Being and Knowing the Found Footage Monster in The Curse of Professor Zardonicus (2022)

Thomas Britt

The ontological and epistemological underpinnings of found footage horror movies are often inseparable from popular and critical discussions of the form. An evaluative consideration of classic or conventional fictional films involves the indexicality or artificiality of the filmed people and objects they contain and the promotion of the resulting images in artistic and commercial contexts. By design, found footage horror movies are concerned with more penetrating questions of being and knowing. These contexts for found footage horror narratives join other common dramatic questions or dualisms of the plots, such as whether an evil entity exists or the conflict between material and spiritual realms.

David Bordwell memorably addressed the ontological aspects of found footage horror in his 2012 article “Return to Paranormalcy” by establishing his preferred taxonomy for “pseudo-documentary” films and then identifying the inherent problems of such movies. Filmmakers working within this horror subgenre that blends fictional events with purportedly non-fictional forms can intentionally address these problems, though not all do. Bordwell observes, “The problem of pseudo-documentary is to motivate the fact that someone is filming these dramas…a second problem [is] motivating how the film has been made public.” He adds that another “creative problem” is the question, “Who’s responsible for what we see?” (Bordwell). 

The Horror Genre (2000) writer Paul Wells identified standards for the epistemology of found footage horror shortly following the release of influential films such as Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s The Last Broadcast (1998) and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999). Evaluating The Blair Witch Project‘s enveloping assembly of promotional materials, such as the groundbreaking website for the film and the promotional companion documentary Curse of the Blair Witch (1999), Wells points out that there is no “‘exit’ from the circuit of publicity/authentication for the overall text” (110). Indeed, the seeming veracity of The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project comes mainly from the heavily-mediated historical record that exists both within the films themselves and in the extra-textual documents that constitute their promotional campaigns. These theories and illustrative examples from the history of found footage horror films demonstrate the importance of the contexts that filmmakers provide for presenting fiction as believable actuality. This background process periodically becomes more overt when the need for narrative justification and credibility arises.

The subject of this short essay, Gabriel Theis’s The Curse of Professor Zardonicus (2022), is a film that evolves the conventional mechanics of the found footage form. The film manages this evolution through its efficient approach to storytelling and production and the way Theis and his collaborators promote the ontological and epistemological questions associated with found footage horror to the forefront of the plot. Developed across a few years, with a production that lasted a couple of months, The Curse of Professor Zardonicus is a crowdfunded comedy/found footage horror feature film with a budget of less than $4000 and a crew of three core creatives. The filmmakers, who were then-classmates at the University of Houston (a significant location in the film), consist of writer/director/actor Theis, cinematographer/editor/assistant director/actor Lucio Vasquez, and lead actor/production manager Alec White. All three served as producers and camera operators, among other positions, on the decidedly DIY production.

The filmmakers of The Curse of Professor Zardonicus openly acknowledge the legacy of The Last Broadcast, The Blair Witch Project, and later found footage horror films such as Patrick Brice’s Creep (2014). They credit these three films in public comments as being part of their research for the film, even though none of the filmmakers claims to be particularly enthusiastic about the found footage style. This ambivalence might explain to some degree why The Curse of Professor Zardonicus is simultaneously traceable to these three films, sometimes quite explicitly, and why at other times, the film operates in a wholly new manner, unfettered by the expected conventions of found footage horror.

The film’s plot is relatively straightforward: A university film/communication student, Greg (Theis), must create a video profiling a fellow student for a class assignment. After posting on Facebook about the project, Greg receives a message from Darren (White), whose story about being violently assaulted on campus initially piques Greg’s interest. Their budding, mutually beneficial relationship devolves into a fraught battle between Darren’s obsession with encountering an on-campus monster, the victimized and forsaken Professor Zardonicus, and Greg’s exploitation of his documentary subject’s delusion.

Darren (Alec White) chooses to introduce himself in a second “take,” one of the film’s few jump scares.

The production and promotion of The Curse of Professor Zardonicus did involve some interactive “publicity/authentication” elements, such as the Facebook interaction depicted in the film and White’s in-character vlogs shared on YouTube and posts on Reddit. However, the plot necessitates no widespread awareness of the mythical monster, so Darren’s one- (and then eventually two-) man quest to prove Zardonicus’ existence aligns with the unfussy technological and cinematographic unfolding of the story. Even if the film’s stripped-down approach was as motivated by its low budget as its makers’ creative preferences, the result is a film whose depth of character far exceeds most found footage horror.

