The “Found Footage” subgenre is one which has exploded in popularity in recent times. These films present the story as if it were discovered recordings and they are seen through one or more of the characters who are aware and often speak to the camera. This can give the film a natural feeling, which can make it much more believable. It is most often used in horror, as this realism can add to the fear and the footage is often the only remaining witness to events. Here are 10 of the best which used this tool to brilliant effect.
10. The Visit
The Visit is a welcome return to the horror genre for M. Night Shyamalan, who managed to offer a fresh twist on the found footage subgenre with this 2015 film. The film follows two teenagers who are sent on a five-day visit to meet their maternal grandparents, whom their mother has not spoken to for 15 years. As they have never met, they decide to document the visit. The grandparents are incredibly creepy and behave very strangely and it is a refreshing move away from creepy kids which has been done to death in horror, and this also allows for some humor throughout the film too. There is, of course, a twist at the end which some will predict earlier in the movie, but overall it is fun, creepy and a great reminder why M. Night Shyamalan was once such a highly acclaimed director.
9. The Sacrament
The Sacrament borrows its plot very heavily from the real life Jonestown Massacre of 1978, making it a troubling watch which is furthered through the realism of portraying it as a found footage film. Directed by Ti West, it follows two journalists (A.J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg) who document their co-worker’s attempt to find his sister, who has joined a religious commune. Although things initially seem okay at the reclusive commune, they soon discover that not all is as it seems and the Father is not as kind as he makes out to be. The slow pace (and ominous score) creates an almost unbearable atmosphere as more is discovered about this commune, and it is another of Ti West’s excellent contributions to the horror genre and helped to establish himself as one of the top directors in the genre.
8. The Last Exorcism
It is not often that horror films gain much recognition or popularity outside of the genre, but Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism did just this, which is a testament to how chilling this film is. Whilst it does not reach the heights of some of the films on this list, it is a thrilling watch which is powered by the found footage technique. The film follows a disillusioned minister who agrees to participate in a documentary that chronicles his last fake exorcism. This is on a farmer’s young daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell), who has been slaughtering his livestock which leads him to believe that she is possessed. The performance by Bell is excellent and really adds to the horror of the film, which leads toward a chilling conclusion. Although The Last Exorcism is worth checking out, the sequel is best avoided.
Although the found footage subgenre is largely dominated by paranormal films, it is also perfect for monster movies. The most obvious example of this, and one which could have made this list, is Cloverfield, but instead we have opted for something a bit different in the Norwegian film Trollhunter. It is an adaptation of a traditional Scandinavian folklore, and sees a group of university students set out to make a documentary about what they suspect is a bear poacher. They follow him into the woods, only to discover that he is a troll hunter. There is both humor and incredible tension throughout, and some of the special effects are also excellent. The cast is comprised of unknown actors and some well-known Norwegian comedians, and is more of a dark fantasy than a horror which makes it a particularly unique film in the subgenre.
6. The Curse
Japan is certainly a country that knows how to make utterly terrifying and deeply disturbing horror films, so everybody was eagerly anticipating Japan’s take on the found footage subgenre that was exploding to life in the 2000s. The greatest result is Koji Shiraishi’s 2005 The Curse (or Noroi), which follows a paranormal expert who disappears whilst making a documentary called, you guessed it, The Curse. What follows is a long and complex narrative with over 25 characters (this is particularly rare in horror and Japanese horror). Whilst this complexity deterred some, others found it a breath of fresh air and praised the narrative. As expected, it is incredibly troubling, dark and frightening throughout, and a must-watch for fans of the subgenre or Japanese horror. Shiraishi clearly likes the subgenre, as he went on to direct another four found footage films.
A film that took a unique approach to the found footage technique, 2012’s V/H/S is an anthology horror that features five different found footage shorts (written and directed by Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid and Joe Swanberg). The shorts are framed by a narrative which serves as its own horror, and this is where a criminal gang break into a house to steal a videotape. In the house, they find a dead man sat in front of the television. The tape in the machine shows the subsequent shorts, with the action cutting back to this narrative after each short. This makes it a bold and experimental entry in the subgenre, but it is also packed with plenty of scares and in the end produces a chilling and cohesive narrative. The success of the film spawned two sequels, but this is the must-see of the bunch.
4. Cannibal Holocaust
The film that started it all, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust is an important film in terms of introducing the found footage technique, and it also remains one of the best films in the subgenre but also one that is also a difficult watch. Directed by Ruggero Deodato, the film shows the story of a documentary crew that went missing after visiting the Amazon to film a tribe of cannibals. The film caused an uproar with its depiction of violence, animal killings and sexual assault, and it has consequently been banned in many countries around the world (and still is in some). The film was so shockingly real that Deodato was even arrested and charged with making a snuff film, but he was cleared after proving that the deaths were fake. Whilst it is a challenging watch and not for the feint of heart, its importance cannot be denied.
A fantastic Spanish zombie horror film, and one of the best horror films in the last 10 years, REC brilliantly utilized the found footage technique to create a very tense, gripping and scary movie. The film follows a news crew who are covering a night shift in a Barcelona fire station, and they are called to a building to help an elderly woman who is screaming and trapped in her apartment. However, things take a serious turn for the worse when they discover that a virus similar to rabies has turned the residents into violent killers with a zombie-like appearance. The police and military seal off the building, helping to create a manic and claustrophobic atmosphere which only makes it more terrifying. The success of the film spawned three sequels, and the film was remade in the US in 2008 as Quarantine (also worth watching but not as effective).
2. Paranormal Activity
Whilst Paranormal Activity is not the first found footage film, or even the one to popularize the format, it is the one which rejuvenated the subgenre and inspired an influx of similar films in recent times. Sadly, this has not necessarily been a good thing as many of these are terrible and give the subgenre a bad rep. There is good reason why so many found footage films were made following Paranormal Activity, however, and this is because it is incredibly tense and therefore provides for some very frightening moments. The plot follows a young couple who are haunted in their home, and this sees them set up cameras around the house to document what is haunting them. This moved away from the hand-held technique and the need for a camera crew, allowing the viewer to become more invested in the story and characters.
1. The Blair Witch Project
Whilst Cannibal Holocaust introduced found footage and Paranormal Activity rejuvenated it, it is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project which popularized it, and it remains the greatest film in the subgenre. It follows three student filmmakers who decide to make a documentary on a local legend known as the Blair Witch, and after interviewing locals they set off into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland. They are never seen again, but the footage they shot is discovered a year later and this is the film that we see. It is tense, creepy and there is a combination of slow-building fear along with a few jump scares to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout, and it also features an incredibly chilling climax. It may be parodied heavily, but it is also one of the great modern horror films.