One of the most popular emergent sub-genres in recent times has been the found footage horror film. The premise, for those unfamiliar with it, is to stage a supposedly real event, shot on a camcorder, a camera phone or other bit of consumer-level technology. Essentially, it commits to the whole “based on a true story” brand of horror, but with even less need for a strong basis in fact.
If it’s done well enough, it plants the seeds of doubt in the minds of a cynical and media-savvy audience; could we be watching a document of real events, rather than another horror film? The hit rate is variable, but found footage horror qualifies as a distinctly modern sub-genre.
This is partly because of the level of technology available to consumers nowadays, but also because of the mentality it has given us. If there were ghosts in your house, or zombies in your apartment building, you’d be sure to film it and post it on YouTube before you called for help through traditional channels.
Found footage films are as popular as ever, and this month alone, we have Troll Hunter which, under the guise of a student film about bear-poaching, exposes the existence of mythical creatures in Norway. And then there’s Apollo 18, which purports to be a classified document of the Moon landing that NASA never wanted us to find out about.
In the meantime, let’s look back at ten of the best found-footage movies to date…Cannibal Holocaust
Let’s start with one of a few films on the list which, rather than being solely composed of “found footage”, focuses on footage found by characters within a fictional narrative. It also makes sense to start with Cannibal Holocaust, because it is quite possibly the first ever horror mockumentary.
When a documentary film crew goes missing in the Amazon rainforest, a second team, led by anthropologist Harold Monroe, sets off to try to rescue them. The crew were documenting two cannibalistic tribes, but all Monroe’s team can find of them is their footage, which reveals the shocking truth.
Cannibal Holocaust isn’t one of those films that crops up in polite conversation, and it was banned in several countries upon release. Although initially condemned for the possibility that it was a snuff film, director Ruggero Deodato was able to prove, while in court on charges of obscenity, that he didn’t really kill any of the actors.
However, the film still bears a lot of controversy for its prolific animal cruelty. Although the actors survived, the actual killing of animals in the film’s production has rightly been condemned, and Deodato has since expressed remorse for his actions. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, but historically speaking, it’s a milestone in found-footage.
The Blair Witch Project
This was arguably the moment in which the genre took its current form, and the prodigious success of the film was fuelled by its ambiguity, keeping viewers in suspense for months on end. Of course, it’s unfortunate that it obscured The Last Broadcast, a film which preceded this one and had a similar format, with a group of journalists investigating the Jersey Devil.
The Blair Witch Project, on the other hand, follows a group of student filmmakers as they roam the Black Hills in Maryland, making a documentary about the urban legend of the Blair Witch. Unfazed by the prospect of camping on the sites of ritual sacrifices, the three students are shaken and stirred when they’re terrorised by a malevolent force.
This was one of the first films to really use the Internet in its marketing campaign, which was one of the contributing factors to its enormous box office success. Acquired at Sundance, the film’s distributor, Artisan, pushed the angle that the film was recovered footage of real events in its marketing. The strong word-of-mouth this created only intensified once the film was actually released.
Crucially, it’s one of those found-footage films that retains its shock value, regardless of whether or not you believe in the film’s veracity. It’s a film about an urban legend that has since cultivated its own urban legends, with leading lady Heather Donahue seemingly the modern equivalent of The Exorcist‘s Linda “I heard her mother was struck by lightning” Blair.
Irrespective of its format, it’s also notable as a horror film that subverts the usual gender inequalities of horror films, as in Donahue’s realistic and unglamorous portrayal of a woman pushed to the end of her tether. The sequel, Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was rushed into cinemas a year later, but you’ll forgive me for omitting it from this list.
It makes sense to talk about these together, because if you watch these two films back-to-back, each is short enough that the double bill equates to one long film, running for 150 minutes. That’s the beauty of REC 2 as a follow-up, but we shall get to that. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza made REC first, after all.
Ángela Vidal is a Spanish television presenter who hosts the documentary series, While You’re Asleep. She’s filming a fire station’s comings and goings during a night shift when they’re called out to an apartment building. Upon arrival, the building is locked down and placed under quarantine. Ángela and her cameraman, along with the firefighters and terrified residents, are trapped with a whole bunch of former people, now transformed into aggressive and infectious monsters.
While the first film accrues a thematic debt to the Romero zombie canon, and the sequel touches upon The Exorcist and John Carpenter’s The Thing, Balagueró and Plaza never rely upon the found-footage format as a crutch to try and cloy the audience into believing what they’re seeing. The horror is compelling enough on its own, and the format is just an interesting storytelling device.
It’s wise to avoid spoilers about both films for the benefit of those who haven’t seen them yet, as the second picks up moments after the ending of the first film, and goes on to expand the fledgling mythology to brilliant effect. The series will conclude with a prequel, REC Genesis, directed by Plaza, and a finale, REC Apocalypse, directed by Balagueró.Paranormal Activity
This one invites comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, at least in the way it was marketed. Writer-director Oren Peli produced this film independently and released it online in 2007, but it was picked up by Paramount Pictures and marketed to the multiplex crowd, for a Halloween 2009 release. It supplanted Blair Witch as the most profitable movie ever made, and even spawned two studio-produced sequels, the second of which is due to be released next month.
A ghost has supposedly been haunting Katie Featherston, wherever she goes, since childhood. Her boyfriend, Micah, is sceptical, and sets up a camcorder to record their bedroom as they sleep. Over three weeks, we see the couple’s gradual realisation that this presence is more demonic than ghostly, as they witness its nocturnal tomfoolery. Heavy footsteps are heard, doors slam, and most effectively, Katie starts behaving strangely, too.
