A night in the woods (2011) – Hand held camera

Recommendation: Go and see it

I didn’t know there was a bit of a fan club for ‘hand held camera’ films until I wanted to remind myself of the name of the first film I can remember seeing that was completely made using this technique (that was Cloverfield, about an alien invasion of New York).

One of the criticisms of that film was the ‘jumpy’ nature of the images. We are accustomed, in contemporary cinema, to the steady-cam which keeps everything on an even keel whatever the action and the seeming directionless and random images produced by the hand-held camera can be disconcerting. I didn’t agree with that as I believed it added to the chaotic situation in which the characters found themselves.

In A night in the woods the director and camera crew have taken this concept to a higher level. Here the camera is used in virtually every possible manner. There are images taken when someone is actually holding the camera and pointing it, openly, at the subject. The tension created by always being filmed can be seen as a metaphor for the CCTV society in which we live. Then there are images taken when the subject is unaware that they are on camera. This also introduces the invidious concept of CCTV as well as the idea of being spied upon.

There are images in natural day light capturing the wildness and stark beauty of Dartmoor. At other times the images are in colour at night but the light this time being provided by the camera’s own built-in lighting system. To create atmosphere, suspense and fear, at times the images are in the infra-red. In a horror film this is a wonderful device as we can see what is happening whilst the subject is unaware that they are being filmed. And the eerie green tint and vacant eyes resulting from that spectrum add to the unworldliness the director wishes to create.

Sometimes we get a static camera, either purposely left so all the players can be in the image or from one that has been dropped accidentally or as a result of an attack, or discarded on purpose, the operator ‘forgetting’ the camera is still recording. On one occasion a static camera is left as a ‘spy’ to record the fears of one of the protagonists, but when it is discovered by one of those being spied upon it is not switched off, it is allowed to continue doing its job of recording events, again in reference to the ubiquity of the filmed image in our society.

Obviously we also have the shaky, erratic, pointing everywhere images, in both colour and infra-red. This is a horror film and it wouldn’t be a horror film if the (normally) heroine wasn’t running, and screaming, for her life. But here the whole idea is twisted and sometimes we see what she would be seeing and at others, when the camera is in the hands of the one chasing and in the infra-red, we see her fear with the added dimension of the unnatural colour.

But hand-held cameras can go wrong. They don’t like being kicked and so at those times the images break down into the oblong pixels (I’m sure there’s a name for them but I haven’t a clue what it might be) and the sound gets distorted and broken. And all this is used to add to the chaos and terror of the story.

The device of the film is that the story of the three characters and their disappearance is being told through the edited images of the handful of cameras found at the scene (that’s not giving away anything as this is stated before we even see any of them) and the way the editing was done is not far short of brilliant.

I was impressed with this film and thought it a cracker and might well now consider myself a fan of hand-held films – especially if they are made this good. Or better. I’m sure this medium still has a long way to go.