One would think that found-footage horror films—those where part or the entire movie is presented as discovered film or video recordings—would have a limited lifespan at the box office, but the success of Paranormal Activity keeps them coming. If a studio can throw a few thousand dollars to produce an authentic-looking "home movie" and rake in millions in profits, you can understand why Hollywood is having an extended love affair with the genre.
This weekend brings Paranormal Activity 3, a prequel to the prior two films that finally offers some explanation as to why the houses by sisters Kristi and Katie have become supernatural fright shows. Paranormal Activity 3 consists of home VHS recordings of the sisters as little girls in 1988 that contain some of the most frightening footage of the entire trilogy.
Before you scare yourself silly with Paranormal Activity 3 at the cinema, revisit the haunted houses introduced in Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity 2, both of which are available on DVD and Blu-ray. The events of the two movies take place concurrently with Paranormal Activity focusing on Katie and her husband in their new home near San Diego, and Paranormal Activity 2 chronicling the similar experiences of Katie's sister Kristi, who lives nearby with her husband, stepdaughter, young baby and inquisitive German shepherd. As a thank you to fans who turned the $15,000-budget Paranormal Activity into a $193 million worldwide hit, Paramount tacked on the names at the end credits of anyone who registered on a promotional website prior to the home video release. There are thousands of names that scroll by at lightning speed on the Paranormal Activity DVD and Blu-ray, but with the slow button on your remote control you should be able find the names of people you know that participated, including yours truly.
The very first found-footage movie is also the most controversial. Cannibal Holocaust is a 1980 movie in which a team recovers the documentary footage of a crew that, before they disappeared, was filming the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. The disturbing horror show features extreme violence and the actual slaughter of several animals, which got it banned in many parts of the world for being what many considered a snuff film. After that debacle, it wasn't until 1999's The Blair Witch Project that the found-footage premise was exploited to its full potential. The story pieced together from the amateur footage of three student filmmakers who got lost in the forest near Burkittsville, Maryland while doing research on the local Blair Witch legend scared the bejesus out of audiences to the tune of $249 million worldwide. It spawned a traditionally filmed sequel with higher production values that didn't make nearly as much.
After Blair Witch made it OK for directors to have fun with shaky cameras and shoestring budgets, a slew of found-footage fright shows popped up to satisfy audiences' newfound appetite for "reality" filmmaking. George A. Romero presented 2007's Diary of the Dead as the footage of a group of people making a horror film that instead film the zombie apocalypse that breaks out during production. In the Spanish film REC, which was remade almost shot for shot as Quarantine in the U.S., a documentary crew is trapped in an apartment building that is sealed off after residents start acting crazy and biting each other. The original film was followed by REC 2 in 2009, with two more sequels in the making.
A lot of lesser known films—The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Lake Mungo, Monster, The Troll Hunter and many others—all played with the found-footage conceit for smaller crowds, but some filmmakers tried to replicate the box-office success of Blair Witch with mainstream audiences. In 2010's The Last Exorcism, an evangelical minister participates in a documentary that chronicles his last exorcism while exposing his fraudulent ministry. The film was made on the cheap with a $1.8 million budget and scared up over $67 million worldwide. One of the biggest successes—and largest budgets—of any found-footage film was 2008's Cloverfield. The $25 million disaster flick about a Godzilla-sized alien monster tearing through Manhattan as seen from the footage of a recovered personal video camera shook up over $170 million worldwide and gave everyone the idea that they can film greatness if they are in the right place at the right time.
With cameras on almost every portable device nowadays, how long will it be before we are subjected to found cell-phone footage blown up on a 22-foot screen in something like iKnow What iRecorded on My iPhone? When that happens, maybe moviegoers will decide it is best that found footage remains lost.