Found footage movies are dead. Sure there’s the odd good one here or there, but gone are the days when aspiring filmmakers could make a movie for almost no cost based nearly solely on the concept that found footage provides. Now that concept – the “movie is a movie” – is worn out and audiences know what to expect. The thrill is gone, as is all the joy and innovation that these artists used to be able to provide.
Yet, perhaps that concept still has life in another forum. The movie-within-a-movie idea is nothing new but rarely is it taken apart and put back together into something original. Jason Croot, a London-based actor and director has found his way into the fabric of this idea and emerged with a bold, yet unpretentious film that folds back in on itself to become a meta-comedy without ever breaking the illusion that this is just a movie.
First we must ask ourselves, what is it with found footage that is so compelling? A quick glance through the history of cinema might hold some answers. The first movies were frightening in the way they held the audience in a daze – an illusion so strong one could easily forget that the events unfolding onscreen were just that: events unfolding onscreen. There’s no magic to the movies, just 24 frames per second. Motion blur. A trick of perception. We’re used to this trick now, the way we’re used to cell phones and microwaves, but at one time we weren’t. Then the golden age, when film exploded. Directors innovated lighting, cameras, editing, acting styles. They stole from the stage, from the radio, from books and from television to create a completely new medium for drama. After a while, audiences got used to it, sick of it even. The independent era came to life, breaking the rules people like Billy Wilder or Orson Welles had established. They created a new illusion, one in which the camera is a character itself. Handheld cinematography, improvising, real-time playback, the abandonment of the typical frame and jump cuts jarred the audience out of their connection to the movie and reminded them that it was all a trick. What’s the best way to con someone? Tell them you’re conning them. We loved it.
Enough with the history lesson. Found footage rolled around and revitalized that illusion all over again. Somehow we could believe that what we were watching wasn’t a directed material, but real action, simply recorded by someone who happened to have a camera on them. It was the perfect training ground for young horror filmmakers, but it didn’t fare so well in other genres. No matter. And now we have Jason Croot’s follow-up to his previous film, Le Fear, aptly titled Le Fear II: Le Sequel. This is not a found footage movie, but it sure feels like one, and a good one at that. Croot’s premise is simple – a director makes a movie. It goes wrong.
Then the gems start rolling in. We simply follow this director named Carlos (Kyri Saphiris) as he borrows 500,000£ to make a horror movie, also called “Le Fear II: Le Sequel” during which everything that can go wrong on a low-budget film set does go wrong. His set is nothing more than a caravan, his makeup artist is a seductress, his special effects woman doesn’t know the first thing about special effects, and most of all, “it’s not horror.” The cast is a blast to watch, convincing and clearly having fun, and recognition should go to them for selling this film, but the real star here is Croot himself.
First there’s the movie that Croot is making. Then there’s the movie that Carlos is making. This isn’t Adaptation. (2002) where the movie that plays is the same movie the characters are making or anything like that, but the trick is the same. All the low-budget effects, the bad lighting, the abrupt cuts, the cheesy music and the terrible monsters are part of the conceit, and they bridge the gap between audience and characters. I really, really felt like I was actually on set with Carlos. Everything is in service of the story’s central idea – the making of a movie gone wrong. For the most part, the camera acts like a documentary – there’s nobody behind the camera, nobody talks to the camera necessarily – although sometimes it jumps into the POV of a film student making an actual documentary, and sometimes it jumps into the POV of Carlos’ camera to show us his shots – but other than that the camera remains distanced like it would in any typical movie, and yet it achieves the same “really happening” effect of the best found footage films.
It’s not difficult to pull off a found-footage gimmick. What is difficult is sustaining it into drama. What is even more difficult is breaking the boundaries of found footage without cheating – Chronicle (2012) for example, although I enjoyed it, breaks the rules, adding a second camera that isn’t motivated by any characters (remember, The Blair Witch Project (1999) actually had two cameras) – but Le Fear II: Le Sequel doesn’t cheat because it takes the rulebook and simply rewrites it.
The movie isn’t perfect, of course – it repeats the same gag a few too many times, for example – but I have something to say about that too. You can make up for a lot if you’re sincere and charming. The cast is clearly having fun here and it if you’ve ever tried to make a low-budget movie yourself, you’ll undoubtably recognize Carlos’ struggles. If not, well, if ever there was a movie to teach you about being on a film set, this is it.
Le Fear II: Le Sequel won’t redefine a lost style, or revolutionize low-budget filmmaking, but it is an honest film, clever in its conceit and consistent all the way through. Cherish films like this one if you have the chance to see it, because you’re seeing genuine effort and passion go towards something interesting. As far as artists go, that is a noble goal.