Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re here to stay. As long as they keep making money, so-called “found footage” films will continue to be produced, and really, who could blame those behind them? These movies are, generally speaking, cheap, quick to make, don’t necessarily require big stars, and have been, for the most part, reliably successful. Indeed, two of the most profitable films ever made (depending on how you calculate) are found footage movies. Considering the explosion of such films in the last few years, it’s worth delving into the reasons behind the trend and where it may be going. But first, what exactly constitutes a “Found Footage” (hereafter abbreviated as FF) movie?
At their most basic level, FF films are, as the name suggests, films in which some or even all of the proceedings are presented as having been discovered, usually after the presumed death or disappearance of the filmmakers. They are all, by definition, fictional, try as some might to convince the viewer otherwise (as we’ll see, some of the earlier examples of FF have intentionally tried to trick viewers into thinking the footage was genuine and real). In contrast to mockumentaries, however, FF movies are often presented as roughly assembled, usually without the initial intention of the final product being an official documentary at all.
This often leads to the inevitable question: Who edited the footage? The issue is usually ignored, which brings us to several widespread criticisms of FF movies. Viewers have often wondered why the filmmakers continue shooting when things start going awry, with justifications frequently straining believability. Many of the films often end similarly, with the camera either falling down or being destroyed in some horrific manner. Because of their ominous nature, most (but not all) FF movies are also horror films. Yet calling FF a subgenre of horror would not really be accurate. FF is more of a style, much as animation is more of a style than a genre (after all, films like Fritz the Cat and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut have little in common with Disney films).
The following will be a ranking, not necessarily of the best FF movies, but of which films were most inventive and used the style most effectively. Of course, by this criterion, those films made earlier have the natural edge. Readers only familiar with FF movies released within the last five years or so may be surprised to see that the style actually goes back decades, with some even arguing that the very concept can be traced all the way back to the pre-cinema days of Edgar Allan Poe.
The technique can never, in fairness, be dismissively labeled “good” or “bad.” It’s almost always its execution and how it’s used to tell the story that leaves a lasting impact on the audience. By examining the history of such films, we can easily see the influence these works had on one another, and can thus observe certain trends and perhaps even speculate about the future of FF cinema.
15. Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008)
An American remake of the Spanish horror film [Rec], Quarantine’s premise is simple: a television reporter and her cameraman are doing a routine story on the night shift at a firehouse, when there’s an emergency call from an apartment building. Following the firefighters, the small TV crew finds itself trapped in the complex, whose residents are being ravaged by a zombie-like virus.
The film is so similar and faithful to its predecessor that it’s worth noting the differences. Quarantine features better lighting, a recognizable star (Jennifer Carpenter, of Dexter fame) in the lead role, and is, overall, more slick looking and cinematic than its Spanish counterpart. That said, there are some added scenes that don’t really work, such as one in which the camera itself is used as a weapon, resulting in fake-looking CGI blood appearing on the lens. The explanation for the cause of the outbreak is also quite different.
The biggest criticism can be leveled not at the film itself, but at those who marketed it – that the FINAL SHOT of the movie is used both in the trailer and as the official poster is inexcusable. It’s by no means a bad movie, but after seeing the Spanish original (more on that later), it’ll be clear to most that the motivations behind the production of this remake were more financial than artistic. Quarantine could be said to represent the inherent problem of American remakes in general, especially when it comes to horror movies.
The greatest horror remakes – the ones almost universally considered better than the originals (The Fly, The Blob, and The Thing all readily come to mind) – haven’t been boring retreads, but films that fully re-imagined and changed the original material in ways that challenged and captivated new generations of moviegoers. Here, the influences of both greed and sheer laziness are all too apparent. Objectively speaking, however, as a standalone movie, this one works just fine.
14. End of Watch (David Ayer, 2012)
While not strictly a FF movie, End of Watch is nevertheless a gripping and intense crime drama centering on the day-to-day lives of two LAPD officers, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Gyllenhaal’s character states in the beginning that he’s taking a filmmaking class on the side, explaining his use of a handheld camera throughout the film. Writer and director David Ayer (Training Day, Dark Blue) doesn’t limit himself to the one camera though, and while the film as a whole does maintain a gritty and realistic tone, its obvious use of multiple conventional cameras and a storyline that spans months rather than hours or days differentiates End of Watch from most FF films.
It’s a great example of how the style can be used outside of the horror genre, although the film likely could have been shot traditionally without losing much. Still, the heavy use of improvisation by Gyllenhaal and Peña (both of whom spent five months doing 12-hour ride-alongs with real LAPD as part of their preparation) is definitely a hallmark of FF, and the film benefits greatly from the ease with which the two communicate and relate to one another.
13. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)
A fine illustration of how a horror remake can succeed on its own terms (though few would argue it surpasses George A. Romero’s 1978 landmark zombie film), Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is NOT a FF film. Its final few minutes, however, do make use of the concept, and it’s quite possibly the creepiest part of the whole movie. Intercut with the end credits, grainy clips from a camcorder hint at the fate of the surviving characters.
The soundtrack goes silent, and the previously fun horror atmosphere quickly slips into unsettling mode. By the time the end credits resume along with Disturbed’s appropriately extreme rendition of “Down with the Sickness,” it’s like we’ve been treated to an effective little short film as a bonus to the crowd-pleasing main feature.
