Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Found Footage: Cannibal Holocaust

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/28/2016 – Found Footage: Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Directed by Ruggero Deodato

Aside from maybe “torture porn”, there is no subgenre as maligned as found footage. I mean I get it, it’s a genre easily exploitable by the inexperienced and untalented since shaky camerawork, muddy visuals, and amateurish acting are the same things which make it more authentic. Now you won’t see me defending the spread of shaky cams into action (such as the basically unwatchable action of The Bourne Ultimatum) or drama (for every Rachel Getting Married which effectively hits the documentary or home camera style, there are countless indie films where it looks terrible), but instead I will defend the found footage genre as one that can be very effective in the right hands.

The right hands is right as while horror has always been a fairly cheap to make genre and in the case of something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the low budget actually makes the horror feel more real, AIP is a more accurate representation of what quality cheap films usually are. In addition, in a world where skyrocketing budgets have made films increasingly difficult to turn a profit on, the cheap nature of most found footage offers a huge return on investment from largely undiscerning first week horror audiences. Cut together a nifty trailer with a hook and you’re making money by the end of the first weekend. This has let the normally terrible cheapies in a genre (and every single genre has them) escape the DTV racks and hit the mainstream tainting the genre by association.

Now let’s get to the good side. Found footage, which consists of films constructed as if someone stumbled upon a tape of some recording and either edited it together or released uncut the film you are watching now. It’s a frankly ingenious concept and while most barely bother with pretending it is an actual found footage film, which today’s film unintentionally and The Blair Witch Project very deliberately succeeded at to various degrees, it’s a great blurring of the lines between reality and cinema in a way HFR filmmaking is trying so desperately and failing to achieve. The genre has its roots in the epistolary novel in that it is basically the film equivalent. Those novels consist of letters (hence the name), diaries, or whatever to tell its story and is essential to the horror title consisting of a few titles you may be familiar with including FrankensteinDraculamuch of Lovecraft’s career including Call of Cthulu and “Dagon”, and Carrie. All it’s missing is Edgar Allan Poe and you have a horror writer bingo. I can’t say how much of that is exactly influential to most of these films, but there sure as heck was precedent.

Today’s film, Cannibal Holocaust is the granddaddy of them all and while there were a number of found footage films between its release in 1980 and 1999 (most notably the darkly comedic and somewhat controversial Man Bites Dog, the comedic Peter Jackson film Forgotten Silver, and the film every idiot brings up when he’s trying to sound knowledgeable about the subject to prove it came first The Last Broadcast), 1999’s release of The Blair Witch Project is where it hit the mainstream. It’s not a particularly good film, especially watched now knowing that the brilliant and hugely influential marketing of it was a gimmick and it wasn’t actually found footage, but it legitimized the concept in the eyes of the public. You can also argue that the genre was influenced heavily by the mockumentary which date back to the ‘30s with Land Without Bread and the ’60s with A Hard Day’s Nightand has been dabbled in horror with the great Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie VernonTrollhunter, and the not so good Lake Mungo.

Arguably though, it’s marketing (which has directly influenced how non-tentpole films even outside of horror are marketed) was more influential than the film itself with 2007’s Paranormal Activity marketing the real start of the boom. Made for $15,000 and grossing $193.4 million achieved mostly by showing real life audiences jumping at the final jump scare (which having seen the movie in theaters I can confirm actually happened though I was the only one laughing) and bits of the great film that led up to it, countless cash-ins rushed to follow its lead aided by the many advances in digital film since the era of The Blair Witch Projectwhich made it both easier to produce a decent looking movie cheap and more believable as a concept (since the cameras used are far cheaper to own by non-filmmakers).

The list of great films isn’t long (not surprising for a genre that has mostly existed as a veritable genre for about a decade), there’s the pinnacle with [REC] (remade into Quarantine) and to a lesser extent with [REC] 2 and that’s it (well and Trollhunter which I’ve never seen). I know that’s not a stirring defense of the genre but it has also turned out such decent or solid titles as Cloverfield (kaiju), Diary of the Dead (zombies), The Last Exorcism (supernatural and the less said about its sequel the better), The Bay, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” from V/H/SWillow CreekFrankenstein’s ArmyAfflicted, and Unfriended to go along with District 9 and End of Watch which deployed it in parts (so what if neither are horror?) and films such as ChronicleV/H/S/2The SacramentCreep, and The Visit that people have generally liked and either I haven’t seen or are Cronicle and The Visit. I know a bunch of middle of the road horror won’t sway most people, but I do hope it at least shows that there is a lot of potential in the genre that has already been realized to an extent and most of those succeed to the extent they do as a result of the gimmick. I can’t speak to people who get sick watching these films (thanks to the shaky camera, not the hilarious end of The Last Exorcism 2) but usually they seem to have seen maybe one or two and they are far from created equal or even shot the same.

Here is perhaps the final horror film of the month that I had been deliberately putting off for years after AuditionIchi the Killer, and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Unlike these films, Cannibal Holocaust has far fewer defenders and a much lower critical opinion. It still has the very mixed reception and supposedly brutal content to go along with its biggest issue in actual animal cruelty that they do, but unless someone gives Eli Roth a vote, no one is going to be naming this one of the greatest horror films (or in the case of Salò greatest films) of all time.