Most of The Curse of Professor Zardonicus is shot from the perspective of Greg’s documentary camera, usually (but not in every case) operated by Greg, who occasionally records his own testimonials commenting on the story. Until the epilogue of the film, there are a handful of departures from this dominant style of coverage: two GoPro cameras used in driving sequences, a security/surveillance camera and an onscreen camera used in a police precinct holding cell scene, a brief instance of coverage from a mobile phone camera, a radio station camera, and a second camera operated by Darren, who also determines the camera placement for a more formal interview covered by two cameras. Though the characters occasionally reference the cameras and microphones, there is refreshingly little sense that the filmmakers are trying to acquaint the viewers with the technology responsible for the image, much less impress them with it. In this sense, the film has more in common with Richard Waters’ brilliantly economical In a Stranger’s House (2018) than with more technologically complex recent variations on found footage horrors such as desktop/screen horror or streaming horror premises.

This deemphasis on technology further distinguishes the film from groundbreaking found footage or pseudo-documentary horror films of the past. For example, Lesley Manning’s Ghostwatch (1992) and The Last Broadcast are both burdened at times with explaining and fetishizing the technological mechanisms for the viewer, even as the filmmakers are implicating the media by doing so. Both films encourage the viewer to focus on the constructedness of media representations, which gives them lasting power, despite the overemphasis on technological mechanisms. Both Ghostwatch and The Last Broadcast operate in the manner Neil McRobert observes in “Mimesis of Media: Found Footage Cinema and the Horror of the Real” insofar as they “problematise the construction of truth narratives through a reflexive interrogation of media images” (142). More recent found footage horror films have engaged in explanation/fetishization without achieving the additional layer of reflexivity. This shortcoming is particularly noticeable in Adam Wingard’s sequel Blair Witch (2016), which is so overstuffed with cameras, coverage, and conversation thereof that, as Peter Turner points out, “With the increase in cameras comes a decrease in imagining of camera operators. Because almost every shot in the film is a POV shot, it is more challenging for viewers to keep up with whose POV it is” (115).

The character-driven Curse of Professor Zardonicus absorbs the viewer in the filmmaker-subject dialectic rather than focusing our attention on the machines that create the representations of that interaction. Ironically, though, the substance of their dialogue is publicity and authentication. It is not likely that Theis and his collaborators intended to take up Paul Wells’ framework for the promotional tools that buttress the supposed authenticity of found footage horror. Still, by choosing not to emphasize a transmedial approach too heavily, they shift publicity and authentication to a much more novel place in front of the camera.

Thus, Greg and Darren’s conversations entail philosophizing regarding the nature of truth and how to best capture and communicate that truth to others. At one point, while papering the campus with “Zardonicus” flyers designed by White, Darren criticizes “postmodern cynicism.” He professes his belief that Greg’s camera is “the battering ram” that will break through that cynicism. Darren regrets that the people around him “are inclined to only believe what is directly in front of [their] eyes.” This dialogue expresses Darren’s status as a true believer. However, the film also periodically includes moments when he seems too aware of manufacturing a particular reality for the camera, such as completing multiple “takes” for Greg’s documentary and, perhaps most consequentially, faking a gruesome wound to secure Greg’s participation.

Darren’s flyer spreads awareness about the monster (designed by actor White).

Alec White’s remarkable performance as Darren synthesizes these two modes – the believer and the charlatan – in a way that makes him the central unsettling presence in the film, which is only tangentially about the titular monster. This displacement is another departure or evolution from the conventional found footage tack in which viewers “are encouraged to become participants in the film, searching the frame for monsters withheld from view and attempting to spot the subject that the camera-operating character is trying desperately to film” (Turner 25). While the film’s climactic action involves the possibility that the monster known as Zardonicus might emerge from the darkness, Theis’ choice to focus instead on the highly visible Darren’s aberrance creates a much more compelling, character-driven drama within the found footage form.

This foregrounding of Darren, who in several ways becomes the monster for which he is searching, also affects the film’s visual design, as there are few jump scares because his presence on screen is near-constant. He’s not, for example, repetitively trying to scare Greg like the antagonist of Creep does as he torments his eventual victim-filmmaker. Instead, there is a recurring frame of Darren approaching the camera rather slowly and in close-up, distorting the camera’s focus and unsettling the viewer by his proximity and uncertainty about how he will behave. Theis has commented that, if forced to create a sequel to The Curse of Professor Zardonicus, he would make a psychological horror film. This speculative transition away from found footage would likely work because psychological horror is already embedded in White’s performance and how Theis and Vasquez visualize it.

Darren (Alec White) confronts filmmaker Greg (Gabriel Theis) when challenged about his belief in the monstrous Professor Zardonicus.

