So, let’s get any confusion out of the way, right off: Why am I so quick to start a Dispatches Review sub-series when I’ve only posted a few ‘normal’ reviews already? The short answer is that the prospect of writing reviews about found footage horror specifically was what got me crankin’ on my WordPress in the first place.
But why found footage? It’s a genre that catches a lot of shade, and, by my reasoning, that’s enough of a reason already. Found footage horror because found footage horror exists, because it’s taking up more and more room in our discussions about media and pop culture in general. Also, because it’s becoming so much easier for anyone to make a film of any kind, and found footage genre narratives (be they horror, sci-fi, or whatever else) are,really, pretty obvious proof of that; you can make a found footage film in your house, in your garage, in your bedroom, and post to YouTube or Vevo or wherever, and it may well be just as good as anything anyone else, studios, independents, is putting out.
Found footage can exist, so it does exist, and it’s probably not going away.
And, while it’s somewhat coincidental that Megan is Missing is our first found footage feature up for review, it’s particularly fitting given the flak this film gets over and above other examples. Even among found footage titles, it’s more often (and heavily) criticized than it is praised. Lucky for us, then, that we’re interested in neither praising or damning it, so we can more quickly get down to what these reviews are all about: structure and its implications.
And found footage is just awesome for looking at structure.
Right from the top, then, Megan is Missing sets itself apart from so many other examples of the genre by its disclaimer:
What is the average found footage genre film meant to do for its audience? Different things from one example to another, of course, but one fairly uniform expectation is that we’re going to be given a tale that encourages us to suspend disbelief; for the running time of the film, we are meant to assume that its action takes place (has taken place; this genre tends to be past-tense, though even that’s not absolute) somewhere in our own real, physical world. That’s why you can make a found footage film in your house without having to worry a whole lot about special sets, etc.. A lot of found footage plays with this, and there are some serious implications that we’ll deal with in later reviews, but that opening card in Megan is Missing causes problems with the whole proposition: in being told that the film is ‘based on actual events’, what we’re also being told, implicitly, is that none of what we’re seeing is real. That might be an obvious point that, unless we’re watching a documentary, doesn’t usually have to be called out explicitly, but it still disrupts that suspension of disbelief that we might have already had all set to go.
Take the ad campaign for an older found footage film, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project; there was a deliberate strategy to leave the ‘reality-factor’ of the film obscure. It was successful, too, as a LOT of people walked into theaters thinking what they were seeing was real. And keep in mind that that was a story about a ghost. You know, a mythical entity. 
But the ‘based on actual events’ card isn’t the only place where on-screen text creates ambiguity problems. The very first shot of the film takes us to a bedroom where two girls are talking and goofing around. After just a few seconds, another title overlay pops up, this time freezing the action, as it announces: “On January 14, 2007, 14 year old Megan Stewart disappeared. Three weeks later, her best friend Amy Herman also vanished.” This is the point at which the film ‘assumes the narrative’, that everything that happens within the film from this point is presumed to be in-world.
But that ‘based on actual events’ disclaimer nags at us; in less than a minute, we’ve been told to take the film as semi-fiction (or some riff on ‘truth’) and then as fact. Where does that leave our suspension of disbelief? Are we meant to see these girls as the victims of this story or as representatives standing in for ‘the real thing’? The second option might seem more reasonable as there are all those moments to come when we’re meant to feel anxiety for what we’re seeing, right in front of us. Megan is Missing contains some disturbing scenes, so is the disclaimer might then be a kind of escape hatch, provided to the viewer as a reminder of the fictionality of the violence they’re being faced with?
But assuming the fictionality of the thing itself as we’re watching it still doesn’t allow us to just assume that all of this is make-believe and everyone is fine. The ‘actual events’ part is a catch, for sure; assuming that the statement is legit–and why would any storyteller ever lie to us?–what we’re seeing might not have happened to these girls, but it all (or some part of it, or some variation on it, or something) happened to some girls somewhere. And, more to the point, it was those real, specific things that happened to those real, specific victims that inspired this film and, thus, even allows it to exist in the first place.
So I could tell you that the opening titlecard is as much a work of fiction as the rest of the film—that there are no ‘actual events’ that inspired anything (other than, perhaps, a collective human fear of each other and ourselves). But what if, like all those confused Blair Witch viewers, you see the film before knowing much about it and you’re then faced by that implication of its proximity to reality, to our own own history as real people in the real world?
Come back in two days for part 2!
 Assuming, of course, that you’re a strict materialist, like I am. If you’re not, though, don’t worry: Blair Witch is still made up.