The film starts off with an actual disclaimer condemning the film but saying that it is being presented uncut as a preservation of history (presumably over the animal cruelty and not over the allegations of being a snuff film) and I almost wish more films did this (I know Looney Tunes did with the release of some of their more controversial shorts) and completely agree that films should be preserved in their entirety with all their flaws as an examination of their era yet still judged on modern standards (none of this “not bad for the time” crap used to excuse films).

While the movie is Italian, it was filmed in English and Spanish and starring American characters. It is also not entirely found footage with news reports and just regular filmed scenes making up the majority of it. It starts by being presented with an announcer telling the fate of a second expedition (the first being an unseen and unreturning French team) consisting of four Americans and a guide who headed into the Amazon (or “The Green Inferno”) and disappeared. These scenes depicting “actual” news footage are spread throughout the film but they never really follow through on them and their use just winds up feeling gratuitous. A third expedition has been launched to find them led by an American, two guides, and a captured cannibal. A bunch of local soldiers are introduced killing a bunch of these cannibals (we’ll get to the cannibal subgenre tomorrow) and after a brief introduction are never heard from again which just felt needlessly complex.

These initial cannibals are apparently not the real ones (only doing so as a rare special ceremony) and they fear the unseen by Western eyes tree people). The first part of this story then details their journey to track down possible survivors which although it seems likely early on they are dead it’s basically confirmed rather quickly (perhaps too much so) as they gradually discover items held by the Americans being carried by the various tribes. The early scenes set the tone with corpses covered in insects, puking explicitly shown, a man’s disgusting feet (this got to me more than it should), a live murder of muskrat that is legitimately hard to watch, and a depiction of a naked woman covered in mud and raped with a giant stone before being beaten to death.

I can already feel this review devolving into a Salò-esque recounting of depravity. I have no clue where to put this but there is an amount of nudity to shame even that film, both male and female and I almost have to applaud both films for their equal opportunity depictions (though I don’t want to meet anyone who gets off on either of them).

After meeting up with and going through the difficult task of gaining a relative amount of trust of various tribes including one who serves them a disgusting white gruel like substance and another (the tree people) who they defend from another who is raping and carving up the bodies of their women, the rescue party eventually finds the brutally murdered remains of the second party and are able to trade a tape recorder for the film canisters. This leads to the second and far more famous part of the film as we are introduced to the found footage format and occasionally cut to the chunks of unedited (well apparently it is since there are two cameras and the camera cuts between them and some was left unusable) footage being watched by the American and some others determining if they want to air it (like any station would allow even the edited stuff and SPOILERS they eventually and rightly go and burn the film instead of televising the brutal murders of a number of people). END OF SPOILERS

The documentary crew was apparently known for staging scenes (The depiction of the brutality in the scenes of their previous doc The Last Road to Hell being another point of contention in real life) and it soon becomes clear just how far they can go. They slaughter a sea turtle by chopping off its head, limbs, and opening its shell as it struggles to move and continues to burble alive (just a remember this is all shown and not faked) and it becomes very apparent (if the opening narration hadn’t) that the film was going to unflinchingly draw parallels between the cannibals and the documentary filmmakers. It continues as they chop up a spider and a snake which is quickly followed up by them stumbling on some villagers who chop to death a monkey and drain its blood. After the amputation of a toe and then a leg (staged but gloriously gruesome) of their guide fails to save him, they only become more unhinged.

While all four are awful people, the guys are skeevy assholes filming the woman naked against their will and filming her peeing even as they tell her not to. That’s nothing compared to what’s to come as the END OF SPOILERS guy shoots one of the villagers to slow them down so they can keep up. They rush into the village to film them all against their will and at gunpoint with smiles on their faces, one of them repeatedly kicking and then shooting a pig, yelling about survival of the fittest to justify their imperialistic reign of terror, burning down the village for no reason, and forcing all the villagers into the buildings so they can get “interesting” footage. Naturally, two of the filmmakers celebrate their massacre with celebratory and lengthy sex.

This isn’t enough for them as they film an old woman dying painfully covered in worms and then force their way in and film a very pregnant woman tied up as her fetus is aborted and buried by natives and she is beaten to death (so it’s not just one evil side). They find and gang rape a native woman which finally the woman actually objects to (though she does throw up from seeing the animal slaughter earlier) though she seems most upset with them wasting film and this raped woman is later found impaled on a pole (in the most famous shot of the movie and it is really well done) which they take as a chance to exploit to the cameras talking about the cruelty of the natives.

