Cinema Verite: The New Thrill in Horror

The Last ExorcismThe Last Exorcism possesses theaters this week. It is the story of a Louisiana pastor who is beseeched by a desperate father living in the boons to help his daughter, whom he thinks is possessed by Satan. The pastor, Cotton, gave up on his faith long ago and sees this mission as the ultimate chance to unmask the great charade that is church-sanctioned exorcism. He takes a camera crew with him to document the entire event and unveil just how phony it all is — effectively chastising organized religion. As you can imagine, he is not prepared for the reality of this particular case and a series of nasty events follows.

This is not a review of The Last Exorcism. Instead, I want to examine the interesting sub-genre in which the film finds itself. The Last Exorcism is shot documentary-style and therefore purports the events it captures as being real, even without explicitly stating it. Though this film style has been around for a while, its application to horror is fairly new. Horror happens to be a genre about which I am exceedingly passionate and the tides of trends within it are fascinating. This particular horror trend was birthed in a wildly successful independent film from 1999.

When The Blair Witch Project came out, it had scores of people fooled, convincing audiences that three intrepid filmmakers were actually lying dead in the woods of Maryland and that they were witnessing footage of their last moments on this mortal coil. With a carefully designed viral marketing campaign, and the fact that the concept was so new, The Blair Witch Project was arguably the most effective of the “found footage” horror films. From there came first-person horror films, faux-documentary horror and even more found-footage horror. Basically, the idea was that the story would be told as it unfolded through the eyes of the cameraman so that the audience experienced the terror firsthand without the usual safety net of the fourth wall.

These films would often be given the added gimmick of the words “based on a true story” inserted somewhere in the proceedings. Truth be told, most of these stories were about as “based upon true events” as was The Flintstones, but it was an effective white lie. Though varying slightly in approach, the overall aim was very much the same, and recently a buddy of mine took to calling them cinema verite horror films, a term I will borrow as I examine a few standout examples. Granted, this is not exactly in accordance with the definition of cinema verite, but it’s close and very apt. I also prefer calling these films cinema verite because the term “found footage” automatically has the audience assuming everyone in the film dies, which is not always the case.


True that it never once used the words “based on a true story,” but the fact that the entire movie is seen through the eyes of those experiencing it qualifies it as cinema verite horror. The only real problem I have with it is that there is no way that guy wouldn’t have eventually put the camera down.

Paranormal ActivityREC

Fantastic Spanish horror film remade as the tepid Quarantine. At least in this example, the protagonist is a journalist and therefore predisposed to documenting the truth at every turn.

Paranormal Activity

This film used an even more grandiose viral marketing campaign than did Blair Witch. I honestly like the movie more for its faux-documentary style than its completely bogus “true story” banner. It is a phenomenally chilling ghost story that benefits from the camera’s lens but not from the “still unsolved” tag.

The Fourth Kind

This one stands out for all the wrong reasons. It blends traditional narrative with “actual” footage of completely falsified events in order to sell you on a fabrication. I know it sounds like I’m spoiling it, but the minute Milla Jovovich walks up to the camera, grabs you by the throat and says, “This is totally real,” you know it isn’t. The disappointing thing is that the imagery in the movie is frightening enough to not require the web of lies constructed by its overzealous cinema verite style.

I think The Last Exorcism is among the better cinema verite horror films mainly because it weaves the existence of the camera into the fabric of the plot. If it weren’t for the camera, how would Cotton attempt to prove exorcisms were bogus and thus reconcile his crisis of faith? It seems that as horror audiences get harder to scare, filmmakers will keep blurring the line between reality and fiction, the camera’s eyepiece being their weapon of choice.