the action, rather than outside, observing it. It’s scarier to be in a dangerous situation than to witness one, a lesson that shaky-cam innovators could have learned from horror-based first-person shooter games like Resident Evil.
The downside of this immersive approach it that it tends to shortchange narrative and character development. On the other hand, some horror movies simply aren’t intended to tell complex, emotionally powerful stories. Some horror movies just want to deliver thrills and chills, and in that respect, shaky-cam can make them more engaging and visceral, turning the movie-going experience into the equivalent of a carnival’s “dark ride,” in which you always have to be prepared for something jumping out at you from around the next corner.
4. …Or Not
However, a small but notable minority of shaky-cam movies do attempt to use the handheld perspective to deliver substantive messages, usually about the voyeuristic nature of the media. Cannibal Holocaust is the most prominent example of this. About half of that film consists of footage supposedly shot by a group of documentary filmmakers who travel into the South American jungle in search of cannibal tribes. In their hunt for provocative material the documentarians end up violently antagonizing the indigenous inhabitants before meeting their own bloody fates. Cannibal Holocaust could certainly be called frightening, but it functions differently from its generic counterparts. Instead of drawing the viewer into the action, the film constantly emphasizes the viewer’s status as spectator and (ironically enough) criticizes audiences’ attraction to violence.
Similarly, George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007), about a group of young filmmakers caught up in the early stages of a zombie apocalypse, provides a combative critique of media saturation in the internet age. However one feels about either of these films’ arguments or execution, they prove that shaky-cam can be used for more than just jump scares.
5. Bargain-Basement Horror
Socially relevant or not, shaky-cam is actually a natural extension of the time-honored horror tradition of turning a low budget into an asset. Horror has always been Hollywood’s bastard genre, popular enough to reliably sell tickets but (usually) considered too low-class to spend large amounts of money on. Because of this prejudice, some of the scariest movies ever made, like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, have been the ones that use their own grimy bargain-basement production values to make the terrifying situations they depict seem more real. Shaky-cam takes that aesthetic technique to the next level. Even the most fearsome monster won’t be frightening if the film it appears in feels artificial, but if a movie feels genuine, even a door slowly creaking open on its own (as one does in Paranormal Activity) can cause audiences to scream.
Of course, the more popular shaky-cam becomes, the greater is the risk that it will be overused until moviegoers get sick of it. Even if there is a backlash, though, handheld scare flicks will still probably show up in theaters at least every once in a while. This is the horror genre, after all, where hardly anything ever really stays dead.