Darren’s avowed belief in Professor Zardonicus occasionally ventures into traditional found footage territory, always with a knowing twist by the filmmakers. For example, before they head into the woods to encounter another alleged victim of the monstrous Zardonicus, Greg tells the camera, “Darren has asked me to come out here and meet him in the middle of the woods, which will surely not end in my violent murder.” This sardonic comment is an acknowledgment of a chief convention of found footage horror, which is the inevitable death of the protagonists. Found footage scholars have summarized this tendency in various ways, including “No one is left alive” (Rødje 207), “There is perhaps no other cycle or style of film that so reliably guarantees the death of its protagonists” (Hart 76), and “The last action recorded tends to be the demise of the last cameraperson standing” (Zanini 87). Greg and Darren’s trip to the woods includes an overt reference to The Blair Witch Project, which both punctuates the reference to death in the woods and reveals another layer of Darren’s delusion. When Greg calls The Blair Witch Project “iconic,” Darren responds that he hasn’t heard of it, so the film must not be that good. In this quick exchange, The Curse of Professor Zardonicus credits the influential 1999 film, complicates or contradicts Darren’s philosophy about only believing what one sees, and obliquely references the well-known thought experiment about a tree falling in the forest.

Despite Darren’s instability, the epilogue of The Curse of Professor Zardonicus concedes that his belief might constitute a greater degree of truth than the formerly skeptical Greg acknowledged. Darren has gone missing after dressing up as Professor Zardonicus and appearing before an incapacitated Greg (and the viewer of Greg’s footage). The film’s closing minutes reveal the whole nature of the framing device, which is another documentary class’s project on Greg’s failed film about Darren. This revelation, confirming the existence of another film layer, neatly answers Bordwell’s secondary and tertiary questions about pseudo-documentary.

The content of this “outer” documentary progresses the film’s ontological and epistemological themes. Now a changed man interviewed by a subsequent film student, Greg says, “Darren realized, to make something real, you have to believe. But to get people to believe, it has to be real.” This new documentary includes footage of Greg dressed in Darren’s jacket, putting up flyers on campus in search of Darren, having transformed into a person much like his exploited subject. The horror of The Curse of Professor Zardonicus is ultimately not the monster’s existence but how problems of being and knowing can be passed from one person to another like a curse and how the “battering ram” of the camera enables that exchange.

From a particular perspective, Greg and Darren’s fate is worse than the inevitable death of most found footage protagonists. Theirs is the “eternal deferment” (McRoy 76) of a curse caused by seeking out the monster, becoming it, and passing it on. Greg and Darren realize that whatever breakthrough the authenticating camera is supposed to provide, they lose track of who they are and what they know. The unintended result of the documentary endeavor is to become a digital representation of an unstable human, fodder for other image makers and skeptical audiences.

Works Cited

Avalos, Stefan and Lance Weiler, directors. The Last Broadcast. Wavelength Releasing, 1998.

Bordwell, David. “Return to Paranormalcy.” Observations on Film Art, 13 Nov. 2012.

Brice, Patrick, director. Creep. Blumhouse, 2014.

Hart, Adam Charles. “The Searching Camera: First-Person Shooters, Found-Footage Horror Films, and the Documentary Tradition.” JCMS: Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, vol. 58, no. 4, 2019, pp. 73–91.

Manning, Lesley, director. Ghostwatch. BBC, 1992.

McRobert, Neil. “Mimesis of Media: Found Footage Cinema and the Horror of the Real.” Gothic Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 2015, pp. 137–150.

McRoy, Jay. Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema. Rodopi, 2008.

Myrick, Daniel and Eduardo Sánchez, directors. The Blair Witch Project. Haxan Films, 1999.

Rødje, Kjetil. “Intra-Diegetic Cameras as Cinematic Actor Assemblages in Found Footage Horror Cinema.” Film-Philosophy, vol. 21, no. 2, 2017, pp. 206–222.

Theis, Gabriel, director. The Curse of Professor Zardonicus.  Buffalo 8, 2022.

Turner, Peter. Found Footage Horror Films: A Cognitive Approach. Routledge, 2020.

Waters, Richard, director. In a Stranger’s House. Weird Pretty Pictures, 2018.

Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beezlebub to Blair Witch. Wallflower Press, 2000.

Wingard, Adam, director. Blair Witch. Lionsgate, 2016.

Zanini, Claudio Vescia. “The Subversion of Factual Discourse in Found Footage Films.” Aletria: Revista De Estudos De Literatura, vol. 25, no. 3, 2016, pp. 85–94.

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