Not feeling deep today. So, time for another edition of “Deacon’s DVDs.” This time around, we’ll be talking about a few selections from the sometimes praised and often reviled genre of “shaky camera cinema” as I sometimes like to call it.
These would be movies in which all (or the vast majority) of the film is as seen through a camera wielded by a character in the movie. Now, I don’t know how many flicks there are out there using this style, but it’s grown in popularity over the years, and I’m sure it existed before what I consider the “grandmama” of shaky camera films—The Blair Witch Project—but regardless, I can only recall having seen three such movies so those are the ones I’ll talk about, and all three are pretty much thriller-style movies (horror and/or action).
The reasons many people hate these kinds of movies run the gamut. Some hate when the camera is shaky, as realistic as that might be, because it makes the film jumpy. Some think it is simply contrived. Some think it limits the creative power of the movie by limiting the point of view. Some think it’s just a lazy way to avoid complex editing of scenes (though I suspect this kind of movie is every bit as hard to plan and edit).
So, here they are, my three picks for shaky camera movies worth seeing: The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Quarantine. Since I saw them in that order over the years, that’s the order in which I’ll tackle them. If any one y’all have any shaky camera movies you want to share thoughts on, post in the comments, please.
The Blair Witch Project
Done on a shoestring budget with, if I recall, a cast of three complete no-names, this movie had a plot and outline, but with most (if not all) of the dialogue improvised by the actors. This is perhaps the visibly “shakiest” of all shaky camera movies, as the actors portray three film students out to shoot a documentary about the Blair Witch, some old scary story about some witch in the woods, using a fairly basic camera. The basic plot, summarized in a quick bit of on-screen text before the movie even begins, is that all three were lost in the woods and their bodies never found, though their film equipment was. The idea is that the amateur footage was put together to form the movie.
Because of the raw nature of the camera work and the realistically “low-quality” nature of the recordings themselves, this movie was very effective at establishing the idea that it all really happened. In fact, for quite some time early on after the film’s release, a fairly large number of people thought the events really did happen and the filmmakers did all they could to encourage this notion.
This is without a doubt a horror movie. But what is interesting is that you never see a monster or witch or villain of any kind. What you get are strange events and sounds and the increasingly terror-struck reactions of the three student filmmaker characters. That, along with the mythology of the Blair Witch that the characters recount and the spooky nature of the woods, makes for a very tense atmosphere.
This is a movie that creeped me out for some time, and I respect it for that, particularly because it did so without resorting to the kinds of formulas that most horror movies trot out (gore, people or monsters appearing suddenly from nowhere, special effects razzle-dazzle, etc.).
You really feel a growing sense of doom, and the final scene of the movie is a chill inducer indeed.
To start with, I have three major complaints about this movie, though in the end, none of them really diminished my enjoyment of it. First, the movie is film-quality, much better than probably any hand-held camera owned by a character could ever hope to achieve, even a top-end one, so that right there rings false (especially when compared to Blair Witch). Also, it’s way too convenient how both the battery and the tape lasted as long as they did. Theoretically, I suppose, the length of the movie (at least after the monster appears) is the length of their experience, but it still rings false somehow. Finally, why the hell would they be filming all this while they are trying to survive? I mean, really, the characters in Blair Witch had an excuse. For most of the movie, they are filming a documentary and they expect to go home in one piece. And even toward the end, they are filmmaking students and one can expect a certain degree of filmmaking ego or their desire to film the world driving them to record everything. In Cloverfield, none of that applies.
Now, those nits aside, I liked Cloverfield a lot for many reasons. First, it is perhaps the best American giant-rampaging-monster film of modern memory. The remake of Godzilla pretty much stank to high heaven. Cloverfield doesn’t have the feel of trying to copy or translate Japanese giant monster movies to an American audience but feels distinctly American throughout.
The film begins at a going-away party, where one member of a group of friends is filming things. At various points, the camera gets handed off to others, and we get a sense for the characters. Then all hell breaks loose when suddenly something attacks New York City and, at one point, the head of the fucking Statue of Liberty lands in the street, God only knows how many miles away from the Liberty Island.
Some kind of giant monster, which we see only in bits and pieces (appropriately for someone with a handheld camera), has inexplicably appeared and is waging mayhem. No reason is given for the monster’s existence or appearance, and that is appropriate, again, given the point of view of the people filming it. In addition to the giant monster, there are parasites of some sort on the monster that drop off at various points in the movie and given how big the host is, you can imagine that the parasites ain’t no little tiny buggers either. Nor are they benevolent.
The friends race through the city, doing little more than trying to escape with their lives before the military bombs the hell out of everything or something, or they get eaten or worse. The energy level is high, and the sense of panic is maintained pretty well overall. There are characters here I didn’t like, but all the same, I was concerned for them because no one deserved the kind of shit they were being faced with.
For such an excellent mix of the grandiose (with a huge monster knocking down buildings and tossing pieces of New York around) to the small (character foibles, interpersonal conflicts, acts of quiet heroism and just the personal survival aspect), I give this movie a lot of credit. And the monster was both freaky and, somehow, very believable. Definitely no rubber-suit Godzilla here.
This movie follows a popular trend nowadays to reimagine the zombie mythology as a viral infection rather than something supernatural. Bascially, a small group of firefighters and two-person news crew are trapped in a small apartment building during an outbreak of some disease that turns people violent, and they are quarantined inside.
The film-quality scenes are not a source of annoyance to me in this film (unlike Cloverfield) because the person holding the camera is using a television news-quality camera so I expect the footage to be sharp and for the person to be able to handle the camera well even in a crisis. Also, the fact they keep filming is very much in keeping with what a nosy, stubborn and ratings-aware couple of news people would do.
Sidenote: This movie is, if I recall, remake of a Spanish movie called REC that came out not too long ago in Europe. As I understand it, this American version is almost a precise copy, scene-for-scene, of the original, so if you already saw that one, pass on this version I guess.
In many ways, this movie is standard-issue fare for a virus-infected-zombie-style movie. People get attacked, with some being killed and some being infected, leading to fewer and fewer actual people, and more and more monsters to bedevil the few people left alive. But the energy is maintained and even if I found some characters irritating or even too stereotypical and one-dimensional at times, the movie kept my attention at least, and offered its share of dread and chills.
The scenes toward the end were confusing and, to me, trite, because they seem to be trying to “explain” the source of the contagion in some mysterious way. It just struck me as trying too hard and didn’t add anything, and I think the movie would have been stronger leaving the mystery in place.
I think 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later were much stronger examples of this viral zombie genre. Hell, I think the first Resident Evil movie was probably more fun than Quarantine. But that said, Quarantine is entertaining enough, and better than the two sequels to Resident Evil.