Paranormal Activity terrifies some viewers to the point where they can’t sleep after watching it. There are others who don’t buy into it, but can still enjoy it as a ghost train ride of a movie, with jumpy moments that don’t linger in the memory. It’s deliberately slow-paced, in a way that could equally unnerve or bore viewers – it can go either way. But I don’t think there can be much argument that making the sequel 200 times more expensive than the original added much to the horror value, especially as the best characters in Paranormal Activity 2 are the dog, the baby and the pool-cleaning robot.Diary Of The Dead
Intended to take place in the same timeframe as Night Of The Living Dead, George A Romero “re-jigged” his ongoing zombie mythology with Diary Of The Dead. Contrary to the other films in the series, it takes place in a documentary format, which frames Romero’s usual social commentary.
It’s a Blair Witch style set-up in the beginning, with a group of film students making a movie in the woods. When they hear shocking but perhaps inevitable news over the radio, they abandon their mummy movie and decide to document the historical happenings of the zombie apocalypse in progress.
The format may be different, but Romero is still criticising society through the medium of the walking dead, and this time, he’s critical of our reliance on media for information, and to some extent, news coverage of catastrophic events. For once, it feels more political than actually scary, to the film’s detriment. But on the bright side, it does have a deaf Amish bloke called Samuel. He kicks ass.
Another of the really big, well-known found footage movies, Cloverfield provides a spin on monster movies for the YouTube generation. The film chronicles chaos in New York from the ground, as a huge alien monster, and its smaller hangers-on, lay waste to the city. The camera belongs to Rob, and he and his friends trek across the city to try and rescue the love of his life, Beth, from her apartment.
This one has weathered a backlash since its release, because it was another of those films that was hugely successful in the way it was marketed. A teaser trailer appeared before Transformers, showing one of the film’s early scenes, in which the Statue of Liberty’s head came crashing down a New York street, and the release date of January 18th 2008.
After the kick-ass trailer spawned months of online speculation, audiences could be forgiven for feeling that the sporadic glimpses of the movie’s monster let them down. But the real strength of Cloverfield is its faith in its characters, sticking to the found footage format, regardless of the extraordinary endurance of Rob’s camcorder. Rumours of a sequel abound, but as the first film told just one story in amongst the chaos, a Cloverfield 2 might be quite welcome.Exit Through The Gift Shop
This is technically the black sheep of this list, which would be a status in keeping with the weird and tongue-in-cheek feel of the film. Had the film’s events panned out differently, it might have been closer to a documentary, but I personally feel it fits quite comfortably into the found footage genre.Exit Through The Gift Shop is the Banksy movie, basically, but it starts with filmmaker Thierry Guetta. His hobby is based around recording his everyday life, and he decides to make a documentary about the emergent street-art movement, which piques Banksy’s interest.
The film is quite recent, so for reasons that I won’t spoil, there comes a point in the film where the ten thousand hours of footage created by Thierry is handed over to Banksy, to be arranged in some kind of coherent order. In a twist worthy of the best horror films, the documentarian becomes the documented, and Exit Through The Gift Shop actually turns out to be more intellectually troubling than the vast majority of films that pass for horror nowadays.
The Last Exorcism
The Last Exorcism was one of the great underrated horror films of last year, in my opinion, and it shows just how much can be done with the found footage sub-genre, in terms of moulding a traditional film structure into it. It also boasts great performances and an ambiguity that holds up all the way through.
Patrick Fabian plays Reverend Cotton Marcus, an evangelistic exorcist who comes to a crisis of faith and decides to expose the charlatan nature of the exorcism trade to a documentary crew, whom he brings along on his final job. However, when confronted with troubled farm girl Nell Sweetzer, he can’t be sure that demonic possession isn’t real after all.
It’s not a perfect film, and the intrusion of a score might occasionally undermine the found footage aspect, but it’s a hell of a good horror movie. Much has been said about how the twist ending ruins the whole film, but frankly, the reason this isn’t the standard instead of the high watermark, is because when we finally get a film this well thought-out, acted and written, the audience bitches about it anyway.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes
Produced at around the same time as Paranormal Activity, The Poughkeepsie Tapes didn’t meet with anything close to the ecstatic reception that Peli’s film received. The film is extremely hard to find on DVD, and was, at one point, only available on YouTube, before it was taken down for copyright violation. Nevertheless, it’s a real gem.
The titular VHS tapes are discovered in an abandoned house, formerly the home of the infamous Water Street Butcher, who is still at large. The tapes hold hundreds of hours of footage, shot by the killer, and showing the horrible treatment his victims endured. The film takes the form of a documentary, with talking heads interviews with FBI agents, cops and psychologists who are trying to catch the Butcher.
I eventually had to turn on the lights just to finish watching The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and I can safely say it’s one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. Even in the knowledge that it’s not based on real events, it’s relentlessly frightening. The jump-scares arrive pretty constantly, due to the blaring white noise between shaky VHS clips, but these are only to keep the audience looking lively.
The true horror value of the film is in the character and the scenario that the film creates, which is equally fascinating and disgusting. It’s spine-chilling stuff that’s worth a look if you can seek it out. MGM hold the rights to the film, which has yet to see a wide theatrical release, so hopefully it will get more of a chance now that the studio has shaken off its recent financial problems.
It’s also disappointing that director John Erick Dowdle hasn’t gone onto better things. Instead, he directed M Night Shyamalan’s Devil, as well as Quarantine, the uninspired English language remake of REC.
Is found footage just a gimmick? Or are you more scared by this type of film than by traditionally shot, fourth-walled horrors? Are there any notable omissions from the list? Discuss all of these questions, and more, in the comments!