Found footage is one of the most controversial, widely reviled forms of horror cinema; not because it is particularly confrontational like torture porn, but because the format itself is so different to the conventional cinematic approach of fictional narrative films.
Found footage films attempt to imitate real footage by utilising shaky handheld camerawork in order to impart a sense of verisimilitude. This means that the camera must look like it is in the hands of an amateur and not a professional filmmaker. There can be no beautiful crane shots or smooth pans, the camera cannot be omnipresent, cutting from one character to another and, apart from the character holding the camera, it cannot convey any other character’s point of view.
Found footage is, therefore, the antithesis of the cinematic, a style of filmmaking which eschews aesthetics in favour of a visceral approach where the viewer feels the image, as opposed to seeing and admiring said image. The style is, therefore, something of a cineaste’s nightmare, replacing the carefully planned and executed beauty of the cinematic with the gritty, often ugly, amateurish improvisation of a home movie.
However, this gritty, uncontrolled style works in tandem with horror as it is a form of cinema already centred on the visceral. The erratic, handheld camerawork of found footage emphasises the horror film’s visceral quality, helping create a greater sense of tension and fear as it places the viewer within a disorienting world where they are in close proximity to the on-screen danger. This feeling of close proximity has also garnered the attention of found footage’s detractors as it highlights a key flaw in the approach.
Despite the overwhelmingly terrifying situations the characters in these films find themselves in, they never let go of the camera because, without anybody holding the camera, the film would be over. Although this problem has been addressed by some of the following films with the use of head cams, it is perhaps best not to read too much into why the characters continue filming.
Found footage is simply a storytelling tool. Indeed, found footage is not a horror subgenre, it is just a different way to capture horror – this list alone encompasses ghost, monster, zombie, and anthology horror films which make use of the found footage format.
There is another, more obvious reason why filmmakers utilise the found footage format; budgetary considerations. It is a cheap way to make a film as you do not need a lot of expensive cameras or lighting equipment. It allows the resourceful filmmaker – low on money but brimming with imaginative creativity – the means to make an interesting film. When this kind of creative filmmaking energy is coupled with found footage’s gripping visceral power it has the potential to produce some really impressive results.
The aim of this list is to act as a kind of beginner’s guide to found footage horror by looking at some of the most original, engrossing, frightening and notable films to emerge from the found footage craze.
The list also aims to cover a variety of different approaches to the found footage format; from extremely low budget affairs to big budget effects extravaganzas, light-hearted comedy horrors to tense thrill rides, as well as the way countries as diverse as America, Britain, Norway and Spain put their own spins on the format.
Hopefully this list will provide the beginner with a good starting point to begin their exploration of found footage horror. Perhaps there will even be a few surprises for the found footage connoisseur as well.
10. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
While not the first found footage film, The Blair Witch Project is certainly the most influential. In fact, its influence is evident in all the films on this list. It was the first film to really popularise the found footage format, causing quite a stir on its initial release as it purported to be real footage. In actuality, this was a crafty marketing ploy to drum up interested in the film and it worked wonders,
The Blair Witch Project going on to become one of the most successful independent films ever. Since its release, the film has become something of a point of contention among horror fans. Some dismiss the film as nothing more than a cheap gimmick while others champion its low budget resourcefulness. However, viewing the film now in relation to all the found footage films that have followed in its footsteps, it is easy to appreciate just how well constructed it is.
Positioning itself as the last footage shot by a group of student filmmakers who disappeared in the Burkittsville woods while making a documentary about the legend of the Blair Witch, the film establishes an atmosphere of dread from the outset. The viewer knows that something bad is going to happen to these students in the end and the film teases with strange sights, sounds and occurrences throughout, building the tension as the film draws towards its terrifying conclusion.
This atmosphere of dread is further accentuated by the found footage format which lends the film a great sense of realism. The horror feels uncomfortably real and intimate, playing out like an actual documentary that has taken a turn into dangerous territories.
The most impressive thing about The Blair Witch Project is that it remains completely engrossing and terrifying, despite the fact that nothing much happens and the eponymous Blair Witch is never seen. The film’s ambiguous, haunting atmosphere makes it seem that she’s always there though, just off-screen or beyond the camera’s reach, waiting in the impenetrable darkness of the woods.
The Blair Witch Project uses the found footage format to its full potential by suggesting a horrifying presence but never actually showing it. It taught other filmmakers just what could be achieved on a small budget with the found footage format, leading the way for some of the scariest and most imaginative films ever. For this reason alone, The Blair Witch Project is well deserved of its lofty reputation.
