Legal Download: Found footage horror on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later this column was found.

THIS WEEK’S THEME: Found Footage Horror Movies

In the last few years, so-called “found footage” movies — fictional films designed to ape the style of documentaries — have overrun the horror genre like a horde of zombies in a brain bank. Some critics dismiss these movies as gimmicks, but even if that’s true it’s a gimmick that’s shown surprising popularity and staying power. Well over a decade after the movie that launched the subgenre (see below), several of the most popular horror movies each year are found footage. Why do audiences keep coming back? I think it has something to do with the way these films short circuit suspension of disbelief. By thrusting camera-wielding witnesses into supernatural narratives, they give the audience perfect surrogates for their skepticism and their fear. I did my own search of found footage horror movies currently available for legal download online. Here are the five I found.

On iTunes
[REC] 3: GENESIS (2012)
Directed by Paco Plaza
$6.99 to rent in SD or HD

The first film in the [REC] series had a classic found footage premise: A TV reporter who hosts a show on late night jobs accompanies a bunch of firefighters on a call and inadvertently becomes trapped in an apartment building full of zombies. The second film, [REC] 2, continued that story, with an elite squad of soldiers (equipped with helmet cams, ‘natch) storming the same apartment building to try to root out the “infection.” For the third [REC], subtitled GENESIS, series co-creator Paco Plaza tries something different. At the wedding of Koldo (Diego Martin) and Clara (Leticia Dolera), there’s another zombie outbreak — but this time, in the midst of the mayhem, someone drops and breaks the camera. From that point on, the film assumes a more traditional, omniscient point-of-view, along with a more comedic (and almost parodic) tone than the previous [REC]s. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of zombie-steeped tea, don’t worry, gore fiends: A fourth [REC] is on the way, [REC] 4: APOCALYPSE, to conclude the series in suitably mock-documentary fashion.

On Vudu
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
$9.99 to purchase

?There were found footage movies before THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT — the infamously graphic CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST used the same techniques all the way back in 1980 — but every found footage movie that followed owes it a huge debt of gratitude (and probably a royalty check). Made for less than a million dollars (reports of the exact figure vary from the low five to the high six figures), the film went on to gross almost $250 million worldwide and became an international sensation. The premise was simple — three film students searching for an infamous urban legend get lost in the woods — but the execution, from production to marketing, were brilliant. The film was sold as a legitimate documentary — as, essentially, a supernatural snuff film — and supported by a creepily convincing website and Sci-Fi Channel TV special. As hard as it is to believe now, people believed BLAIR WITCH was real — when I was working in a comic book store at the time of its release, I got into an argument with a woman who insisted (insisted!) that the film was 100% genuine and that I was an idiot for questioning its veracity (“I know,” she told me, “I’m a teacher!”). If the frenzied reaction it sparked seems a bit extreme now, the movie remains a great example of low-budget ingenuity and of indie filmmakers outdoing the big boys at their own game. The big boys are still trying to top it.

On Amazon
Directed by Oren Peli
$2.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase

At the heart of almost all found footage horror movies lies a problematic contradiction. Audiences like their “realistic” presentation of surreal events, but that realistic presentation usually involves people unrealistically continuing to film long after any sane person would have ditched their camera and started running for their lives. The original PARANORMAL ACTIVITY found enormous box office success with an ingenious work-around: A couple, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are experiencing strange events in their new San Diego home while they sleep, so they set up a camera in their bedroom to record any nocturnal shenanigans. They’re not making a documentary, they’re looking for proof — and they can’t run for their lives when they’re helplessly asleep (a fact that makes the haunting scenes that much scarier). Of course, all that logic went right out the window in the sequel, where another house suffering its own haunting is equipped with all kinds of security cameras and surveillance equipment. Which raises the question: If the ghosts are killing all these people in this fictional universe, who’s editing the raw footage into a movie? Maybe it’s the ghosts themselves, who really seem to enjoy messing with people.

On Netflix
Directed by Daniel Stamm
Free for streaming plan members

A reverend who has performed fake exorcisms for years decides to come clean about the tricks of his trade, and invites a documentary film crew to follow him on a house call in Louisiana where a farmer claims his teenage girl is under the thrall of Beelzebub. Not the most creative premise for a horror film, found footage or otherwise, but director Daniel Stamm uses the fake-documentary conceit to cleverly explore the nature of faith and belief, and to play with our expectations of what is real and what is not. There were just two problems with this surprisingly effective and very atmospheric horror film: an ending that traded the rest of the movie’s thoughtful investigation for bloody chaos, and the fact that the movie inspired a sequel, currently in preproduction. Guys, it was called the *last* exorcism for a reason.

On YouTube
Directed by William Brent Bell
$3.99 to rent

When found footage movies are done well, they’re particularly scary because they seem so chillingly plausible. When found footage movies are done poorly, they’re particularly funny because they seem so hilariously implausible. Take the laughably bad THE DEVIL INSIDE, which grossed an incredible $33 million in the first week of this calendar year, and just $20 million in the following ten weeks of release. Word apparently got out. This is another film-within-a-film from another fake documentary crew. The faux-realistic cinematography — all shakycam and snap zooms — is THE DEVIL INSIDE in a nutshell, aping the real world in such an unconvincing way that it looks more artificial than a traditional fiction film. The “filmmakers” accompany an American woman to visit her mother in Italy, who has been held in a Catholic mental hospital for decades after priests botched her exorcism. The woman befriends some exorcists, who carefully explain the lesser-known quirks of demonic possession they will later forget when they start happening in front of them. The whole film ends with a car crash — because apparently car crashes are demons’ only weakness — as effective a metaphor for this so-bad-it’s-good mess as you’ll ever find.