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Matt Barone on Handheld Horror Movies

[i]Cloverfield[/i] is only the latest movie made with this infrequently employed but truly terrifying approach to onscreen horror.


Wine is flowing as attractive, well-dressed 20-somethings mingle in a swanky Manhattan loft, toasting "We love you, man," on the eve of a friend's departure. Considering such an extravagant farewell, it's hard to imagine why young Rob Hawkins would want to be anywhere else. But the fun quickly turns to fear, as an earthquake-like eruption rattles the building. A handheld camera follows the partygoers to the roof, where the shaky footage reveals a flaming mushroom cloud in the distance. Racing down a staircase, the camera drops to the floor, lying sideways until someone helps our cameraman up. Once out on the street, his increasingly erratic footage captures a giant object crashing into the frame. It's the Statue of Liberty's head, landing just inches from his feet.January's Cloverfield is the latest movie made with an infrequently employed but truly terrifying approach to onscreen horror. With an anemic budget, the director, Matt Reeves, captures the intensity of a monster movie using only a handheld camera, putting the viewer right into the action, in what feels like real time. There are very few transitions or scene setups and little editing; what you see is what has happened. And the J.J. Abrams–produced monster mash is a visionary 2008 trend-sparker. In its wake, prepare for a year of movies just like it.At their best, horror movies can scar you for life. Take Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece The Shining; sure, Jack Nicholson's naturally unhinged presence helps, but what truly gives you the willies is its striking, off-kilter score, which matches the unbearable claustrophobia of the Overlook Hotel. Cloverfield doesn't have these luxuries. No soundtrack, no tactical editing, no creepy apparitions of little girls inviting you to come play with them. With Cloverfield, you see only whatever our cameraman catches.The best example of the brilliance of handheld horror remains 1999's The Blair Witch Project, the subgenre's most successful entry. Made with a budget of roughly $25,000, the film grossed nearly $250 million. The unexpected smash was propelled by a daring marketing campaign that tricked moviegoers into thinking the footage was real. The implied menace of the "witch," whom you never see, produces an escalating dread that culminates with an off-screen attack, signified by the camera suddenly dropping to the ground.Many of these films are not just subverting the horror genre as a whole, but specifically recalling some of its classics. In Cloverfield, as the monster's wrath is shown in all of its catastrophic glory, the metropolitan nightmare calls to mind Godzilla as much as it evokes the horror of 9/11. The Poughkeepsie Tapes, another faux-true-story slasher, is made up of "uncovered" tapes shot by the killer himself, who captures his "torture porn" without the annoying rapid camera cuts and electronica music of the Saw franchise. Or look at the indie Diary of the Dead, the fifth installment of the iconic George Romero's zombie series, also shot with a handheld. Consider it Romero's "fuck you" to major studio interference. Even Poltergeist and The Haunting are tapped as inspiration for Paranormal Activity, which uses surveillance-camera footage of a couple's ghost-ridden bedroom.Post-Cloverfield, the most highly anticipated film of the subgenre is [REC], a Spanish spin on 28 Days Later, in which a news station's cameraman, trapped inside an infested apartment building, broadcasts footage of rabid, bloodthirsty humans. [REC] is a comment on our unending obsession with reality programming. What's the difference between watching real people endure heartbreak or humiliation and seeing fake real people get attacked by ravenous flesh-eaters? Both dig into our desire to witness harshness from the comfort of our couches.Horror buffs are rejoicing. This moment in film is a welcome respite from the genre's unimaginative, shameful dependence on remakes. The studios, too, are ecstatic. For them, the heftiest part of the film's price tag-expensive actors-is erased. In true Hollywood form, studios are jumping on the bandwagon, investing in the trend before its gains can be measured. Call it a vote of confidence that before the original has even arrived Stateside, Sony's Screen Gems has begun production on a remake of [REC], titled Quarantined. Its choice for director? The director of The Poughkeepsie Tapes, John Erick Dowdle.Think of these movies a new kind of horror for the YouTube generation. Remember December, 2006, when the grainy video of Saddam Hussein's "closed-door" hanging circulated online? Countless people logged on to see the execution. It was an extreme example of the growing voyeurism of our society. Imagine if footage of the Godzilla-like destruction of a major city surfaced on television and computer screens. Everyone would watch.

Handheld genre films through the ages:

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\nPeeping Tom (1960)English auteur Michael Powell's inventive serial-killer flick is the granddaddy of handheld horror. A tormented photographer impales women with a blade concealed in his camera's tripod, and then immortalizes his victim's terrified, helpless expressions on film. Beneath its repulsive surface, the film is an allegory of the genre itself-where offing innocent victims for visual stimulation is the modus operandi.
\nCannibal Holocaust (1980)Shot in the Amazon jungle, this exploitation film from Italy pieces together "recovered footage" from four documentarians, who had been studying indigenous tribes. The lost tapes depict animal slaughter, dismemberment, and the removal of an unborn fetus from its mother, making it one of the most visceral films ever made. The carnage looks so authentic that, after its release, director Ruggero Deodato faced murder charges for its staged homicides.
\nMan Bites Dog (1992)Shifting from black comedy to horror, this NC-17 film follows three cameramen as they trail a serial killer through a series of cold-blooded murders punctuated by vicious post-crime commentary. In time, the cameramen become accomplices, disposing of the killer's corpses and participating in a gang rape, all before being executed on camera. Uncompromisingly brutal, this Belgian, black-and-white gem makes Natural Born Killers seem soft-core.
\nThe Last Horror Movie (2003)In this straight-to-DVD chiller, the dialogue is between a serial killer ("Max Parry," a wedding videographer with blood-spilling extracurricular activities) and you, the viewer. Cleverly interactive, the horror is heightened by Parry's taunts and down-talk, pointing out how the viewer has become his accomplice. At one point, he even asks, "Why are you still watching?" Imagining that Parry is flat-lining your ex-lover or dreadful employer would be a suitable response.
\nS&Man (2006)Better suited for private, closed-door viewings, handheld fetish films are possibly cinema's most taboo genre. In J.T. Petty's documentary, however, watching strangers get raped and murdered in faux snuff films is intriguingly compared to a more pedestrian entertainment: watching horror films. It's hardly a groundbreaking idea, but when seen side by side with simulated snuff footage, clips from staples like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre feel uncomfortably dirty.
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