Ever since The Blair Witch Project burst out of the shadows and onto cinema screens in 1999, terrifying an audience growing weary of the same old slasher horror film, the found footage genre has experienced a love-hate relationship with critics and the cinema going public. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s spooky story certainly wasn’t the first of its kind; the now infamous Cannibal Holocaust caused all manner of good and bad publicity as far back as 1980 that even led to the arrest of its director Ruggero Deodato for the apparent murder of his cast. But The Blair Witch Project was without doubt the film that caught the public’s imagination more than any of its predecessors. Whether through the now legendary viral marketing attached to it, or through word of mouth from scared audiences, this film defines a certain style of filmmaking more than any other.
Now, some 17 years later, you can’t throw an extortionately priced tub of salty popcorn at a cinema screen without hitting a found footage film of one form or another. Since Blair Witch demonstrated what could be done on a shoestring budget (approximately $60k) – and the returns that could be generated for perennially hungry studios ($240million) – there have been hundreds of found footage films produced. The majority are met with the same weary sigh reserved for door-to-door salesman, and sadly in most cases the film itself does little to alleviate those initial fears.
Whether through preposterous plotting, distinctly oaky acting, over-reliance on tiresome jump-scares or just being downright terrible, there is an ever-increasing list of found footage releases disappointing those still persevering with the genre. But there are some films out there worthy of your valuable viewing time, and ones that may just pique your wavering attention. As a format on which young or enthusiastic filmmakers can prove themselves it is without equal, and as with every genre or style, there are great films hidden amongst the dross.
Assembled below is a list of ten of the best found footage films that may have passed you by. Whether down to their originality (something increasingly rare in the genre), through interesting or brave filmmaking techniques, or due to the fact that they are simply downright scary, these are films you should take the time to seek out.
And remember, nothing is actually real…is it?
10. The Conspiracy
There are moments in The Conspiracy when you may actually wonder if what you’re seeing could in fact be true. Such is the intricacy of the central plotline and so convincing is the evidence you’re presented with that after watching – or perhaps even during – you will find yourself drawn to your smart phone of choice, with your thumb hovering over the Google app. And that in itself justifies the inclusion of Christopher MacBride’s film in this list.
Following two documentary filmmakers as they stumble upon a conspiracy relating to a secret society and a new world order, the film cleverly blurs the lines between fact and fiction by presenting just enough real world paranoia to create an engaging and intriguing story.
So successfully crafted and balanced is the tension that when the film makes something of a leap into more traditional found footage territory in the final act you have go with it, as the filmmakers begin to doubt whether what they’ve discovered is actually an elaborate trap. A little formulaic ultimately in its conclusions, The Conspiracy still stands out as one of the better faux documentaries you will find.
9. The Bay
A director better known for major productions such as Rain Man and Good Morning Vietnam, it is perhaps a surprise that in 2012 Barry Levinson dipped his heavyweight Hollywood toe into the potentially murky and brackish waters of the found footage genre. And yet with The Bay, the respected director managed to utilise his technique and experience to deliver a film with genuine horror credentials.
As a bluntly delivered eco-message for the social media generation, The Bay could have been – and actually is in places – irritatingly preachy but it manages to walk a fine tightrope over deep melodramatic waters successfully. When a small town becomes the epicentre of an ecological disaster that destroys all the sea-life and begins to infect and kill the locals, the only footage that is recovered is from video cameras, mobile phones and CCTV. Pieced together as an investigative documentary, The Bay flirts with being an outright horror film before remembering the true message in its heart.
Interesting as much for its original central premise as for exploring a fear of unknown disease that many of us harbour, The Bay is a film that slipped past most audiences but is one that is worth seeking out. Just don’t watch before, during or after a meal.
8. Europa Report
Facing some of the easiest criticisms of the found footage genre head on, Europa Report justifies the use of cameras by simply making their use a standard operating feature. When a privately funded mission to search for life on one of Jupiter’s moons blasts off, it is perfectly reasonable to understand and accept that the entire trip would be recorded and catalogued in detail. Subsequently cutting the film as a documentary / investigation into the disaster that befalls the mission also justifies the editing, and makes Europa Report an interesting and at times genuinely suspenseful film.
With an impressively assembled cast for a found footage film – that includes Sharlto Copley and Michael Nyqvist – and sharp, clear camera work, this is a film that cleverly nods towards other space dramas such as Apollo 13, while avoiding any unfavourable comparisons to fellow genre disaster flick Apollo 18. Many of the familiar motifs that define a space based film are here but they never become weary in their inclusion, and give the film a credibility often lacking in the genre.
More disaster movie than true horror, Europa Report is an example of how the found footage style can be used to create an uncomfortable atmosphere of grim portent and foreboding.
Although not strictly a found footage film in the truest sense, Olatunde Osunsanmi’s film cleverly utilises the format to advance and develop its plot.
Investigating a bloodbath at a remote filling station, Radha Mitchell and Stephen Moyer’s detectives are desperately trying to piece together the chain of events using recovered mobile phone and CCTV footage from the site. An interesting premise, this gives the film a really satisfying whodunit feel as the viewer only discovers the details of the convoluted plot as the two detectives do.
What really sets Evidence apart is the way Osunsanmi makes the found footage element interesting. In combining the two styles so effectively the director has brought a genuine sense of intrigue and tension to a format so often labelled bland due to its pigeon-holed laziness. The way the story unfolds is a credit to the patience with which Osunsanmi approaches his subject, but also in the conviction of his cast who inhabit their roles entirely, while never straying into scenery-chewing over-acting. As a result, when the final twist comes it is as refreshing as it is surprising.
