This Sunday on Channel 4 is the network premier of The Last Exorcism. I would recommend giving it a watch. Not because it’s a wonderful movie, although it takes an interesting idea and does a lot of good work with it. But, because it epitomizes a problem with Found Footage cinema – it doesn’t have a good end.
The Last Exorcism disappointed me when I first saw it. And it’s because it is absolutely fantastic up until the last ten or so minutes. I’m not going to spoil it for you, because it’s worth watching up until then, but I was completely captivated for the majority of the film. Great performances, well filmed, well paced. But then it hits the curse of Found Footage – the abrupt, cheap ending.
It’s not alone – although I’d say it’s the best of the Found Footage films which has failed at this important step. Most recently, The Devil Inside fell into the same traps. Apollo 18 did it. Paranormal Activity 2. All of them had an abrupt end that clashed with the rest of the film, both thematically and pace-wise.
So why does this happen? And why does it seem to be such a problem with these first person movies?
Personally, I think it stems from the nature of the medium itself; Found Footage films are generally horrors, and the basis of most of them is ‘the people who made this film didn’t make it out alive’. It’s quite important to have this threat as well – if the characters of the film survived, why would the footage be ‘found’? If a conspiracy is uncovered, or a monster is revealed, why did we, as the public, not find out about it before?
In a fair few cases it still works; the finale of REC is one of my favourite scenes in cinema. The Blair Witch Project’s final scenes, when watched for the first time, were genuinely shocking and fresh. Chronicle, recently, also managed to pull off a satisfying ending (it’s another film you should definitely see – an interesting and innovative take on the superhero genre).
But the same problems constantly get brought up – how was the film found? And by who? In the best cases, this is answered. If you don’t want spoilers then please stop reading now. The REC series takes a very much first person view – you never really see the cameramen at all, and there is almost a ‘present tense’ feel to the films, and there is no real editing that would have to be done post-recording. The Blair Witch project had an excellent bonus feature explaining how the tapes were found. Chronicle has a single survivor.
In terms of films that have failed, though – how exactly does the footage from Apollo 18 survive, when it is caught up in an in-space collision between two space shuttles? How did the footage in The Devil Inside survive a car accident that killed those involved? If you do watch The Last Exorcism, you’ll see that it’s possibly the worst of the lot.
So, how do you fix this? I think the most important thing for these films to do is stick to their convictions and not to fall into the tropes that previous films in the genre have done. The ‘shocking deaths of everybody at the end of the film’ has damaged so many Found Footage movies it’s beyond true, so much so that I go into these films expecting everyone to die, even when it makes no sense (à la Troll Hunter).
Apollo 18 would have been a much better film if someone had survived to bring the footage home, and then had been forced to be quiet about it, until the story was leaked now for the watching audience. In The Devil Inside, the Vatican supposedly stops any footage of Exorcisms from being viewed – so the reason for the footage not making it outside of their clutches is already in place within the story. Behind the Mask (a flawed film that it still worth watching and buying because the idea is so fan-fucking-tastic and the first three-quarters are so brilliant) would have been one of the best films of all time if it had continued its stylistic choices into the finale. The Last Exorcism could have been great, if it had stuck to the intentions set out by the film crew and proved one of the main characters right instead of going for the cheap, shocking twist.
Death is cheap. It’s not shocking anymore. Filmmakers, please don’t go to it as your default option to end a film. Found Footage movies can offer a lot to cinema. It can break that level of detachment and really immerse the audience. It can offer small, independent directors the chance to work on big ideas without a big budget. It can open up people’s ideas an unlimited amount. Hell, just look at Marble Hornets. That’s something anyone with a good idea can achieve with internet access and a camera.
Don’t cheapen it. Do what’s right. Do what’s edgy. Keep away from the clichés and make audiences witness something genuinely dangerous and unexpected.