Terror is a found footage short film by Ben Rivers. It is an odd entry into his catalog, which is mostly made up of ethnographic film studies like Sordal (2008), Two Years at Sea (2011), or his most recent collaboration with Ben Russell, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013). The footage for
The footage for Terror was taken from 35 horror films that were released in the 1970s and early ‘80s that particularly influenced Rivers as a filmmaker. After collecting the films, Rivers transferred them from DVD or VHS to MiniDV, where he then digitally parsed out the sections he wanted to use.
Terror is then an altogether different “love letter” to cinematic history than more recent throwback horrors like Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) or Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer (2009), because River’s end product is literally made up of its referents. By stitching together similar scenes (or recurring motifs) from different films (big, empty house; woman alone drinking coffee; telephones ringing), Rivers creates a new film that not only experiments with form, but with plot and film criticism as well.
There is no denying that Terror is a product of cinephile interest. But what this cinephillia in turn produces is quite interesting. The use of archival footage and found footage has a long history within cinema, experimental or otherwise, that exploits the historical or contextual properties of the image. In the words of Michael Zryd, “[f]ound footage filmmaking is a metahistorical form commenting on the cultural discourses and narrative patterns behind history.”
Terror is not necessarily interested in the historicity of the image like, for example, Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008) or Mary Harron’s The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) where archival footage is used to establish historical continuity, giving a “real” look to the time/place that the narrative recreates. The use of found footage in Terror is in a closer relationship with post-production works like Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) or, more precisely, Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999),* where the history and material makeup of film is the focus of inquiry.
By grouping similar scenes together,** Terror creates a new narrative while exploring the tropes of ‘70s and ‘80s horror films. Doors open cautiously…women sit and drink coffee…the lights flicker…it rains…an eerie crescendo leading up to an explosion of gore, where each successive scene is an uncanny repetition of the one before. Engaged in this game of pattern recognition, Rivers is able to do two really interesting things.
First, he creates a collective narrative that follows the stories of multiple characters experiencing similar “fates.” Without the marker of a single protagonist, individuality and character identification is squashed, and the banalities of everyday life seem to prevail – that is, until the grand finale. Second, he exposes the formulaic structures of the films in his selection, which destabilizes them as autonomous or “original” works of art. This shouldn’t be taken as a harsh critique. The films are not being exposed as frauds. They, like the protagonists, are being shown as part of a system of collective interaction and generic conventions.
In an essay on Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialism (2011), Flachra Gibbons offers a reading of the film that understands it as a manifesto for a “new republic of images,” where the “new cinema will be cut and pasted together in a world beyond copyright.” Terror is a poster child for this new cinema. Even though Gibbons’s statement about Godard could be easily applied to a wide range of post-internet art and ideas about the nature of intellectual property, it is exceptionally fruitful in regards to Terror, because of its close relation to the new aesthetic category known as the supercut. Supercut.org defines this phenomenon as “obsessive-compulsive montages of video clips, meticulously isolating every instance of a single item, usually clichés, phrases, and other tropes.” In short, the supercut has emerged from collective interaction (the internet) and the ubiquity of cameras and editing software, and runs the range from viral video to film criticism. Terror seems to fall somewhere in between (in a very Godard-like fashion), giving the spectator a loose narrative for genre nerds to play who’s who, while also deconstructing the genre itself.
* Terror and Outer Space were actually released in separate installments of the Experiments in Terror series by Other Cinema.
** Collage in film is almost inseparably linked to found footage and the archive, but it also has a connection to the idea of film without a camera: Peter Greenaway thinks that the camera is part of the “four tyrannies” that kill cinema, but he can’t figure out a way to get rid of it, while Rex Sorgatz outlines how we have already gotten rid of the camera in some respects, but he doesn’t really know why.
Watch Terror on Vimeo.