7. [Rec] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007)
Remade only a year later in America as Quarantine, the original Spanish version is, by all accounts, the superior film (and not just because it came first). The premise is fresh and interesting, the performances authentic, and once the action starts, the palpable feelings of dread and claustrophobia become all too real.
Many of the reasons for the film’s believability can be attributed to decisions made by the filmmakers about what to keep hidden from the cast. Actors with good improvisational skills were chosen, and the film was shot chronologically, with none of the actors being given complete scripts. Some of the film’s most unexpected moments were filmed without the actors being aware of what was about to happen, including the terrifying finale, which was filmed with infrared cameras in pitch-blackness. The use of existing locations, as opposed to manufactured sets, undoubtedly added to the realism.
It may be more poorly (though realistically) lit than Quarantine, and it can indeed be a bit tough reading subtitles when the camera movement is frenetic, but these are just minor quibbles. At a trim length of 78 minutes, this is a scary and intense thrill ride guaranteed to please fans of the genre. That it won awards at various European film festivals is hardly surprising.
6. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
Produced by J. J. Abrams, written by the guy (Drew Goddard) who would go on to direct The Cabin in the Woods, and directed by Matt Reeves, who has since made the surprisingly effective horror remake Let Me In and the recent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, this action-packed thriller had some pretty big talent behind it. Described by some as Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project, it’s a film that’s simultaneously fun and disconcerting, channeling both post-9/11 jitters and the narcissism of the YouTube generation. That said, it’s also basically just about a big monster that attacks New York City.
Opening with text stating that the following was recovered from the area formerly known as Central Park (how’s THAT for ominous?), the action focuses on a group of friends trying to survive and reach one another after a going away party is ruined by the inconvenient arrival of the giant creature. Like in Jaws and many similar films that followed, we only get glimpses of the thing until the end, when it’s rendered with relatively convincing CGI effects (much like Trollhunter, the film succeeds by blending a low budget technique with high-tech visual effects).
In fact, the film as a whole looks a lot more expensive than it actually was (only about $25 million), and runs at a brisk pace, clocking in at less than 90 minutes long. It was not without its critics, with some taking issue with the supposedly underdeveloped characters, the hard-to-believe constant filming despite the ongoing deadly chaos, and of course, the shaky camera style. That last point was particularly problematic, causing some theaters to go as far as posting motion sickness warnings at the box office.
Whatever its imperfections, one can’t deny the intelligence and detail that went into making the movie. Paramount’s viral marketing campaign quickly got people’s attention, starting with the mysterious teaser trailer (it didn’t even mention the title!) that ran before screenings of Transformers. Additionally, savvy viewers have pointed out the hidden image of the creature in the otherwise minimalist poster, as well as Easter eggs in the film’s final scene and end credits that allude to both the origins and fate of the monster (seriously, Google it).
5. Zero Day (Ben Coccio, 2003)
This is a different kind of horror film. Shot in the format of a video diary, Zero Day is the chilling study of two teenagers plotting to attack their high school. Clearly modeled on and inspired by the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre (the two leads even bear an eerie physical resemblance to the Columbine killers), the film is inherently disturbing in its recreation of the planning and execution of the kind of tragedy that’s become all too familiar in recent years, especially in the United States.
One can’t forget that at the time, however, the killings at Columbine were singularly shocking, and to many, inexplicable. Unlike Gus Van Sant’s moody but ultimately empty and frustrating Palme d’Or winner, Elephant, Zero Day doesn’t shy away from attempting to understand the motives of the killers, focusing solely on the two and their methodical, warped thought processes.
It’s not a perfect film – the unavoidable ending comes off as somewhat anticlimactic, though perhaps this is the point. Presented via black and white security camera footage, the actual mass murder is depicted as objectively and in as unemotional a manner as possible. And while some might question the point of making a film out of such a sensitive and dreadful topic, it’s important, particularly in light of ensuing school shootings, to at least make an effort to comprehend as best as possible how and why this particular kind of tragedy can occur.
By choosing to restrict the narrative completely to the point of view of the killers, the director positions the film not as exploitation, but as a commentary on such. This distinction has become all the more relevant since the film’s release in 2003 in the wake of the continued publishing of audiovisual and written manifestos by spree killers in real life, to say nothing of the woefully misguided media that seems all too willing to further the perpetrators’ goals of enduring infamy.
4. Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012)
Not all FF movies are presented as originating solely from one camera. In this sci-fi thriller, most of the story is indeed told through a camcorder owned by the main character, Andrew, played by Dane DeHaan. When the plot eventually takes a dark turn and things start to get REALLY crazy, however, the perspective starts to expand to include security cameras and TV news footage. It’s as if the director wanted to adhere to the style, but not at the expense of straining believability (again, the “Why are you still filming?” criticism).
