Found footage turns up bold new horrors at the LFF

New films from Ti West and Bernard Rose in the LFF’s Cult strand prove the trend for found-footage horror movies still has some nasty tricks up its sleeve, writes programmer Michael Blyth.

SX_Tape (2013)

Horror is a genre distinguished by trends. Be it the classic monster movies that dominated cinema screens of the 1930s, the paranoid threat of wayward science offered up by the 1950s, or the 1980s’ bloodthirsty predilection for the slasher film, the horror movie is a cyclical beast, constantly reinventing and regenerating itself to tap into society’s fear du jour.

So what will the early 2000s be remembered for in the future pantheons of genre cinema? Looking back at the past decade and a bit, it seems to have been something of a mishmash. But in among the rubble, a few distinct themes are clearly discernible.

The first (and arguably the least appealing) is the remake. We live in a time where nothing is sacred and everything from Hollywood horror classics to scuzzy video nasties are victim to the threat of the ‘reimagining’ (whoever thought we’d live to see the day when I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left were given the Hollywood makeover?). There’s also the lovingly coined ‘torture porn’, a (not so) new breed of shockers that proudly flaunt their guts before their brains.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

And then we have the found footage films, which have been a staple of the genre since a certain witch burst onto the scene in 1999. Of course, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s box office sensation wasn’t the first of its kind (Cannibal Holocaust, The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Last Broadcast are just a handful of examples of the found-footage prototype), but The Blair Witch Project was the one that so completely captured the imaginations of cinemagoers and set the standard for the avalanche of films that followed. Since then we’ve seen the good (REC, Diary of the Dead, V/H/S), the bad (The Devil Inside, Paranormal Activity 4) and a few interesting oddities that lie somewhere in between (Home Movies, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon).

The Cult section of this year’s BFI London Film Festival sees the inclusion of two new entries to this ever expanding list, Ti West’s The Sacrament and Bernard Rose’s SX_Tape, both of which effectively tap into the strengths of the subgenre and push it into interesting new directions.

Firstly, Ti West’s nightmarish vision of the religious commune from hell sees the demise of two Vice magazine journalists, whose inquiring minds result in their sticky ends. Building something of a reputation among genre fans as one of contemporary horror’s smartest filmmakers, West combines the slow-build tensions of his previous double whammy The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011), with a brooding sense of moral pathos that continues to resonate long after the more immediate shocks have worn off.

The Sacrament (2013)

On the other hand, Rose (who will forever have a place in every horror lovers heart for the gifts of Paperhouse and Candyman) initially appears to venture down more traditional roads with SX_Tape, with its archetypally spooky abandoned hospital setting. But he is far too cerebral a filmmaker to settle for the expected, quickly subduing fears that this is nothing more than a Grave Encounters (2011) knock-off by producing one of the scariest and strangest vérité shockers that you are likely to see. Not to mention one of the most confounding.

It’s looking likely that both West and Rose will be at the festival to talk about their films, to explain exactly why they were drawn to a subgenre so saturated over recent years. I for one am glad they were, and they both effortlessly prove that there’s life in this current cycle yet.

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