Thankfully, they are finally surrounded by the natives who attack them in revenge and one of them is taken down and they continue to film as he is carried off, his dick is chopped off, he is beaten to death, hacked apart, and eaten. They continue to film as the girl is raped and murdered, her head paraded about, the generic music being added in occasionally by this point creating an almost surreal atmosphere before inevitably even the cameraman is caught and murdered. There’s a good justification here for why they continue to shoot to the end (which can sometimes be a problem in found footage) in that they are gigantic assholes who are convinced they are going to be famous for the making of this in spite of their suicidal idiocy. END OF SPOILERS

They actually seem to subvert the initial assumption that the cannibals are the real villains, of course then the film goes and makes this explicit and then later ending on a giant middle finger to subtly with “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” The film is self-reflexive though as not only is everyone in the film a villain, but so is the audience (you bastards!). I’m not sure how I feel about films whose entire purpose seems to be insulting you for watching and enjoying it (see also Funny Games). I’ve commented that some of these films are more to be endured than enjoyed and this is no exception but to criticize us for the existence of the film you made seems pretty damn hypocritical regardless of how valid your message is. You can’t criticize the senseless killing of animals which would be used for food otherwise if you senselessly kill animals to make your film.

The film also has a lot to say about the artificiality of documentaries as even the supposedly raw footage has music overlaid (in-universe) occasionally to increase dramatic effect and of course there is the main through-line that documentarians are staging things. It’s a nice meta commentary of the what’s real and what’s staged of the actual film Cannibal Holocaust and in general on the way we perceive what we see in documentaries, especially those that depict white people telling the tales of peoples they know nothing about. The solo American at least shows some degree of knowledge of customs and is a nice counterpoint being both the moral center of the film but still someone with all his knowledge still doesn’t really understand what’s happening on the ground (sure, let’s throw Vietnam parable in there as well complete with war crimes committed by Americans). The actual morality of making the film is in question especially since the staged effects are pretty great and they could have clearly staged most of the animal scenes if they wanted to but there is certainly a point to it all. It may be filled with blood and guts, but it’s also filled with so much more and maybe one day I’ll decide if I “liked” the movie.

Bonus Episode #35 – Found Footage: Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Directed by Kôji Shiraishi

Noroi

Yet again, we have another Japanese film and I guess I spoiled you with variety with a film being merely made by Italians today. I swear I’m not doing this intentionally. This one comes in that period between The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity when every effort was just compared to the former but in fact has an almost Paranormal Activity like scene where they film a woman sleeping and getting up and doing things she can’t remember (though it doesn’t commit to the same degree). Story is being narrated and introduced by someone else and framed as we are watching a documentary on a found documentary (The Curse) which I guess makes it a sort of hybrid found footage/mockumentary. This nesting format even gets deeper as the The Curse depicts within it a variety show and various other videos including people watching other videos. It’s one giant overcomplicated mess with far too big of a cast to keep track of. I can’t even say the near two hour film is overlong because it still feels overstuffed. I hate admitting this, but frankly I was just lost most of the time and only had a vague sense of things.

It’s a bold move starting a movie off by saying that “this video documentary is deemed too disturbing for public viewing” and while I get it’s all a part of the gimmick, that is far from true. The lead is an author of various supernatural books who has turned to video and producing the kind of lousy program you’d find on something like Syfy now. I know the Ken Burns like freeze frame and then zoom in on a part of the image is a real technique in documentaries (and helped make it feel more real) but I laughed every time. In fact, the film includes a lot of stupid things these kind of hack documentaries (real world equivalents) include and that I mock when I see them but I’m not sure if I should congratulate a film for recreating something stupid in the interest of accuracy and believability or not.

The film depicts various characters with special powers who have since gone missing and follows them. A girl is depicted as being clairvoyant and introduced on a flashy Japanese program, there’s a crazy tinfoil hat and coat wearing man with psychic powers living in a house full of crazy yelling about pigeons and ectoplasmic worms, an actress who notices a bunch of strange occurrences all around her including her tying a bunch of random things into knots, and a woman and her child. The plot isn’t exactly straightforward or chronological, jumping about randomly.

The best I can figure is that SPOILERS there is a malevolent demon Kagutaba who is pissed off a dam destroyed the village of people who worship her and somehow this leads to feeding another person aborted fetuses to resurrect her. There are also strange figures in the background later revealed to be aborted babies or something. END OF SPOILERS I have no explanation for all the pigeons. In one scene, a man captures a pigeon takes it inside his house and text immediately pops up that he later disappears which is just frankly hilarious. It does this kind of thing repeatedly and it never stops being funny. Of course the film SPOILERS undoes a lot of its mysterious elements by saying big fire two days after it was completed with the filmmaker’s wife found dead, the filmmaker missing, and the crazy man found three days after that only to then promptly show what happens and then still try to play the mysterious card. END OF SPOILERS Maybe the person in charge of narrating the overarching doc was just as confused watching the in universe doc as me as at some points he basically just said the equivalent of “fuck if I know what happened”.

This is yet another really low quality visual film, but at least this time it seems intentionally so since the shots are of varying quality depending on circumstance and fits the style. It doesn’t make it pleasing to look at though. The actual graphical glitches that seem to reveal a bunch of creepy looking faces may be the film’s strongest attribute and thankfully it’s not one it overplays. They also gave fake credits for the documentary which made me unreasonably happy though it seemed like an embarrassingly small crew listed even for the type of show he makes. I wasn’t expecting much out of this film, but I was left disappointed especially considering it was a fairly positive reputation and there are good ideas buried beneath the bloat.

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