6. Willow Creek
There is one scene in Bobcat Goldthwait’s Bigfoot thriller Willow Creek that will make you wonder how it’s possible you’ve held your breath for so long. For much of the running time very little actually happens. The bulk of the story follows a young couple on a “romantic” holiday, while at the same time carrying out their own amateur investigation into the great American legend. They chat to locals, visit locations from famous sightings, and generally wander around with little real conviction as to their goal.
And then there’s that scene…
As the couple settle down in their tent, close to a rumoured Bigfoot hotspot, they hear something rustling around outside in the woods. What follows is an unbroken, uncut and unedited scene that lasts nearly 20 minutes, and is an example in generating tension and fear. Bewitching in its terror, and simple in its premise, it alone is a scene worth watching Willow Creek for, and is as brave a filmmaking decision as you will ever see.
Sadly, it may remain the one thing you’ll remember with any real positivity from Goldthwait’s film, but given some of the ropey Sasquatch suits in later scenes that wouldn’t look out of place at a poorly supported fancy dress party, is a triumph in itself.
5. The Sacrament
Here is a film that knows it’s a found footage film. From Ti West, and under the banner of being an Eli Roth production (something that will either cause great interest or an involuntary rolling of the eyes depending upon your point of view), The Sacrament makes little effort to hide its studio production values.
Well edited and with an effectively foreboding soundtrack, West’s film follows a documentary film crew into a South American jungle to investigate what they suspect is a religious cult. Unfolding slowly, and through clever writing that initially gives little away, The Sacrament builds towards a final act that is brutally shocking.
Ignoring any need to convince an audience of its authenticity the Sacrament embraces it’s found footage status, and this allows West to focus solely on delivering a good film, something he does with style and skill. Not a film that will initially scare you, although there are many unsettling scenes, The Sacrament lingers like an unwanted guest, and will remain in your consciousness for some time after watching.
With Afflicted, filmmakers Derek Lee and Cliff Prowse have pulled off something hugely impressive: they have managed to almost redefine found footage through an energy and a gritty reality too often missing in the genre.
Two friends embark on the adventure of a lifetime but when one of them appears struck by a mystery illness, they try and discover the source. Afflicted successfully interprets accepted vampiric lore through a modern telling that firmly grounds the film in reality. Never do you feel that the film steps over the line into pure fantasy despite the subject matter and as the story develops becomes genuinely tense and scary as the directors draw you deeper and deeper into the mystery.
Like the much more renowned Chronicle, Afflicted demonstrates what can be done with the found footage format. It proves there is still a depth of originality to draw from, and for filmmakers with skill and style, can be both interesting and terrifying.
It’s possible you will have seen Quarantine, the substandard westernised remake of Spanish horror REC, but if you haven’t seen the terrifying original, then you really should. The two films share a similar sense of fear through entrapment, but it is in the rawness of its terror that REC stands apart.
Local television reporters are following a fire crew one evening when they are called to investigate some strange reports from a block of flats. When it looks like a contagion of some description is loose in the building, a quarantine is effected and the unfortunate crew are stuck inside with the terrified and potentially dangerous residents.
The real success of REC is in the way it disarms the viewer. For most of the running time this is a film preoccupied with infected humans as the “disease” quickly spreads through the inhabitants of the building. Cleverly disguised jump scares and panic-stricken escapes are soundtracked by terrified screaming that becomes a trial in itself. The final scenes, however, are so nerve-shatteringly tense as to leave you shivering and fingernail-less, as the real source of the infection becomes apparent, and any sense of hope dissipates. One to watch in the dark, but keep a cushion close at hand.
While it’s very likely you will have heard of Troll Hunter, its equally likely you’ve never clicked play when this dark Norwegian fairy-tale has skimmed across your streaming platform. With a remake reportedly on the way from horror maestro Neil Marshall, now is the perfect time to catch up.
While struggling to make a documentary about a killer bear 3 student filmmakers stumble onto the trail of something much more interesting: a trollhunter. Lucky for them this particular, and possibly unique trollhunter is growing disillusioned with his job – well, you would, wouldn’t you? – and he is more than happy to take the trio along with him as he investigates why so many trolls are leaving their designated habitat. Trolls are real, you see, and any that wander, and as such become a danger to the public must be dealt with.
As preposterous as the premise sounds, Trollhunter is a film that keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek, but at the same time treats the rock-chomping goat-botherers as real creatures while never tipping over into total fantasy. There is a gritty reality to the life of a trollhunter that keeps the film grounded, but it is also genuinely scary in places and never struggles with some of the more obvious found footage issues such as camera justification or wooden acting. What remains is an entirely believable monster movie that you’ll find yourself believing could actually be true.
You may never look at electricity pylons the same way again.
1. The Borderlands
The Borderlands is a rare cinematic thing; a film that arrives with little fanfare or ceremony, and yet goes on to scare the bejesus out of you! From steady, slow, and at times comedic beginnings, Elliot Goldner’s film draws you into a religious mystery that is as frightening as it is surprising.
Tasked with debunking mysterious happenings around the world, two Vatican investigators find themselves in a remote area of the United Kingdom where the local population, both natural and supernatural are less than welcoming. Nerves strained, and with their faith constantly being questioned, the investigators dig further into the mystery as the film builds towards a finale you will not have seen coming.
Also known as Final Prayer – a considerably worse title – The Borderlands creeps up on you, testing your resolve with simple but effective frights before descending into manic malevolence in a final act that will leave you trembling and breathless. As a found footage film it is one of the best examples you could see; as a horror film in the wider context, it will scare you more than the usual multiplex fodder you will encounter.
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