The result is a more plausible account (as plausible as a movie about this sort of thing can be) of how the acute onset of super powers might actually affect a group of teenagers, one of whom is already on the brink to begin with thanks to years of bullying at school and abuse at home. It’s Andrew’s disturbing character arc that one will find hard to shake days after seeing the film.
That an unambiguous explanation is never given for the exact origin of the supernatural here is almost inconsequential – the convincing performances and solid special effects more than make up for whatever mysteries go unexplained. It’s a shame that the film’s screenwriter, Max Landis, won’t be penning the sequel, his proposed idea of pushing the story in a very different and even darker direction differing with 20th Century Fox’s vision. How the sequel eventually fares remains to be seen, but as a standalone film, Chronicle effortlessly succeeds as an enthralling exploration of the dangers that can occur when unchecked power (supernatural or otherwise) collides with an unstable mind.
3. Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007)
No discussion of FF movies would be complete without mentioning the Paranormal Activity series, the most notable of which is, of course, the one that started it all. The deceptively straightforward premise of a couple being menaced by an unseen force inhabiting their home benefited greatly from its realism and simplicity. While most viewers can shrug off any residual fear after viewing a scary movie on the ride home, it’s all but impossible to do so after watching this one, the most frightening scenes all taking place in the most everyday setting imaginable: a bedroom.
Stripping the horror formula of all but the barest of essentials, writer and director Oren Peli cut down on costs by filming the entire movie in the span of ten days, in his own home, with unknown actors, using virtually no gore or special effects, and no score or soundtrack. Perhaps most importantly, he happened upon an ingenious solution to the shaky-cam style that is frequently criticized in other FF movies, and in a way that worked within the narrative of the film itself: leaving the camera unmanned on a tripod. The absence of both opening and closing credits, as well as the common FF technique of having the main actors use their real first names, helped contribute to the film’s authenticity.
With a budget of roughly $15,000 – tiny even by indie film standards – Paranormal Activity premiered at Screamfest in October 2007, taking a two-year journey to achieve a wide domestic release. During this time, the film received creative input from Steven Spielberg, had test screenings that some viewers walked out of purely because they were too scared, and slowly but surely gained word-of-mouth buzz so positive and frenzied that it became the center of an extremely effective viral marketing campaign.
The film went on to gross nearly $200 million worldwide, becoming one of the most profitable films ever made and spawning a franchise that has since supplanted the Saw series when it comes to annual Halloween-timed releases, not to mention ushering in a new era of horror films emulating its style (unlike the next two films on this list). Though it was far from the first FF movie, it became the one that started a trend (still being felt as of the writing of this list), causing a massive slew of imitators varying in quality.
One can make the case that the first Paranormal Activity is to the FF subgenre/style what John Carpenter’s Halloween was to the slasher film; both were preceded by similar films (The Blair Witch Project and Black Christmas, respectively), but became the de facto models for new kinds of horror films… for better or for worse.
2. Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)
While not exactly a film that’s widely familiar to mainstream moviegoers (the less than subtle title may have something to do with this), Cannibal Holocaust is unquestionably one of the most infamous and controversial movies ever made. Made at the height of the Italian cannibal exploitation film boom (yes, that was a thing), it was so realistic and graphic that the director was arrested shortly after the premiere, charged first with obscenity and then with murder (the actors had all signed contracts agreeing to disappear from all media appearances for a year in order to help promote the film’s marketing claim of being real).
Of course, no one was actually killed in the making of the film, though several animals were indeed butchered alive onscreen – a big reason for the film’s continued notoriety. There is, however, another reason for the film’s enduring legacy (other than it still being banned in several countries), which is that it may very well be the first film to use the FF concept.
Structurally, only part of the film consists of found footage. After an American documentary crew goes missing in the Amazon, a new team is sent in to investigate. Finding only bones and film reels in a native village, the group takes the footage back to New York, where we are treated to a firsthand account of what became of the crew. The answer isn’t pretty: scenes of gang rape, forced abortion, torture, and of course, cannibalism, ensue.
Though all the simulated carnage is depicted quite realistically, it’s the genuine animal violence that truly upsets. Some DVD copies run with a disclaimer preceding the film because of this, and even give viewers the option to watch a version of the film without the offending scenes of animal cruelty. Gruesome and indefensible as these scenes are, they nevertheless demonstrate a macabre cinematic illusion – the instances of human violence definitely appear more real when viewed alongside them.
Further obscuring the line between real and fake violence, a documentary film within the film that depicts actual executions in Africa is shown, though the characters state (falsely) that THIS footage is staged. Ultimately, Deodato had to go to court and produce his actors to prove that he hadn’t actually killed them and that the special effects, particularly the all-too-convincing and now iconic nude female impalement that figures heavily in the posters and advertising, were simply that and nothing more.
