When horror is done “right,” it is art. Horror is experimental, unsettling, seductive, comedic, eye-popping excellence. It is one of those unique genres with no creative limit. Almost anything can unfold in the realm of the scary movie. Yet I sometimes wonder if horror has lost its edge, becoming stale for the sake of wider appeal.
In 2022, I entered my local AMC theater to watch the highly-anticipated “Barbarian” (2017) with “It” star Bill Skarsgård and acclaimed actor Justin Long. Despite an initially impressive premise, the movie fell flat for me with its excessive explanation. It revealed too much too fast and still managed to drag on for an unbearable one hour and 42 minutes. Like “Barbarian,” many modern high-production horror films have begun to prioritize watchability and the viewer’s experience over artistic integrity. In these times of despair, when I fear that horror has hit a wall, I turn to my all-time favorite “Creep” (2014) to provide a glimmer of hope.
The film follows amateur videographer Aaron (Patrick Brice). In response to a Craigslist advertisement, he travels to a secluded town to record the final messages of terminally ill cancer patient Josef (Mark Duplass), addressed to his unborn son. However, as the day continues, Josef’s behavior becomes progressively more bizarre and Aaron begins to question his true intentions.
With a budget of less than $500, “Creep” exceeds expectations with a single camera and a three-person crew. The film’s production costs were especially low because it utilized the ‘found footage phenomenon,’ a horror sub-genre that employs a first-person narrative through video recordings by the characters. In this way, it appears as though the audience has ‘found’ the film and watched it in real time.
While beneficial for the budget, this cinematic technique also contributes to the overall success of the film. Unlike horror from the third-person perspective, movies under the found-footage sub-genre offer the audience an immersive experience. The viewer is given the unique opportunity to enter the sensory viewpoint of the characters. With every one of Josef’s jumpscares, the audience reacts with Aaron. Consequently, viewers assume an actively engaged role because of their perceived connection to the main character and involvement with the film.
“Despite efforts to enhance and expand the scope of found footage through high-budget avenues, numerous films have fallen short in this pursuit”
In contrast to the supernatural premises of prior found-footage films like “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) and “Paranormal Activity” (2007), “Creep” situates itself in realism. It’s not overly flashy. It doesn’t use any special effects. Instead, it builds up and capitalizes on these moments of tension between Aaron and Josef. The film forces the audience to soak in the discomfort. By the story’s conclusion, filmed in a wide shot and set in broad daylight, the continuous tension and unsettling scenes intensify its seemingly ‘less scary’ ending.
Moreover, the film opts to cast relatively lesser known actors. This approach prevents the audience from fixating on the ‘who’ and instead encourages them to focus on the events of the movie. Additionally, it enables viewers to better place themselves in the position of Aaron, who takes the role of a somewhat unfamiliar figure within the narrative.
Today, the tradition of found-footage films persists with contemporary adaptations like “As Above, So Below” (2014), “Host” (2020) and“Skinamarink” (2022). Yet the films that garner the most critical acclaim are those that maintain the low-budget status and elements of realism that “Creep” initially employed.
Films like “Unfriended” (2014), with a budget amassing over $1 million, fail to capture the grittiness and real-time scare factor that predecessors of the found-footage genre established. The continuing “Paranormal Activity” franchise, which started with a budget of $15,000 for its first film, ballooned to $10 million for its sixth installment “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” (2015). Where the first film drew an 83 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the franchise has experienced a significant decrease to 15 percent for “The Ghost Dimension.”
Despite efforts to enhance and expand the scope of found footage through high-budget avenues, numerous films have fallen short in this pursuit. Instead, it seems that found footage is best when it relies on the unnerving authenticity that only D-List actors and a subpar camera can provide. To end their run of empty substance horror, the film industry should follow in the footsteps of “Creep” and return to found-footage’s low-budget roots.