Of the 10 or so horror movies slated for release this Halloween season, two have captured the bulk of the advance buzz at festivals and online and for good reason: They’re both scary as hell. The omnibus film V/H/S (out this week) assembles a collection of short tales shot by several indie directors in the increasingly ubiquitous (and increasingly tiresome) “found footage” style. Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (out next week) also has a found-footage element, this time embedded within the story of a writer who discovers a box of horrifying super 8 films in his attic. But moviegoers expecting the humdrum dread and things-going-bump-in-the-night monotony that have come to define the found-footage style are in for something more insidious and disquieting (and, therefore, ultimately more effective) here.
The films that we think of when we think of found-footage horror—The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, the seemingly unstoppable Paranormal Activity series—work from a now-familiar template: What we are watching is footage shot by regular folks, people like you and me, who were subjected to some unspeakable terror but (luckily!) happened to have their camcorders at the ready to document the experience. This posthumous footage is all that remains of their ordeal. What we’re seeing in Blair Witch, Cloverfield, and Paranormal 1-4 places the viewer in the shoes (or eyes) of the victim.
But audiences grow tired of old tropes quickly, and found footage of this type has already worn out its welcome. The Paranormal sequels have thus far amounted to indistinguishable Xeroxes of their already derivative “original.” Last winter’s The Devil Inside, an Exorcist rip-off in Blair Witch clothing, was greeted with hoots of derision by opening-night audiences. And word of found-footage sequels for creaky horror franchises like The Amityville Horror, The Ring, and Friday the 13th has been received with something less than fevered anticipation. It’s time to move on, and the bluntly horrifying V/H/S and Sinister suggest the future of horror may lie not in abandoning the found-footage trope but in shifting the perspective from victim to perpetrator.
V/H/S’s wraparound story concerns a group of loathsome douches that tape their own acts of vandalism, burglary, sex, and assault. They’re hired by an unseen party to break into a home and steal a VHS tape of unexplained import, but when they arrive, they find the home’s occupant dead in front of a bank of televisions and VCRs. In an attempt to find their score, they start popping tapes in, and this is where the anthology element comes into play: Each of the tapes they watch is a new film by a different director riffing on old standbys (or, in some cases, urban legends and Internet myths) in the style of home movies, Web chats, and amateur porn. Many of the tapes are shot by victims, but some (I won’t reveal which, to preserve twists) are the work of criminals, predators, and killers. They’re far and away V/H/S’s most chilling segments—cold, brutal, and crudely effective.
Sinister goes even further. It concerns Ellison (Ethan Hawke), a true-crime author working on his next big book. He moves into the house formerly inhabited by his current subjects—a family of four who were hung, en masse, off the limbs of a backyard tree by an unknown assailant. Sinister opens with a scratchy home movie of their murder; later, while straightening up the attic, Ellison stumbles upon that film and several others, along with an 8 mm projector. The films capture the grisly murders of a handful of families, their cruelly snickering titles hinting at the slaughters within (“Hanging Out” for the family strung up on their tree, “BBQ” for a family barbeque turned arson, “Pool Party” for a backyard gathering that ends with several people chained and drowned, et cetera). They are shot from the point of view of the killer (or killers): happy family frolics captured from a distance, through foliage and window blinds, then hard cuts to victims bound and gagged, gruesomely murdered by the camera operator.
Ellision is, understandably, mortified by what he sees. But he keeps watching. And so do we. The key shot in Sinister comes during one of those creepy late-night viewing sessions: As the killer/viewer brings a giant knife to the throat of a victim, director Derrickson cuts from that image to one of the party consuming it, a tight close-up of the bloodshed as it’s reflected in our protagonist’s eyeglasses. Behind those lenses, behind the savagery, his eyes close weakly. But not for long.
The idea of presenting horror from the killer’s point of view is far from revolutionary. This was the primary preoccupation of Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom; it was seen in flashes of Hitchcock’s work (in fact, the filmmaker wanted to shoot an entire film from a serial killer’s POV); the iconic opening scene of John Carpenter’s Halloween was shot through the (masked) point of view of an 8-year-old murderer; and the replication of that scene by the Friday the 13th movies and countless other imitators made the heavy-breathing killer a slasher-pic cliché.
What gives the device an extra kick in these new films is their attentiveness to technological detail. The films within V/H/S and Sinister just look real. The former begins with a bright blue screen, the big blocky PLAY text in the upper left, and the tracking lines and audio drops familiar from that seemingly ancient home-video technology. The accuracy of those glitches, as well as the off-handed naturalness of the acting, give the picture authenticity; it’s hard to pinpoint why, but most of the film feels “captured” in a way that faux found-footage movies seldom do. Sinister’s “home movies” don’t just get the look of super 8 films right—they get the feel of them too, the jagged edges of the cuts, the scrambling to make the most of those precious few minutes of film. Those inserts starkly contrast with the rest of the film’s classical, almost formal style; the convincing staging and scrappy scariness of the films-within-the-film create a work more “real” and horrifying than the frame around it, which seems much more safely removed and traditionally cinematic. But as the film moves toward its inevitable conclusion, director Derrickson mixes it up; his camerawork gets rougher, the cuts get sharper, the carefully crafted frame steadily encroached upon (narratively and stylistically) by the “real” terror within it.
These staged pieces of dramatized reality tap into our simultaneous repulsion and fascination with the documentation of evil. Our disbelief that killers would record their crimes gets tangled up with a fear that we might, somewhere in the darkest corner of our psyche, want to see their handiwork (which in turn further feeds our own revulsion). Many believed a ‘70s rumor that the Manson family had videotaped or filmed at least one murder; three pairs of serial killers (Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, and Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris) were said to have videotaped the deaths of their victims. None of them had, and curiosity seekers had to make do with the ever-popular Faces of Death videos, which breathlessly promised that viewers would “experience the reality of DEATH, close-up,” an experience so harrowing that the film had been “banned in 46 countries.” Turned out, most of the deaths supposedly captured in Faces and its many sequels were staged (and badly), but at least three Internet-era incidents of on-screen murder have been reported and authenticated: the voluntary murder of Bernd Jürgen Brandes by German cannibal Armin Meiwes, the “1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick” video depicting the slaying of Lin Jun by Canadian Luca Magnotta, and the “3 Guys 1 Hammer” video showing the death of Sergei Yatzenko at the hands of the “Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs.”
You have to look in some pretty dank corners of the Internet to find them, but those videos are out there. Most of us don’t want to come close to that kind of genuine darkness—we’re more at ease with the comfortably fictionalized crime films within Sinister and V/H/S. But those pictures’ credible realization of what we imagine such lurid videos to be contributes heavily to the overall tension and uneasiness of their viewing experience. They seem real, more real than your average horror film, and that illusion is simultaneously exciting and unnerving. That’s why these films are a cut above their contemporaries: By forcing the viewer into the perspective of a mind capable of committing a murder and documenting it, these filmmakers hint at a horror landscape that speaks to far more disturbing aspects of our humanity than are provided by the customary shock edits, stock music, and screeching cats.