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Screens & Tech

A short history of pre-Blair Witch handheld mockumentaries

Photo: Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Photo illustration by Chuck Kerr


“Two years later, their footage was found.” That come-on, from the opening titles of The Blair Witch Project (1999), evokes as much anticipation among horror hounds as, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” It, of course, portends a “found footage” mockumentary, one of those shaky-cam epics like Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism, Diary of the Dead, Trollhunter, Quarantine (and its Spanish forerunner REC) in which a monster/demon/zombie attack unfolds entirely through the viewfinders of some unlucky camera-toting victims. Easy to see the popularity of this narrative gambit. Not only does it make the filmmaker seem clever (actually making the audience’s imagination do the work, instead of heaps of CGI) — it excuses unsteady acting, poor effects, bad lighting, and generally amateurish production values. Translation: It can be exquisitely cheap. While Cloverfield and Incident at Loch Ness cost some money, the Blair Witch’s measly $35,000 investment saw a return in the hundreds of millions. That’s the sort of shocker Hollywood accountants can live with. But what the youthful target audiences might not know is that the found-footage narrative goes back long before Blair Witch.

Before “mockumentary” appeared in our lexicon there was David Holzman’s Diary, Jim McBride’s groundbreaking 1967 short feature in which Texas-born L.M. “Kit” Carson plays a Manhattan film student whose obsessive lensing of his own life on 16mm undoes several romantic relationships. No monsters. No demons. No vampires or zombies. New Yorkers, yes. While the genre’s built-in profit means Paranormal Activity 4 may be inescapable this time next year, the real lesson taught by Holzman is that found-footage faux-reality film need not always be horror material. Here are some hidden found-footage gems that have cut across different genres, from war spectacle to detective drama, utilizing that innovative approach:

 

84 Charlie MoPic (1989)

A depiction of the Vietnam conflict through the camera lens of an Army trooper shooting a training film during a recon mission. In his book Vietnam at the Movies, retired military historian Michael Lee Lanning (the Gene Siskel of war movie critics) named it one of the most authentic ’Nam dramas ever made.

 

Man Bites Dog (1992)

This black-and-white Belgian dark-comedy import in which an ill-fated camera crew shadows a chatty and philosophical (but vicious) robber/rapist/serial killer through his savage routine earned an NC-17 for violence. It still holds up both as gut-punch funny and disturbing as any torture porn. This is the flick Natural Born Killers wanted to be, but couldn’t.

 

America’s Deadliest Home Videos (1993)

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