One of the things that I love about the horror genre is its unique relationship with low-budget filmmaking. Cheaply-made terror trashfests have been a dime a dozen for decades, but on the other hand I cannot imagine where horror films would be today without low-budget classics such as Night of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Thus, it makes sense that the subgenre of found footage films, films that deliberately look rough and amateurish, has made its home in horror. There are exceptions to the rule (such as Cloverfield, which relied on high-quality CGI effects and green screen composite shots), but the found footage subgenre has largely been populated by filmmakers of limited resources.
With that in mind, what happens when a filmmaker decides to make a found footage film due to budgetary limitations but also wants to include special effects? This post will look at that question through the approaches taken by two found footage titles, V/H/S/2 (2013) and Occult (2009). Both incorporated special effects outside of the usual blood-and-guts stuff, each with varying levels of success. Read on for my analysis, with minor spoilers for both films.
Like the original V/H/S film, V/H/S/2 is a combination of found footage and anthology storytelling; also like its predecessor, it demonstrates that found footage and anthologies don’t really mix. None of the stories presented in V/H/S/2 are enhanced by the found footage visual style, and they might have been scarier had they not been found footage films at all. (This especially applies the story titled "Phase I Clinical Trials", where the protagonist receives an ocular implant that records his everyday life. Because the protagonist has no choice to record everything he sees, this story should have worked as a found footage short. It doesn't.) Even the best story of the bunch, an unexpectedly poignant zombie tale called “A Ride in the Park”, doesn't feel like it had to be shot in a found footage style in order to be effective.
The eco-friendly, mountain biking zombies from "A Ride in the Park" in V/H/S/2.
For as gory as it is--and believe me, it is very gory in some areas--V/H/S/2 features two stories that attempt to include monsters as part of the narratives. "Safe Haven" involves a goat-headed demon, while "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" involves a group of gray-skinned space invaders; unfortunately, both types of monsters look like actors in monster suits. Furthermore, the directors of both stories felt compelled to shoot their parts in a gonzo, over-the-top style, as if the visual overload will compensate for the unconvincing monsters.
"Safe Haven" layers on as much violence and gore as possible and even though the demon has a single line a dialog that ends the story on a morbid, twisted note, the demon’s bouncing goat head on top of a human-proportioned body emphasizes just how hokey the whole story actually is. In contrast, "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" tries to compensate for its low-budget monsters by becoming much shakier than most found footage films. If the idea of shaking a camera as hard as possible to compensate for low-budget creature effects sounds like a bad idea to you, then you know what to expect in "Slumber Party Alien Abduction".
The uninvited guests from "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" in V/H/S/2.
Then again, V/H/S/2 doesn't completely fail when it comes to special effects. The zombie effects in "A Ride in the Park" are convincing, and there’s an eerie creature that appears towards the end of "Tape 49", the main story that ties all the other stories together. The creature skitters along the floor by doing a contorted form of spider walk, and it's one of the most convincing and chilling effect shots in the film. Of course, it also helps that the footage of the creature are fleeting, unfocused and poorly lit--enough to engage the imagination, but not enough to see through the effect.
In contrast to V/H/S/2, Occult (a.k.a. Okaruto) is a single-story found footage film that begins with a documentary team’s investigation of a sudden killing spree at a tourist resort a few years earlier. Their research takes them to one of the attack’s survivors, a homeless drifter who wanders from temp job to temp job. The crew’s interaction with the drifter becomes plagued by a series of increasingly strange events, and the drifter slowly reveals his belief that the attack was a sign from a supernatural force that he has been chosen to perform a special "ceremony" that will allow him to ascend to another dimension.
The director of Occult, Koji Shiraishi, is known for other found footage horror films, including the excellent Noroi (2005). In Occult, Shiraishi incorporates special effects into several of the scenes, including strange, nebulous shapes that appear in the sky whenever the drifter is present and a final shot that shows the fate of the drifter. Unfortunately, none of these effects are convincing, so why Shiraishi used them both during the film and in the film's final frames seems like a serious misstep on his part. After all, he did use special effects in Noroi but those were simple effects that succeeded in conveying an eerie, ghostly mood, so I don’t understand his difference in approach for Occult. Yet in spite of weak special effects, Occult works because of the strength of the story, its convincing characters, and its mood of dread that gradually increases throughout the movie.
Occult: Sky worms from another dimension?
It may sound like a cliché that good acting, direction and writing can save a film with weak special effects, but Occult shows that this rule also applies to found footage films. This also explains why an anthology format doesn't work for found footage: With so little time to build a narrative, characters and mood, it’s no wonder that most of the stories in V/H/S/2 went straight for explicit visual shocks even though the low-budget effects used to provide the shocks fail to deliver. Ultimately, found footage works best with stories that emphasize mystery, suspense, and the unknown, while visual effects are better left to filmmakers with bigger budgets.