The best horror films do not only provide the scares visually, and this form of filmmaking relies heavily on mood and atmosphere. In found footage movies, one only sees what the protagonist sees, and it is not what one sees that provides the scares, but what is imagined. It’s a formula we’re all now familiar — and perhaps bored — with.
The earliest examples of found footage/cinéma vérité film include Peter Watkins’ 1971 pseudo documentary Punishment Park, Ruggero Deodato’s video nasty, Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and the Belgian classic Man Bites Dog (1992).
However, found footage movies remained few and far between until the unexpected commercial success of The Blair Witch Project (1999), which saw a subsequent explosion of POV movies, especially in the horror genre. Another wave of films capitalised on the commercial success of Cloverfield (2007) and Paranormal Activity (released in 2007 and with a wide release in 2009), flooding the horror film market.
They are now a staple of the genre. Recent films include REC, Diary of the Dead, The Amityville Haunting, Monster,The Last Exorcism, Quarantine, Evil Things, Atrocious, V/H/S, The Devil Inside, Apollo 18, Troll Hunter and another five Paranormal Activity films (the last of which will be released late 2014), and even a couple from as far afield as Australia — Lake Mungo and The Tunnel.
But now the subgenre risks being too played out — the novelty is lost, and there’s only so much one can do with the found footage format, which is why filmmakers are now recycling ideas (even posters for many of these films look almost identical). Apart from those with a rare innovative twist on the already tired format, the movies are mostly uninteresting and in one way or another, copies of each other.
The PA franchise saw almost steadily declining ratings in each release since its first film on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic aggregators — from 84 percent to 24 percent and from 68 percent to 40 percent respectively.1 But POV horror presented a cheap way for new filmmakers to get their movies made. It’s a crap shoot now for successful found footage movies but the payoffs are huge so everyone’s still trying their luck.
In its five films, the Paranormal Activity franchise has generated over $800 million on a $18 million budget (its first film was made for only $15,000). Cloverfield, with a $25 million budget is an exception, but it still turned a profit many times over with receipts of $170 million, while the template for such movies, The Blair Witch Project, with an initial $20,000 production budget, made close to $250 million.
The Tunnel is one of above-mentioned films in the subgenre that tries at being different. Written by Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey and directed by first-time Filipino filmmaker Carlo Ledesma. Fan-funded and released for free via torrents in 2011, the film presents itself in the form of a documentary.
Based on actual locations beneath the St. James station in Sydney — an abandoned platform that had collected water, becoming a lake — The Tunnel follows Natasha, an eager journalist pursuing a story about why local authorities abandoned plans to build an underground water treatment plant, who breaks into the network of abandoned station tunnels beneath the city with her film crew.
Like most POV horror films, it has a tense atmosphere and relies on the audiences’ imagination to for the horror as we only see a glimpse of the monster/creature that has been abducting the homeless who have taken shelter there. But we already know who lives and who dies here from they way The Tunnel is presented — interviews with the survivors, interspersed with the found footage.
Here, the storyline closely resembles Neil Marshall’s adventure-horror film The Descent (2005), where women trapped in an unmapped cave are hunted by “troglofaunal flesh-eating humanoids.”2 The film does touch on some current talking points: Australia’s water shortage and poverty problems. Unfortunately, what sets it apart from its peers is that it is not scary, and that its premise is highly unlikely.
10 years after the release of Blair Witch, Eduardo Sanchez, one of its directors, spoke with Entertainment Weekly about the backlash his film received, which explains a lot about the subgenre: “Blair Witch started competing with Hollywood movies. Once you start competing with Hollywood movies, you have to deliver the formula that audiences are expecting, especially in a horror movie. You've got to have a certain kind of scare, a certain kind of reveal at the end. People like things to be tied up at the end of the movie. There are a lot of people who probably shouldn't have seen Blair Witch. It just wasn't their movie. It's like El Mariachi or Clerks making $140 million. It was an indie movie that blew up. We went from the underdogs to the guys that were beating the studios, so all of a sudden we entered another league that our film probably wasn't ready for.”3
It’s a tough act to follow, and a payday seen by the likes of Paranormal Activity is hard to come by, especially in this day and age. It is not a bad film at all. It’s just that every POV horror movie since The Blair Witch Project, with the rare exception, ends up being more of the same. Still, The Tunnel is worth a watch if you want to see the state of POV horror since Blair Witch.
Timothy Misir is a Russia-based Singaporean writer and researcher in urban planning and architecture. He is currently working at The Moscow Times where he is a copy editor and writes for the arts section. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.