Recent years have seen the rise of an odd trend. Documentary films, once relegated to art house cinemas, have begun playing in major multiplexes and performing well at the box office. Perhaps the subject matter has a lot to do with it. The bulk of the hits aren't politically motivated or educational, but chilling looks at the world's greatest mysteries, disasters and horrors. These "found footage" documentaries give us a glimpse into the dark world lurking underneath our own, exposing threats that wouldn't be out of place in fictional horror movies.
The fact that most of these movies contain footage of actual deaths (their creators rarely survive) has led to some degree of controversy, but to deny the existence and relevance of this new subgenre of nonfiction cinema would be doing the film industry a tremendous disservice. So let's tackle them as art. Let's examine the craft on display in these docs and decide which of these ill-fated documentarians is the best at its job.
In short: who's best at holding the camera when everything goes to hell?
The Cameramen: Jake and Sam, Vice reporters
The Footage: As you'd expect from two trained journalists who work for one of the world's most widely read online publications, the footage of the Eden Parish incident captured in The Sacrament is about as professional as it gets. Jake and Sam are equally adept at capturing calm-before-the-storm moments as they are at filming the sudden and horrifying violence that follows. In the hands of amateurs, this could have been an incomprehensible mess, but with the cameras in the hands of true veterans, even the most awful events are captured with an unflinching eye. They only get docked a few points because key sequences are caught on accident by a discarded camera, making some stretches of the film the result of dumb luck.
The Grade: A-
The Blair Witch Project
The Cameramen: Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard and Mike Williams, film students
The Footage: Speaking of amateurs... Look, it may be uncouth to blame Heather, Josh and Mike for their shaky, often incomprehensible camerawork (why speak ill of the dead?), but it's hard to argue with what's on camera. Although things begin composed and professionally framed, any sense of professionalism goes straight out the window the moment things start to get gnarly. It's understandable: they're kids and they're new to documentary filmmaking and encountering evil witches in the middle of the woods. Still, it would be unfair to grade them on a curve due to their age and inexperience alone. A better camera operator probably would have actually managed to get footage of that damn witch.
The Grade: D+
The Cameraman: Hudson "Hud" Platt, partygoer
The Footage: We've got to hand it to Hud: his technique actually manages to improve as things get more crazy and stressful. His early footage is real amateur-hour stuff, the kind of shaky home-movie nonsense that not even your friends would want to suffer through. But when the Statue of Liberty gets decapitated and a massive monster starts rampaging across the city, Hud steps up and catches some truly remarkable footage. Although he occasionally has a knack for missing the big picture, the beauty is in the details. It's a shame Hud gets horribly killed because he probably had a real future in documenting awful, cataclysmic events.
The Grade: B+
The Cameraman: Pablo, TV news-camera operator
The Footage: We see early on that Pablo is competent enough. Assigned to TV journalist Angela Vidal as she tours a fire station and interviews its inhabitants, his work begins to suffer as soon as they step off the beaten path. When they find themselves trapped in a quarantined apartment complex filled with infected people with a thirst for blood, Pablo quickly grows more concerned with using his camera as a source of light instead of an artistic instrument. It's hard to stay too mad at Pablo (that would be speaking ill of the deceased, after all). Most people would drop the camera altogether when faced with the nightmare scenario documented in REC. But come on, man. You were a professional! Couldn't you hold the camera a little more still?
The Grade: C-
The Last Exorcism
The Cameraman: Iris Reisen and Daniel Moskowitz, documentary filmmakers
The Footage: Since Iris and Daniel disappeared following the events depicted in The Last Exorcism, it's impossible to ascertain exactly what went into the production of their documentary. In other words, it's difficult to know if what they shot was impressive or completely staged. Despite being a tiny crew, they frequently capture hugely dramatic moments from multiple angles, leading to sequences that, while impressive, stretch credibility. Could this actually be a fake documentary, shot to emulate the look of a documentary? Since the filmmakers cannot be reached for comment, The Last Exorcism will have to remain an enigma, either one of the more impressive docs of its kind or an elaborate fake.
The Grade: D or B+
The Cameramen: Kalle and Malica, documentary filmmakers
The Footage: This? This is how it's done. Shot with the grandeur of a nature documentary, Trollhunter perfectly captures the scope and terror of its subject matter. Both Kalle and Malica showcase nerves of steel throughout the production, walking into life-and-death situations and actually managing to hold the camera still for more than a few seconds at a time. It's impressive stuff. With most documentaries that depict the seemingly impossible and the fantastic, the shaky camera movements of the subject allow plenty of room for deceit, but not here. Thanks to Trollhunter, the entire world now knows that these bizarre beasts actually exist. This film is a public service.
The Grade: A
The Cameraman: Derek and Clif, amateur travel photographers
The Footage: Unlike so many documentary subjects profiled here, Derek and Cliff ventured out into the world with all of the necessary equipment to create a semiprofessional project. Sure, they're amateurs attempting to capture the adventure of a lifetime, but they're more prepared than the average schmoe who finds himself in a deadly situation straight out of a horror movie. Their decent camera and its very adaptable rigs allow this duo to capture some fairly stunning photography of a, uh, affliction that transforms one of them into a superpowered creature. About half of their footage is impressive stuff, but when things get truly dire, any attention to craft gets thrown out the window and they begin to rely on those cool rigs to have the camera keep up with them. It's nice, but they probably would have taken a little more care if they'd known their home videos would actually be screened in theaters.
The Grade: B-
The Cameraman: Micah, concerned husband
The Footage: More than any other documentary discussed here, Paranormal Activity feels the least polished and the most personal. Unlike the films that were produced by filmmakers or students of media, there is no artistic pretense behind Micah's camerawork. He's simply using the camera to gather evidence of a haunting in his home. Nothing more. So he gets a soft pass for holding the camera still enough and picking decent angles for his static wide shots. There may not be too much artistic care, but he certainly captures what he sets out to capture.
The Grade: C
The Sacrament opens in limited release on June 6, 2014. It is currently available On Demand.
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