Footage Found: Rorschach and the search for Great Horror

A Genuine Surprise
Being a fan of horror can be frustrating. At times it can feel like a never-ending trudge through mediocrity. Horror is one of the most easily accessible genres out there. Everyone can relate to being afraid of the unknown, and this fear of what's in the dark makes it fertile ground for independent filmmakers. You can do this on the cheap, boys and girls, no need for a $150million budget. Just a spooky soundtrack and some teenagers running around in the dark, and before you know it you'll have a viral hit.

The truth is, however, that horror is one of the hardest genres to get right.

Maybe it's because we're so used to seeing every trick in the book. A slow build up, then a jump scare. Loud noises thrown at the screen. People lost in the woods. Vampires roaming the Transylvanian countryside. Mad scientists unleashing their horrid experiments on the world. Terrifying creatures from another world picking off the isolated crew of a spaceship one by one. We've been there and seen it all, so we cannot be surprised. This translates into an ever-receding unknown which no longer holds fear for us because... Well... It's no longer unknown.

And yet despite the ineffectiveness of a large portion (let's be honest, the vast majority) of horror films, stories, and video-games, we keep searching for those little nuggets of blood gold which are out there in the darkness waiting to be found. Why? Because when horror works it is one of the most profound and affective genres in existence.

We crave the experience.

This then brings us to a film like C.A. Smith's Rorschach. When we do finally stumble across a gem of a horror movie, as fans of the genre we want to celebrate it. We want to gobble it up like the starving little deadites we all are at heart.

Old is New Again

Thanks to the excellent Found Footage Critic site, I happened upon Rorschach almost by accident. At the end of its brisk one hour and fifteen minutes, my nerves were suitably shredded, and I was left feeling utterly satisfied for the experience.

Rorschach follows two paranormal investigators called Ricky and Ross. They are skeptics who almost always believe in a conventional explanation. At the beginning of the film, they are travelling to see Jamy, a single mother who believes that her house may be haunted after she and her daughter, Ashlynn, both experience some spooky goings on. As the film progresses, Ricky and Ross are confronted with chilling paranormal phenomena which shakes their skepticism to the ground.

This plot doesn't sound entirely innovative, does it? You'd be right. We've seen this set up in countless horror films, including many low budget found footage efforts. What really separates Rorschach from the crowd, however, is that it excels in four essential areas:

Are These People For Real?

The actors give believable, empathetic and naturalistic performances. Acting can often sink even the bigger budget found footage films. If we the audience don't believe the characters are real people, then the immersive effect of the genre is lost. In Rorschach, the performances hit all the right marks.

Am I Watching a Home Movie?

The film is very well made. Most found footage films are not implemented with an eye for editing and cinematography. It's a tricky line to keep. If it looks too polished then the film comes across as contrived, ruining the found footage immersion. If the footage is too amateurish, then it's simply not enjoyable to watch. Found footage films are a dime a dozen because all you need is a camcorder, but few of these films are actually designed. Rorschach treads this line beautifully. You feel you're watching something real, but it's constructed so well that it's compelling viewing. Add to this some excellently thought out editing choices including strangely timed cross fades, and well-placed text and enhanced audio segments, and you can be confident C.A. Smith and his cast and crew know exactly what they are doing.

Why Are You Still Filming?

This is a big problem with the found footage genre. There comes a point in most of these films where you have to utterly suspend your disbelief and accept that the characters are still filming. If a person was in such a situation, for the most part, they would drop their camera and run away when faced with something terrifying. This problem erodes found footage's strongest theme - believability. It takes the audience out of the film because it's one leap of logic too many. 

Rorschach sidesteps this issue completely. There is a reason why the locked off cameras are there - to capture and document any paranormal phenomena. When the characters are holding cameras themselves, they are never put into a situation where you think they would stop filming, indeed the light from the camera even assists them in certain scenes.

Where are the Jump-Scares?

A depressing trend in horror filmmaking: the jump-scare. Everyone is guilty of it (even I've fallen into the trap more than once), and it's become the cheapest shot in horror cinema. Have a moment of quiet, wait for a few seconds, then BANG: Throw something at the screen with a loud noise accompanying it. Alternatively, do the double take jump-scare, where the camera is looking somewhere and then turns to be confronted with something which usually isn't there when scrutinized by your characters. This is used time and time again. It's not that a jump-scare can't be effective (one of my favourite films, The Haunting, has a brilliant one), but a reliance on this tactic eventually desensitizes the audience.

Rorschach does not rely on jump-scares. Instead, the film builds dread. As I've said in a few interviews, dread is the key component to horror, in my opinion, especially when crafting a ghost story. Rorschach is dripping with dread, and when it does rely on loud noises and jumps, they are used sparingly and to great effect. 

Restoring Faith in the Found Footage Genre

Most found footage films are pretty bad. As always, I admire the effort and would never discourage filmmakers from trying to make one; but as a fan of the genre, it's been a real slog to find anything decent. Rorschach, and the 2012 film Leaving D.C., are brilliant examples of how a simple concept can be used to create genuine, lasting and impactful horror. 

Rorschach scared me, bad. More than this, it hints, it implies, it suggests something horrifying without bashing the audience over the head with chain-rattling ghosts or CG monsters. There is a narrative here. There may even be an explanation of sorts, but it isn't spelled out for the audience. We have to think about it, we have to interpret what we've seen, but not in a pretentious or inaccessible way.

It's almost criminal that Rorschach isn't better known. I hope the filmmakers manage to get some distribution for their efforts. This is, in my opinion, a much better film than many of the big-budget horror films released regularly in cinemas. I thoroughly look forward to seeing what other horror features C.A. Smith will develop in the future. A director who is most definitely one to watch for any horror fan.

For a limited time, the film can be viewed for free below. Like the Rorschach ink blot tests from which the film borrows its name, you are asked to interpret what you see. And what did I see? A film which proves resoundingly that the found footage genre still has much to give to the world, when in the right hands:



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Michael Whitehouse: Footage Found: Rorschach and the search for Great Horror
Footage Found: Rorschach and the search for Great Horror
A review of found footage horror film, Rorschach, by C.A. Smith.
Michael Whitehouse
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