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Last Camera Standing: horror's favorite found footage trick

Last Camera Standing: horror's favorite found footage trick


Sometimes nothing is scarier than an empty screen

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When audiences go to see a found footage horror movie, they know they’re signing up for a particular kind of experience. Shaky footage, tearful confessions delivered directly to camera, characters awkwardly justifying why they’re still filming, even though ghosts / zombies / aliens are running around; they’re all part of the game. But one trope above all others is the true hallmark of the found footage movie: Last Camera Standing.

The Blair Witch Project GIF

You know the moment. It’s when the hero, at the height of their terror, is suddenly attacked. Their camera falls to the ground, but the movie keeps on rolling while we look at an empty frame and something really bad happens offscreen. (There’s usually screaming involved.) But what are the shot’s landmark uses, and how has it evolved over the years? We’ve come together to answer that very question, and present some of our favorite examples of the Last Camera Standing.

[Ed. Note: This post was found scrawled on a piece of paper in the woods of Maryland after its authors went missing. An investigation into their whereabouts is ongoing.]

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

When The Blair Witch Project first hit theaters, some viewers were convinced it actually was a true story, and key to that impression was the film’s ending. It established the Last Camera Standing trope by using it not just once, but twice: first when Mike Williams drops his video camera, and then when Heather Donahue drops her 16mm film camera. The latter lands so hard, it knocks the film’s registration out of alignment, causing a nightmarish streaking across the frame. Seriously, you jaded horror audiences, just look, it seems to be seeing. This movie is so real, we even broke the camera! The genre would never be the same. —Bryan Bishop

[REC] (2007) / Quarantine (2008)

One of the major complaints fans levied against The Blair Witch Project — besides "Hey, that wasn’t real after all," "The shaky-cam made me seasick," and "Why’d that idiot throw that map away?" — was the characters’ dedication to filming, even while fleeing for their lives. That problem still plagues diegetic footage films; there’s almost always a point where viewers stop to think "Why would you hold onto a camera with that coming at you?" The terrifying Spanish horror movie [REC] solves the problem in a simple way: for a solid part of the film, the camera’s light is the only source of illumination the characters have, and they use it more like an oversized, clunky flashlight than a recording device.

Once the light is broken (in a terrifying way, naturally), they move on to the camera’s low-light setting, capturing new horrors — including the cameraman’s barely glimpsed death, and a final shot of the Final Girl being hauled off into the shadows by a ravenous Final Monster Girl with its own agenda. The English-language remake Quarantine keeps the final shot of the final survivor disappearing into darkness, but loses much of the haunting darkness, adding in other light sources to make all the gore more visible. It does find a fresh excuse for hanging onto the camera, though: at one point, a character uses it to beat a zombie to death, with the increasingly smeary lens itself becoming a weapon. —Tasha Robinson

Cloverfield (2008)

Director Matt Reeves gave found footage some production value and a visual-effects-heavy treatment in this movie, and he added his own spin to the ending as well. After a mysterious monster takes out Manhattan, survivors Rob and Beth (Michael Stahl-David and Odette Annable) say their goodbyes while huddled under a bridge in Central Park. Then bombs rain down, leaving the audience watching a stack of rubble before the image finally goes dark.

The film then glitches over to footage that had been previously recorded on the videotape we’ve been watching the entire time. It’s Rob and Beth again, happy and blissful the evening before the alien invasion. "I had a good day," Beth says, before things cut to black — leaving us with an unshakeable feeling of tragedy and loss. That’s what we call last emotion standing. —Bryan Bishop

The Last Exorcism (2010)

You might ask yourself, "Did I see this movie?" It’s hard to remember, because the word "exorcism" appears in the title of approximately 397 films released in the last 40 years. But I’m sure I did see it because I distinctly remember wondering why the story of disillusioned Reverend Cotton Marcus (lol) and his attempt to perform the first real exorcism of his life (he had been faking it the whole time before that) needed to be a found footage film. This story is all about finding Jesus, but it’s also about making a documentary (according to director Daniel Stamm, this was for budgetary reasons). You know what wasn’t for budget reasons? Sometime before the standard Last Camera shot, the camera is used to beat a cat to death.

