Is This the Real Life, or Is This Just Fantasy?

Mock-doc horror movies brings scares closer to home

Paranormal Activity 2 raked in a cool $41.5 million its opening weekend, making it the top grossing horror film debut in cinema history. The number is impressive for a sequel to a low-budget supernatural chiller, albeit one that came out of nowhere to become a runaway hit itself. It’s not hard to see why. The sequel bests its progenitor in all ways as it details the demonic activities that afflict the extended family of the poor couple haunted in the first film. The creeps are creepier; the mood is darker and the scares hit harder. 

Despite its successes, though, Paranormal Activity 2 is still standard fare familiar to fans of “things that go bump-in-the-night” cinema. Objects mysteriously fly off the walls and chairs creak while dark shadows and off-screen noises amp atmosphere. Simply put, it’s a good old-fashioned ghost story. So why the massive response?

 It’s all in the delivery.

Paranormal Activity 2’s modus operandi follows the original film, with the events unfolding on shaky hand-held camcorders and hidden cameras operated by the characters in the film. This modern conceit brings a startling documentary realism to the proceedings, prompting questions of authenticity. Did this on-screen spookiness really happen? 

It also breaks down the proverbial “fourth wall” to bring audiences into the film, allowing them to experience the horror simultaneously with the characters sans filter. When done well, as it is with PA2, the cumulative effect creates a Cassavetes-from-hell intimacy. 

Conversely, though the mode of delivery transports audiences inside the film, it sometimes works to the detriment of its characters, creating a perceived sense of safety from the on-screen terror. Armed with cameras in hands like embedded war-time photographers, they often jump head first into situations they should otherwise flee.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) is the modern standard bearer for such “first-person,” or point-of-view, horror, and it follows the rules to suit.

Framed as “found” footage from a doomed documentary shoot, the film slowly reveals the supernatural and self-inflicted terrors its student filmmakers experience during their trip into deep rural Maryland to chronicle the story of the fabled Blair Witch. Light on real scares but heavy with suspense and an incredible speculation as to the true origins of the footage (a brilliant marketing move), the film became a cultural phenomenon.

But Blair Witch wasn’t the first film to employ such tactics to freak out audiences. Horror cinema is rich with films boasting “real” footage of horrific events, from early shockumentaries that achieved fame with lame gross-out effects (Faces of Death, Mondo Cane, Shocking Asia) to contemporary chillers that utilize the form in compelling ways. 

Add our favorites to your Halloween movie marathon for scares tinged with reality. No Jersey Shore, either. Promise.

Ruggero Deodato’s shockumentary hybrid, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), purports to show the carnage both unleashed by and inflicted upon a young film crew who venture into the Amazon to document rival cannibal clans. Their footage was the only thing to escape the jungle intact, discovered in a dual narrative by explorers looking for the crew.

The film is crass and often abhorrent with images of animal dismemberment, but its ability to get under the skin is undeniable.  

One year before The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast (1998) joined a film crew as they ventured into the New Jersey woods to find the Jersey Devil, a mythical creature that has terrorized the state for centuries. Though extremely low-budget and shot on video, the film has a gripping story augmented by disturbing psychological horror and dread, rather than cheap jump scares. In a nutshell, it’s everything Blair Witch wishes it could be.

Diary of the Dead (2007) finds George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) jumping back to the first days of the outbreak that turns fresh corpses into flesh-hungry zombies and joining a band of film students as they travel across Pennsylvania documenting the bloodshed and destruction on cameras, phones and whatever personal media devices they can find. Viewers who look beyond the sub-par acting will be treated to a very scary film with smart commentary on contemporary media obsession.

Spanish filmmakers Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza up the first-person zombie horror leaps and bounds beyond Romero with their masterpiece (REC) (2007), which follows a television reporter and cameraman trapped in a Barcelona apartment complex infested with a virus that turns people into raging flesh-eaters. As the number of infected grows in the dark, claustrophobic building, the pair capture images that can shatter even the bravest of filmgoers.

Recent sleeper The Last Exorcism (2010) heads into Rosemary’s Baby territory with a detour into the deep South as it shadows a disillusioned Louisiana preacher who’s determined to debunk the scam exorcism trade by performing sham rites himself on unsuspecting believers. Film crew in tow, he heads into the backcountry to visit a new “client,” a teen girl whose father is convinced she’s possessed. The events that ensue shake the preacher’s religious beliefs to their core — and make mincemeat of many bodies in the process. 

The Last Exorcism was only a blip on last summer’s cinematic radar screen amongst big-budget action mayhem, but the film has legs. Its slow-burn restraint (coupled with a bombastic finale) proves that less is often more, especially when pulling on reality. Subtle creeps that slowly chip away at characters' (and audiences') perceptions and comfort zones lead to far more sleepless nights than any giant scare.

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