Your Story’s Kinda Shaky: Six Shaky-Cam Movies That Started It All
By Jennifer Mangan
Cinema verité was once a term used only by beret-sporting men trying to sound sophisticated, Siskel & Ebert, and comic book guy from The Simpsons. It’s been experimented with since the twenties, actually showed up in a few movies in the sixties, and then in the late nineties ultra-realistic handheld movies exploded onto megaplexes, igniting a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. This year, the high school party blowout went the way of found footage with Project X and a couple of months ago, the mesmerizing Chronicle literally brought the genre to entirely new heights.
Now, KoldCast TV’s sci-fi series Pillars brings it to Internet TV. The series opens hard with the kidnapping of Michael, a young man who could easily be your neighbor, co-worker or someone you just walked by on the street. Unfortunately, it may be the last you’ll ever see of him. We learn about Michael’s disappearance only because he manages to get an iPhone video out to his brother Tim and fiancé Lisa, desperately telling them he was kidnapped.
Michael’s video ends as he is whisked inside an enemy compound where another man is being tortured. Tim and Lisa vow to find him and chronicle their search on digital cameras. They post the videos online to spread the word and garner help from good Samaritans trolling the web. Tim and Lisa empower audiences to engage their quest in a revolutionary way, creating truly innovative social television.
Click to play Episode 1 of SciFi series Pillars
Before found-footage films lent themselves to this type of meta-entertainment, which allows audiences to tweet, check in, and update statuses in an effort to help the good guys on screen win, a few key movies laid the groundwork to get us comfortable in the first place.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This was the one that started it all and scared us all half to death. Three film students went into the woods to document the local legend of the Blair Witch… None of them returned. The witch, Elly Kedward, was accused of torturing several children in the late 1700’s and subsequently banished from the village of Blair during a harsh winter. Although presumed dead, children have been vanishing in the area ever since, leading locals to believe it was haunted. The students’ footage was found a year later, finally showing the twisted things that happened to each of them. This film’s fresh take on the horror genre allowed it to enjoy a slew of accolades, including an MTV Movie Award, an Independent Spirit Award, an International Horror Guild Award and a Producers Guild Award. So, you should watch it… but not before bedtime.
Open Water (2003)
This movie is based on the true story of two scuba divers, a couple on vacation who are accidentally left stranded in shark-infested water because their dive boat crew took a hasty head count. It’s too far to swim to shore, and nobody knows the lovebirds are missing. We are left watching the couple reopen emotional wounds, attempt to heal physical ones, and slowly devolve from hopeful to desperate. It’s uncomfortable and incredibly raw. The sharks circling ever closer as the film progresses will not be readily forgotten either. Jaws, eat your heart out.
The found-footage film goes global. This Spanish horror flick tracks a newswoman and her cameraman on a documentary film they’re shooting about the night calls received by fire departments. Things go disastrously wrong after they follow up on a lead about a local trapped inside her apartment whose hideous screams are heard but nobody will help her. One by one, the building’s residents become infected with a demonic virus, forcing them to attack and kill the others. Later adapted into the English format Quarantine for the United States, the film was heralded among critics as arguably the best among the crop of shaky-cam movies. Watch this one with your therapist because the ending will create major trust issues.
This film was the first of the genre to be produced on a relatively large studio budget, clocking in at $25 million. Five New Yorkers attend a going away party and film it on a handheld DV camera. After everybody’s had a few drinks, some violent shaking prompts suspicions of an earthquake until the power goes out and an unidentifiable monster throws the Statue of Liberty’s head into midtown like an amateur bowler rolling a gutter ball. What follows is a two-hour city escape sequence that makes the threat of Godzilla look like the Geico gecko having a temper tantrum.
Paranormal Activity (2009)
A young, middle class couple moves into a suburban starter home, only to realize it’s already occupied – by a demon! The husband flippantly rejects the idea that his house is haunted and sets up a camera to document their supposed new roommate’s behavior. The movie’s genius lies in exploiting the base fear we all harbor for the evil forces hiding under our very noses, in our very own homes. Also pretty smart is the fact that the film was made for only $15,000, utilizing astonishingly simple special effects, and went on to gross $108 million at the box office – a game changer to say the least for low budget movies.
District 9 (2009)
This movie not only combined aliens, an action flick, a documentary, themes of institutionalized racism, and just plain sick special effects, it reminded audiences that rules are meant to be broken. District 9 explores the question of what we would do if a giant spacecraft full of worker-class aliens landed in our backyard without any way of getting home. The eerie truth is that we’d probably contain them in a government camp, and that’s exactly what happens. Perhaps the most enjoyable element of this movie – aside from a complex, simultaneously pitiful and laudable main character – was that it subtly evolves from a strict shaky-cam film to a sweeping Michael Bay-esque action movie. You don’t even notice the change until you’re talking about the film after the ending credits. And this one will keep you talking.
Ariel Nishli contributed to this story.
Jennifer Mangan is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles, CA. She is a proud alumnus of both Second City and Santa Clara University. For upcoming projects, check her out at www.beautifuldayproductions.us