At the end, the possessed young lady gives birth to the devil’s baby, and her brother chops a documentarian’s head off. By the time the camera falls to the ground (at the same speed as the severed head, because of the uniform acceleration of gravity), I was bored. But to this day I’m still wondering why the documentary team kept using a camera that had cat guts all over it, so we’ll count it as a win. —Kaitlyn Tiffany

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

The Paranormal Activity series generally favors the security cam POV, which largely takes it out of the running for this piece — but in the finale of the third installment Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman switch things up by putting a camera in the hands of an actual human. The camera’s eventually knocked to the ground, of course, and we then get the rare Last Camera Standing With Gratuitous On-Screen Violence as a demonic force grotesquely bends the man in half. Backwards. With crackling noises. (And they say these movies don’t innovate.) —Bryan Bishop

V/H/S (2012)

V/H/S is a series of found footage horror shorts, which are tangentially related to a pile of VHS tapes in a weird undead man’s house. The final short, "10/31/98," was written and directed by the filmmaking trio Radio Silence (Devil’s Due, Southbound). It’s a tight, deeply unsettling little story in which three friends arrive at a Halloween party only to realize they’re at a haunted house and there’s an exorcism going on. (I hate it when that happens!) They try to rescue a young woman and leave with her, but halfway home their car stalls on some train tracks and she vanishes.

The car, unsurprisingly, will not move and the film ends with a train smashing them and their camera to bits. I love this ending because it feels like an undeniable callback to L’Arrivée D’un Train En Gare De La Ciotat, an 1895 film that showed a train simply pulling into a station and notoriously terrified its audiences. They were unfamiliar with moving pictures and felt sure the train was going to come out of the screen and kill them. It’s sometimes referred to as "the first horror movie" or "the first unintended horror movie." Overall V/H/S is an uneven tribute to found footage, but this ending feels like a warm wink wrapped in a nightmare. —Kaitlyn Tiffany

Europa Report (2013)

It’s easy to forget that Europa Report is technically a found footage film: there’s no wildly jerking camera being hauled around by an amateur journalist who makes weak excuses to keep filming. Instead, the footage comes from a series of fixed cameras among the crew of a space capsule visiting Jupiter’s moon Europa. Some are security cameras in their ship, some are mounted inside and outside of their suits, and the story varies between forced intimacy and a more clinical remove, depending on which cameras are in use at any given moment.

The whole film does pull back at the end, so the final shot isn’t a Last Camera Standing moment — it’s a remember-when-things-were-less-terrifying? flashback to before the crew started dying. But the action of the film ends with a crew member’s conscious decision to die in order to further her scientific inquiry, leaving the camera behind to record one haunting image. Europa Report is unusual for a found footage film because it’s science fiction, it largely avoids shaky-cam scares, and it features calm professionals making meaningful decisions, instead of terrified teenagers running for their lives. But it’s also unusual in that the Final Girl moment is a deliberate, carefully weighed choice, and the film’s coda has scientists on Earth weighing and respecting that moment. —Tasha Robinson

Unfriended (2014)

Unfriended is best enjoyed from the comfort of your bed, ideally on a MacBook screen. The whole film takes place inside the Mac interface — all of the action happens in FaceTime, Skype, iMessage, or Facebook, so watching it on a tiny screen and gradually mixing up your iMessage window with the one in the film is dizzying, thrilling, and truly scary. The plot is take it or leave it, but if you believe the medium is the message then it comes through loud and clear here.

The prospect of having the technology we use every day for everything turn against us is horrifying, particularly because most people don’t know anything about the inner workings of computers. Your laptop could be haunted for a very long time before you would even notice! The camera that gets destroyed by a ghost at the end of Unfriended is a webcam, and you know the film is over when the pivotal laptop is slammed shut. It’s surprisingly chilling not because crushing the cam is anything new, but because it recalls the same sinking feeling some people (me!) get when they close all their tabs for the night: loneliness. —Kaitlyn Tiffany

Blair Witch (2016)

Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch had one objective and one objective only: remind people what they loved about the original film in the first place. That, of course, included riffing on the infamous final shot that started it all. Here Callie Hernandez’s Lisa, covered in blood, is carrying a camera when she’s suddenly attacked. The camera falls on its side — but instead of a visual streak from a camera malfunction, we instead watch as water steadily peppers the lens, splash by inexorable splash.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. —Bryan Bishop