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FC Film Evaluating Factors of Horror Movie Enjoyment Research Proposal & Essay

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Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing Cecilia Sayad Cinema Journal, Volume 55, Number 2, Winter 2016, pp. 43-66 (Article) Published by University of Texas Press DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2016.0003 For additional information about this article https://muse.jhu.edu/article/609118 Access provided at 5 Apr 2019 15:01 GMT from Boston University Libraries Found-Footage Horror and the Frame’s Undoing by CECILIA SAYAD Abstract: This article finds in the found-footage horror cycle an alternative way of understanding the relationship between horror films and reality, which is usually discussed in terms of allegory. I propose the investigation of framing, considered both figuratively (framing the film as documentary) and stylistically (the framing in handheld cameras and in static long takes), as a device that playfully destabilizes the separation between the film and the surrounding world. The article’s main case study is the Paranormal Activity franchise, but examples are drawn from a variety of films. © 2016 by the University of Texas Press S urprised by her boyfriend’s excitement about the strange phenomena registered with his HDV camera, Katie (Katie Featherston), the protagonist of Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007), asks, “Are you not scared?” “It’s a little bizarre,” he replies. “But we’re having it documented, it’s going to be fine, OK?” This reassuring statement implies that the film image may normalize the events that make up the fabric of Paranormal Activity. It is as if by recording the slamming doors, floating sheets, and passing shadows that take place while they sleep, Micah and Katie could tame the demon that follows the female lead wherever she goes. Indeed, the film repeatedly shows us the two characters trying to make sense of the images they capture, watching them on a computer screen and using technology that translates the recorded sounds they cannot hear into waves they can visualize. The film suggests that by containing the paranormal activity inside the borders of a screen, Micah and Katie can better understand, measure, and even control it. The just-mentioned dialogue also encapsulates the implications of the coexistence between a documentary aesthetic and horrific events. With the found-footage horror film, the interpenetration of reality and fiction that was traditionally discussed in terms of allegory or topical references has found a new locus: the film’s form. The proliferation of horror movies imitating the style of found-footage documentaries since the late 1990s has transposed the reality factor that once figured in content onto the film’s form. These films display the raw cutting, elliptical narrative, and grainy, shaky, and precariously framed images that mimic the style of Cecilia Sayad is senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Kent. She is the author of Performing Authorship: Self-Inscription and Corporeality in the Cinema (I. B. Tauris, 2013) and editor, with Mattias Frey, of Film Criticism in the Digital Age (Rutgers University Press, 2015). www.cmstudies.org 55 | No. 2 | Winter 2016 43 Cinema Journal 55 | No. 2 | Winter 2016 amateur filmmaking; the images are usually introduced by title cards stating that the work we see compiles footage shot by characters that have either died or disappeared. The found-footage horror is an international film cycle whose genesis can be traced back to the Italian Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980), which displayed mock found footage of the tragic deaths of a TV crew shooting a film in the Amazon within the context of a fictional narrative.1 Cannibal Holocaust has often been categorized as a snuff movie, which involves the exploitative documentation of torture and murder.2 The documentary authenticity of snuff movies has often been challenged—the retitling of the low-budget horror Slaughter as Snuff (Michael Findlay and Roberta Findlay, 1976) explores this uncertainty.3 The mimicking of a snuff aesthetic can also be seen in the Japanese Guinea Pig: Devil’s Experiment (Satoru Ogura, 1985) and in the largely overlooked The Last Broadcast (Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler, 1998), which can be related in turn to a found-footage horror approach.4 But The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) brought this cycle into the mainstream.5 The list of horror films taking on the mode of found-footage documentary since this point includes, among others, My Little Eye (Marc Evans, 2002), Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2007), [•REC] ( Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007), with its sequels (Balagueró and Plaza, 2009; Plaza, 2012; Balagueró, 2014) and its American remake—Quarantine ( John Erick Dowdle, 2008)—as well as Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008), Home Movie (Christopher Denham, 2008), the Paranormal Activity films (Oren Peli, 2007; Tod “Kip” Williams, 2010; Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2011 and 2012; Christopher B. Landon, 2014; Gregory Plotkin, 2015), The Poughkeepsie Tapes (Dowdle, 2009), The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm, 2010), Trollhunter (André Øvredal, 1 The notion of cycle surpasses the generic frame, identifying similar tropes across different genres, thus suiting the discussion of films presented at once as horror and documentary, and furthermore each of the genres’ various forms: sci-fi, possession, and haunted-house horror films, as well as talking-head and vérité documentary. For a study of cycles, see Frank Krutnik and Peter Stanfield, “Cycles of Sensation: Popular Media, Thrills, and Outrage,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 1, no. 1 (2013): 1–5. 2 See, for example, Steve Jones, “Dying to Be Seen: Snuff-Fiction’s Problematic Fantasies of ‘Reality,’” Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies 19 (2011): http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/article .php?issue=19&id=1252; and Neil Jackson, “Cannibal Holocaust, Realist Horror, and Reflexivity,” Post Script 21, no. 3 (2002): 32–45. 3 The hoaxes surrounding the release of Snuff involve a new ending showing the murder of an actress, supposedly by the film crew, and the hiring of fake protesters picketing the theaters showing the movie. See Jones, “Dying to Be Seen”; and Scott Aaron Stine, “The Snuff Film: The Making of an Urban Legend,” Skeptical Enquirer 23, no. 3 (1999): http://www.csicop.org/si/show/snuff_film_the_making_of_an_urban_legend/. I thank one of the anonymous peer reviewers for bringing Snuff to my attention. 