I was watching V/H/S a few nights ago when it dawned on me in the middle of yet another teenager running away in manic horror without dropping his video camera that I was starting to get a little tired of the ‘found footage’ subgenre of horror films. Certainly, the format has its gems - Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Chronicle, The Last Exorcism. But the first-person POV conceit tends to be less a trick to put us in the shoes of the protagonists and more a gimmick that maximizes the effectiveness of shoestring budgets and minimizes storytelling. Chronicle subverts this and subtly uses the camera to reinforce both the verisimilitude of its portrayal of superpowers and their awesome nature. The Last Exorcism embraces the format wholeheartedly and uses it to drill down into the main character just as much as the camera documents poor Nell Sweetzer’s possession.
But there’s a point when the format becomes an impediment to the narrative. As Paranormal Activity become more wrapped up with its witch-coven backstory, it becomes more and more frustrating to see it from the limited perspective of victims who don’t know all of the mythology we’ve already learned. Since PA3, I’ve been championing a sequel that lives in setting without the found footage conceit.
When a teaser poster for The Last Exorcism 2 found its way online last week, it didn’t do much to impress. It seemed like a lazy, cheeky rejoinder to the one-sheet for its predecessor, a contorted Ashley Bell and her shadow forming a number 2. The trailer, though, is something different. Having killed off its camera crew already, the sequel seems to have a traditional narrative structure.
Switching from found footage to diegetic narrative mid-series isn’t unheard of, but the last time I recall it happening is the ill-fated and subjectively awful Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. Of course, the lesson of that film is that studio meddling can crush an interesting concept to death, not that deviating from ‘more of the same’ is toxic.
There’s still copious room for The Last Exorcism 2 to be bad; we’ll have to wait and see. But in the meantime, I find myself more interested by the filmmakers’ choice to move ahead instead of spinning their wheels.