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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
 

Horror Movie Shaky-Cam Thoughts

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!”
 

Horror Movie Shaky-Cam Thoughts

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…
 

Horror Movie Shaky-Cam Thoughts

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
 

Horror Movie Shaky-Cam Thoughts

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
 

Horror Movie Shaky-Cam Thoughts

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.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 10 of 16
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Darkknight2280 10/1/2010 4:30:06 AM

Cloverfield was great i thought to myself as i was watching...This is really how it would happen! Giant alien creature asside it really felt real! I havent seen paranormal activity..(i know i know), i bought it for cheap at a going out of business blockbuster, i need to watch it to see how real it is compared to Cloverfield. I do hope that the guy who did PA, does in fact make that other "steady cam" movie about the people that break into Area 51, i hope its not a dead project, seems like a possibly great concept!

wessmith1966 10/1/2010 6:04:19 AM

I can't stand shaky cam movies. If I want to watch a movie like that I'll pull out some old home videos. When I go to the theater and spend my $9 for a film I want a movie with good production value. That goes for action films that fast cut and jiggle so you can't see that the stars really aren't good with action, not just horror films. I know they're inventive, unique...blah, blah, blah...I don't care. I don't go to the movies to get sick in the stomach from the camera jiggling like the film was shot from the perspective of a belly button on a belly dancer.

And as far as Cloverfield and Blair Witch, they were a complete waste of time and money.

Mhalakai 10/1/2010 6:56:06 AM

I’ve never felt nauseas watching these films and I usually get seasick on a wet pavement. :) I don’t understand the complaints. I loved Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity scared the crap out of me. Not all of these movies work well with the shaky-cam, but when they do, its great fun!

samurai1138 10/1/2010 7:17:50 AM

Shaky Cam is the bane of my theater going existence. While it can ALMOST be tolerable on a small screen, when viewed on the big screens of the theater, all it does is give me a headache and make the action even harder to decipher than a fight scene in Transformer's. Death to Shaky Cam!

lracors 10/1/2010 7:27:49 AM

I'm a fan of this.  I enjoyed Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism (Until the very end).  One note to filmmakers... 1.  Try to improve on the endings and have them make a little more sense in the context of the film. a. Blair Witch was perfectly abstract and fit the film.  Paranormal Activity got changed from it's original abstract ending to that lame Demon face ending the suits wanted.  The Last Exorcism... jeez you guys went off the rails, for a "Found Footage Film" you ending didn't justify that.  Anyway my 2 cent's i look forward to more... but hey have a more logical ending!

Hobbs 10/1/2010 7:50:55 AM

I agree with Wes for the most part, never liked the shakey camera and my fear that a few successful ones would lead to more mainstream movies using it and it has....Bourne movies, last Bond just to name a few.  On my TV screen it doesn't bother me as much as it does on the big screen.

The one exception I'll give is District 9.  As stated when it wasn't plausible they ditched it which is part of the genius of that movie.  Blair Witch I had no problem with on TV, Paranormal Activity was a yawner and I was laughing through it because it was the furthest thing from scary someone could come up with. 

Rheul_home 10/1/2010 7:58:20 AM

I often feel frustration watching these shaky cam flicks. Sometimes it feels like watching an amateur product review on YouTube. The camera never seems to be on the real action and honestly, I find that bothersome. I did like Cloverfield but I think it would have been much better shot as a regular film. Blair Witch was the gold standard. When that move first hit theaters it was pretty unique and scary. Watching it at home just isn't the same especially since they whole shaky cam thing has become passe. Paranormal Activity was a nice blend of the two (The guy had a tripod) and made that movie a lot better.

xpaladinx45 10/1/2010 8:52:57 AM

ya, honestly, stick the shaky cam stuff.  Hate it.  Just as Wes said, hate it in the action films too

monkeyfoot 10/1/2010 9:00:13 AM

Shakey Cam (or Drunken Cam as I called it before it got a name) can sometimes be useful if it is tailored to the right project. Cloverfield and Blair Witch are the prime examples. It provides a frentic and "this is really happening" feel to some projects. But it certainly can be used too much. It doesn't belong in the last Bond film Quantum of Solace.

That last remake of Posiden Adventure would have been a perfect use. It all could have been taken from the view of the young boy in it if he had a camcorder. As it was, it was bad IMHO.

Rheul_home 10/1/2010 9:41:33 AM

I often feel frustration watching these shaky cam flicks. Sometimes it feels like watching an amateur product review on YouTube. The camera never seems to be on the real action and honestly, I find that bothersome. I did like Cloverfield but I think it would have been much better shot as a regular film. Blair Witch was the gold standard. When that move first hit theaters it was pretty unique and scary. Watching it at home just isn't the same especially since they whole shaky cam thing has become passe. Paranormal Activity was a nice blend of the two (The guy had a tripod) and made that movie a lot better.

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