4 A recent exemplar of what Steve Jones calls the “faux-snuff” film is the August Underground trilogy (Fred Vogel, 2011; Vogel et al., 2003; Vogel, 2007). See Jones, “Dying to Be Seen.” 5 Although films like The Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity were independent, low-budget productions, they generated sequels displaying higher production values and financed by studios. Blair Witch was produced by Artisan Entertainment and Haxan Films (headquartered at Disney’s Production Studios in Orlando, Florida) and distributed by Artisan Entertainment. The Paranormal Activity films have all been distributed by Paramount Pictures, with the budget of around US$15,000 estimated for the first film jumping to US$3 million for the second film of the series. It is also important to point out that the first Paranormal Activity was purchased by DreamWorks (acquired by Paramount in 2005) and commercially released in the United States in 2009, after being screened at the Screamfest Film Festival in October 2007, the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2008, and the Telluride Film Festival in September 2009. 44 Cinema Journal 55 | No. 2 | Winter 2016 2010), Apollo 18 (Gonzalo López-Gallego, 2011), The Devil Inside (William Brent Bell, 2012), the anthology films V/H/S and V/H/S 2 (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Tyler Gillett et al., 2012; Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans et al., 2013), The Dyatlov Pass Incident (also known as Devil’s Pass [Renny Harlin, 2013]), and Devil’s Due (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, 2014). Although allegorical readings of these works may still be relevant, the reality element lies less in the content of the films than in the form. If real location, grainy cinematography, and handheld camera in Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968), The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) contributed an aesthetic of realism to the horror movie, the found-footage specimen takes this to extremes by literally framing the film as factual. Horror films’ claims about the veracity of the events depicted go beyond the found-footage mode. The Last House on the Left, which was actually based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), simply lies about the real status of the story it tells with opening credits that read: “The events you are about to witness are true. Names and locations have been changed to protect those individuals still living.” The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may have been inspired by the acts of real-life serial killer Ed Gein, but the prologue’s suggestion that the film’s characters were based on real people (victims of “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history”) is a hoax. Other films make claims about the truthfulness of their literary sources irrespective of the veracity of the narrated experiences. The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979), for example, was based on the novel describing the allegedly real paranormal experiences of the Lutz family on Long Island, New York. Likewise, The Conjuring ( James Wan, 2013) was based on an event involving real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren—who had been hired to solve the case that inspired the Amityville book and subsequent films. The found-footage horror, however, goes beyond such claims. The films are not presented to us as “inspired by” real events—they are supposed to constitute the audiovisual documentation of these events. What we see, we are told, are real people, not characters based on them. This combination of the work’s uncertain fictional status and low production values playfully collapses the boundaries separating the depicted universe from reality, and by extension challenges the ontological status of the fiction film as self-contained object. The horror movie is thus presented not as mere artifact but as a fragment of the real world, and the implication is that its material might well spill over into it. While considerations about reality in the study of horror usually address the possibility of a causal connection between a general mood and the tone of the films produced at a certain point in history, I here take a different approach—one that reflects on the increasingly tenuous boundaries separating representation from real life, the popularity of reality TV being this phenomenon’s clearest illustration. I propose that we look at what the horror film’s link with reality says about the movies’ desire to at once erect and erode the boundaries separating the fictional diegesis from the world that surrounds it—understood both historically (a sociopolitical reality) and spatially (the physical location in which a film is shot). I introduce this discussion 45 Cinema Journal 55 | No. 2 | Winter 2016 with considerations of the territory of representation through both the violation and the expansion of its boundaries. Then, after addressing the ways in which reality has featured in the study of horror films, I explore the impact of the found-footage horror’s documentary claim and style on our experience of the connection between horror and reality, using the Paranormal Activity series as my primary case study. My discussion is informed by considerations of the cinematic frame that draw from works by Dudley Andrew, André Bazin, Roger Cardinal, and Evan Calder Williams, in articulations that suggest the frame’s expansion both through the infringement of the screen’s borders and through decentered composition. The Borders of Representation. The shifting relationship between artwork and the surrounding world has preoccupied practitioners and theorists for nearly a century. Across various art forms we see a movement toward “loosening” the borders of the frame—real and imaginary—that defines the territory of representation, a frame that is, in addition, understood both as a spatial and a conceptual demarcation. Jacques Derrida’s assessment of Immanuel Kant’s conceptualization of the frame in Critique of Judgment questions precisely the possibility of clearly distinguishing between the inside and the outside of a work.6 The frame in painting (one of the constituents of Kant’s considerations about the parergon) has a “thickness, a surface which separates [the work] not only (as Kant would have it) from the integral inside, from the body proper of the ergon, but also from the outside, from the wall on which the painting is hung, from the space in which a column is erected, then, step by step,
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