There's an obvious answer to this question: No. POV horror is easy and cheap to make and has proven time and again to go viral in advertising and turn a profit quickly because of the low costs. This is a deeper question than that answer provides. Can anyone do anything new and innovative with a shaking camera? Has the construct been so overplayed in recent years that no one can resurrect it? Are we just trapped in an endless cycle of the same film being shot again and again like slashers in the 1980's? Is there no way left to do something novel with the style?
I don't think so.
One of the more effective POV horrors I've ever seen is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. It is, in many ways, a reaction to the growing trend that started in the wake of The Blair Witch Project, though it also tips its hat to films like Man Bites Dog and The Last Horror Movie. Leslie Vernon contacts a documentary film crew to watch him prepare for his first big act as a notorious serial killer. In this world, the likes of Jason and Michael Myers are real. Leslie is being mentored by a retired serial killer in how to stalk a survivor girl, round the kids into an isolated location, knock most of them off, be murdered by the survivor girl, and come back.
The genius of Behind the Mask is the film's knowledge of horror cliches. The POV camera actually enhances this as the film simultaneously serves as a quasi-documentary for the cliches of slasher films and a slasher film. You believe the authority of Leslie Vernon because he is playing his infinite knowledge of how to be a successful killer straight to camera. You see what he wants you to see and nothing more. If it didn't happen in front of the camera, he didn't want it to happen there.
When the film shifts to a full blown body-count slasher, it loses the POV camera. It's not a distracting shift. I wonder if the writers just got stuck in a corner and chose the easy way out with that decision. The film would only have been enhanced by first person perspective of being stalked by the menacing Leslie Vernon.
When people think of the shakycam/POV horror, they really think of The Blair Witch Project. This film, to me, is a problematic example. The camerawork is so erratic that it feels like the production team wanted people to be hyper-aware of the POV camerawork. I know the actors did all the filming themselves. That's beside the point. It's still a film meant for enjoyment. The camerawork was so labored and aggressive that I couldn't believe what I saw.
It didn't help that, for the most part, The Blair Witch Project was the first POV horror to not actually show any of the scares for most of its running time. This led to the glut of uneventful horror films that were praised for being different. Different is not enough. You want something unique to innovate a genre, not a gimmick.
I've made my disdain of all things Paranormal Activity known for years now. Nothing happens in that film until the final scene. You know the one: the shot in the bedroom that was used in every trailer. I watched with dread as the minutes ticked down and nothing from the trailer happened.
This film is not unique for being a slow burn horror film. That would mean it had some level of suspense going for it. Nor is it unique for holding off on the scares until the end. Just look at something like Suspiria (made almost 40 years before) that manages to use that conceit with at least a little artistry. What Paranormal Activity is is the pseudo-intellectual horror film for people who have never experienced a good horror film. The people who raved about this picture probably never saw a proper haunted house film in theaters (and no, The Sixth Sense doesn't count as that was a sensationalist thriller about a disturbed child's relationship with a cop, not the ghost story). The few moments that elicited screams in the theater were scares that happened regularly in films before Bela Lugosi died some almost 60 years ago. Paranormal Activity is a film with five minutes of plot that gets stretched to 86 minutes. That's nothing to praise.
So why do I think this sub-genre has potential? There are directors all over the world trying to innovate with this low-budget technique. J.J. Abrams has made two films that rely on footage from a POV camera and the camera itself as a driving plot point: Cloverfield and Super 8 (not a horror film, but the mystery element of the footage is very similar to these horrors). The amazing Spanish POV horror [REC] became an international phenomenon, spawning two Spanish-language sequels and the very good US remake Quarantine. What did these three films do? Combine elements from other genres--giant monsters and zombie epidemics--to put a new spin on old cliches.
Then there are the films really pushing the limits of POV horror. The Tunnel is a new POV horror was just released exclusively on Bit Torrent that is set entirely in an enclosed sewer system in Australia. They do some really cool things with the story that justify the use of POV camerawork. Another is a haunted house film shot in a single take from Argentina called The Silent House (remade as Silent House for America). It takes the bold one-shot horror concept and pushes it further with the camerawork. And then there are films like The Last Exorcism that have people rotate off the camera in a natural way to explore a very unique set of characters.
Do I think that Hollywood is going to embrace the more innovative POV horror films on a regular basis? No. The big studios like uniformity and predictability. There was a Saw film almost every Halloween for seven years for good reason: people went, they made money, they topped the box office, and they were reliable. Paranormal Activity got a sequel for the same reason. But the untested and unusual styles are going to struggle for release.
Do I think horror filmmakers are going to be satisfied to copy Paranormal Activity for years until a big studio version bombs? Some will, but others will fight for innovation. That's what gives me hope. There is a lot of untapped potential in this low-budget format that could churn out some strong and provocative horror films in the coming years. That's what makes me excited.
What do you think? Will POV horror ever reach its full potential? Am I totally off base on Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project? Are you just afraid of getting sick from the cliched shakycam work? Let's hear it in the comments. No moderation, just a math problem to post.