On moral grounds, the film remains difficult to defend. As a work of art, however, one can’t deny that it’s well made, featuring excellent cinematography and an unexpectedly catchy and at times beautiful score by Riz Ortolani (that it inexplicably plays over some of the found footage is ignored). The acting, however, is amateurish, which should have been a clue that the film wasn’t, in fact, snuff, and to say the intended messages about the media’s obsession with sensationalism at all costs and the nature of being “civilized” are heavy-handed would be an understatement. Ultimately, this is still a shameless exploitation film – one that didn’t even come close to receiving an R-rating and could not be legally made today.
Even Deodato has expressed regret – not just for the animal killings, but also for even making the film in the first place. Still, it no doubt remains a curiosity for many – one of the few films that separates the proverbial men from the boys when it comes to hardcore horror. Interest in the film is likely only to grow in the coming years, especially with the upcoming release of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (Cannibal Holocaust being its acknowledged inspiration, its working title giving Roth’s film its moniker).
1. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
It wasn’t the first FF film (see the above entry), and it didn’t create a franchise (try as it might have), so why is it ranked #1 on this list? Quite simply, it’s incredibly scary (for most, at least), largely because of how it was filmed. To this day, it’s still the highest-grossing FF movie, and in the wake of Paranormal Activity and the recent surge in these kinds of movies, that’s saying something. It’s also one of the first movies to mainly market itself using the Internet, which at the time was pretty revolutionary.
The film’s official website hosted enough fake behind-the-scenes information and interviews to convince many – or at least make them unsure – that the film was a documentary rather than a fictional film about the making of one. It’s a remarkable film, one that shouldn’t necessarily have worked but did, against all odds. What many may not realize, however, is that the film’s effectiveness was greatly a result of the way in which it was filmed, which is nothing short of fascinating.
For starters, unknown actors were cast as the three doomed filmmakers, all of whom used their real names. This technique was part of the effort to intentionally mislead the public about the film’s veracity, which also included, like Cannibal Holocaust, the genuine desire to make people think something terrible had actually befallen the cast. Phony “missing” flyers were passed out at the Cannes Film Festival, and the three actors were listed as “missing, presumed dead” on IMDb. Similar tricks were even used on the main actors themselves.
In the early scenes when the student filmmakers are interviewing the townspeople, the three actors are unaware that some of the interviewees were in reality also actors hired by the directors. In fact, it wasn’t until after the film was completed that the three leads learned that the Blair Witch legend itself was completely made up by Myrick and Sánchez. Walkie-talkies and planted directions made discoverable by GPS were used to communicate indirectly with the actors, who improvised all the dialogue and shot practically the entire film themselves, totally in the dark about where things were going, prepared only with a condensed outline of the fictional mythology. Increasingly deprived of food and sleep, they shot for eight days, resulting in nineteen hours of footage.
The basic principle of why the film works is its exploitation of the simple truth that what is unknown and unseen is often scarier than any Hollywood special effect. Impressively, the film succeeds without resorting to gore or any kinds of visual effects, even eschewing a score, usually an invaluable tool for a horror movie. Instead, it relies entirely on its acting, sound design, cinematography, and power of suggestion, not to mention the set design of the abandoned house in the terrifying final scene. By including such mundane sequences as the filmmakers packing junk food for their expedition early in the film, the directors only heighten the sense that the film is unedited and real.
There are, of course, those who aren’t such big fans of the movie. Such detractors have criticized the (for some) nauseating shakiness of the camera in some scenes, the slow pace and lack of significant action, and inevitably, there are those who claim they simply didn’t find it all that scary. Much like comedy, horror can be very subjective. The film was endlessly parodied and mocked when it was released (a defense mechanism, perhaps?), especially the infamous confession scene. Interestingly, the framing of the famous shot that came to grace the film’s posters was an accident, the actress having zoomed in further than she had wanted. Criticize and laugh as some may, it’s hard to argue that the final shot of the movie won’t have you holding your breath.
Unfortunately, the release of the universally panned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 only a year later killed any chance of a successful franchise, having completely disregarded what made its predecessor so great. Still, it’s surprising that there weren’t more imitators, just as much as the fact that the three leads and two directors never want on to make anything anywhere close to as high-profile or successful as their summer of ‘99 sleeper hit. Regardless of what became of the filmmakers – both the fictional and the real ones – The Blair Witch Project was, and still is, the granddaddy of all FF movies, and the one to which all others have been compared, and likely will continue to be, for quite some time.
Author Bio: Jason Turer received his B.A. from Cornell University with a double major in Film and English, and currently works in television production in Brooklyn. He has too many favorite films to list here, but some of his favorite directors include Kubrick, Cronenberg, Hitchcock, and Lynch.