12. Noroi: The Curse (Kôji Shiraishi, 2005)
This horror film from Japan is unusually complex for a FF film. It tells the story of Masafumi Kobayashi, a paranormal expert who we are told disappeared shortly after finishing his most disturbing documentary, “The Curse.” Solemn and ominous narration bookends the documentary itself, which makes up the bulk of the nearly two-hour running time. Presented to us as a series of interviews conducted by Kobayashi and clips from psychic-themed live TV shows, the segments at first seem to have little to do with one another, but slowly reveal a complicated supernatural mystery that unfolds like a spooky detective story.
It’s a film that favors suspense and power of suggestion over gore and violence, which seems to be the right stylistic choice, especially considering one shocking revelation at the end that becomes all the more horrifying in its implied rather than explicit nastiness. Noroi: The Curse definitely borrows from other films, though the one scene that will no doubt bring Paranormal Activity to mind is pardonable, as this film was made first. More creepy than scary, it’s filled with enough unsettling imagery and supported by a subdued but effective enough score to satisfy any horror aficionado. The FF element is justified by the story – a point that’s driven home exceptionally well in the final scene – making the film stand as a provocative example of J-Horror that deserves to be more widely known.
11. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Here we have another example of a film that makes occasional use of the FF concept, but largely abandons it when it becomes more trouble than it’s worth as the action intensifies. This sci-fi adventure is set in an alternate 1982 in which aliens arriving in Johannesburg, South Africa find themselves stuck there, and are soon relegated to government camps or “districts.” Starring Sharlto Copley as an unlikable bureaucrat turned sympathetic fugitive, the film is a thinly veiled metaphor for apartheid that’s both incisive and entertaining. Blomkamp starts telling the story as a faux-documentary being made by Copley’s character, lending the film an air of verisimilitude.
The seamlessness with which the striking special effects are integrated only adds to the realism. Though the style is soon discarded, its use is hardly random or gimmicky. Most relevantly, the footage in the trailer showing everyday South Africans ostensibly being interviewed about the aliens is real, only these non-actors are actually talking about Nigerian and Zimbabwean refugees. This blurring between reality and fantasy underscores the serious allegorical point the film is trying to make – a fact that, combined with the Academy’s recent expansion of the category, made District 9 an unlikely but deserving beneficiary of a nomination for Best Picture.
10. Trollhunter (André Øvredal, 2010)
Undeniably the best Norwegian troll-hunting movie ever made, this foreign import is a compelling travelogue about a group of students who set out to make a documentary about a bear poacher, only to soon discover that bears are the least of their worries. Combining the FF concept with Norwegian folklore and some pretty impressive special effects, this is the filmmaking style at its most inoffensive and amusing (the way care is taken to approach troll biology as logically as possible is a particular highlight).
It’s not a flawless film by any measure, and the abrupt ending certainly leaves something to be desired, but the film doesn’t take itself too seriously and is surprisingly well-done overall. Let’s just hope the genuine Norwegian flavor doesn’t get lost in the inevitable subtitle-less American remake (the film was, of course, shot in the region of the world from which troll legends originated in the first place).
9. V/H/S (various directors, 2012)
Ah, the anthology film. Like earlier releases, such as Creepshow and Twilight Zone: The Movie, V/H/S is a collection of self-contained short films, each with its own director. The gimmick here is that the films themselves are literally found footage, the framing device being that a group of young criminals has broken into a house and found the films on (of course) VHS tapes, which they then proceed to watch in order to find the one tape they were anonymously hired to steal.
The shorts vary wildly in quality, though all are at least a little creepy. The directors make sure to pack the film with plenty of sex, nudity, and gore, at times sidelining things like story and likable protagonists. One of the standout segments is David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night,” about a group of dudes looking to get laid who end up getting more than they bargained for (always watch out for the quiet ones). The whole thing is filmed from a camera hidden in one of the guy’s glasses, a clever idea that easily solves the whole, “Why are you still filming this?” issue.
The film’s sequel, released only a year later, is arguably the better movie as a whole, specifically thanks to the fun zombie-themed “A Ride in the Park” and the absolutely insane Indonesian contribution, “Safe Haven.” A third V/H/S film, due out later this year, will make this series-in-progress one worth paying attention to for any horror fan. With four or five shorts per film, the odds of being at least partially entertained are high.
8. Man Bites Dog (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992)
This shocking film from Belgium is technically a mockumentary, though its obviously unrealistic premise and characteristically FF-like ending make it worthy of inclusion here. Like a perverse cross between This Is Spinal Tap and A Clockwork Orange, the plot centers around a film crew making a documentary about a psychopathic serial killer (Poelvoorde) who enthusiastically commits and comments on his crimes in front of them.
Gleefully politically incorrect, the film breaks all kinds of cinematic rules of decency, including the unwritten one that killing kids onscreen is off-limits. Just to give you an idea of the kind of film it is, the original poster had to be changed for foreign releases, seeing as it showed the main character firing a gun and the resultant splatter of blood and a baby’s pacifier. Subtle, this ain’t.
The combination of subtitles, black and white photography, and an extreme enough nature to warrant the dreaded NC-17 rating is likely what caused most audiences to stay away. However, to characterize this film as pointless and nihilistic would be grossly inaccurate. Rather, it is a surreal, smart, often funny exploration of the media’s problematic treatment of (and some might argue, complicity in) daily violence. Despite its graphic content, the film scored awards at various festivals, including Cannes, Sitges, and Toronto.