9. The Sacrament (2013)
Before The Sacrament, his second foray into found footage horror, Ti West had already sealed his reputation as one of the leading figures of contemporary horror cinema with two modern day horror classics under his belt. Favouring slow burn atmosphere over fast-paced action, West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers were simultaneously old fashioned throwbacks and cutting edge exercises in modern horror. These two films not only announced West as an emerging talent, they also bestowed upon him cult horror stature.
Further solidifying his cult status by directing a segment in V/H/S, as well as appearing in a small role in Adam Wingard’s retro home invasion hit, You’re Next, there was a great sense of anticipation surrounding West’s next feature. Unfortunately, The Sacrament doesn’t quite live up to the promise of West’s earlier aforementioned features.
However, this doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. It is still suspenseful and atmospheric, but it just doesn’t posses the dread inducing suspense of The House of the Devil or the imaginative flair of The Innkeepers.
The film frequently draws comparisons with the real life tragedy of the Jonestown Massacre with its tale of Vice journalists documenting the falling apart and violent collapse of Eden Parish, an isolated religious commune. There are also shades of The Wicker Man with the focus on a group of outsiders infiltrating a seemingly idyllic microcosm, unwittingly unleashing the bubbling violence within.
As with his previous films, West prolongs the build up, slowly informing the viewer that something is not quite right in Eden Parish. West only lets loose and unleashes the chaos right at the end, after he has built up sufficient suspense to maximise the harrowing effects of the unexpected violence. Eden Parish’s enigmatic leader, known simply as Father, embodies the commune in corporeal form; at first glance warm and friendly, but with a strange aura that turns wild and menacing as the film progresses.
Gene Jones’s powerful performance is one of the film’s great strengths, making for a gripping viewing experience. Although it never reaches the exquisite terror of West’s earlier films, The Sacrament is still a solid entry in his filmography and a compelling found footage thriller.
8. Willow Creek (2013)
Definitely the film most in debt to The Blair Witch Project on this list, Willow Creek still possesses enough character of its own to stave off accusations of it being a Blair Witch clone.
At first glance these accusations seem justified with its tale of amateur documentary filmmakers attempting to prove the existence of an American myth – in this case Bigfoot – in a remote woodland area of America. As the film unfolds it becomes clear that Willow Creek is, underneath the surface similarities, a very different beast in more ways than one.
Willow Creek is a film of two halves, the first a light hearted mediation on America’s compulsion to capitalise on its myths and legends, transforming them into tourist traps and cold hard cash; witness Bigfoot Books and the Bigfoot Burger. Beneath this tacky exterior a darker side lies in wait.
The second half of the film explores this dark side as the documentary filmmakers head into the dark woods, meddling in matters that should not be meddled with. What follows is a brisk, suspenseful monster movie akin to the first half of Jaws where the creature is never seen.
The monster’s absence on screen may prove disappointing for some but it fits perfectly with the mysterious nature of the Bigfoot myth. It also plays on the viewer’s imagination, wringing as much tension as possible from its low budget with atmospheric sound design and the darkness of night standing in for the creature. Willow Creek, like The Blair Witch Project before it, shows just what can be accomplished with a small budget, an imaginative approach, and the found footage format.
7. V/H/S/2 (2013)
Taking the video nasty gruesomeness and disturbing atmosphere of its predecessor, a fresh batch of exciting filmmakers, and a streak of pitch black humour, V/H/S/2 is both the perfect companion piece to the first V/H/S and an impressive standalone film.
The anthology formula is exactly the same as the first film, but the individual segments are so strong that it is easy to forgive its lack of originality. Like the original V/H/S, the reason V/H/S/2 works so well is because the filmmakers have been given free reign to be creative with found footage. It is clear that the filmmakers are having fun playing with the formula, leading to some really varied and creative results.
The second film’s wraparound story, Tape 49 is almost a remake of the first film’s wraparound story as two private investigators break into a seemingly deserted house and discover a collection of strange tapes. Tape 49 is incredibly creepy with nods to The Exorcist and that other videotape obsessed horror, Ring.
Phase I Clinical Trials sees the welcome return of Adam Wingard to the V/H/S franchise, this time acting as well as directing. In a fun reference to the director’s eye, Wingard plays a man who receives a camera implant to replace his eye after a car accident. Unfortunately, this implant allows him to see ghosts which soon begin to terrorise him.
Wingard’s segment is a thrilling first person horror with jolting jump scares. In the next segment the makers of The Blair Witch Project return to found footage for A Ride in the Park, a fun zombie POV bloodbath tinged with a touch of melancholy.
Widely regarded as the best segment of the entire V/H/S franchise, Safe Haven pulls out all the stops with a completely outrageous finale featuring zombies, scuttling demons and the devil himself. In a similar fashion to the first film, the last segment struggles to follow the intensity of the preceding segment. Even so, Slumber Party Alien Abduction still has much to enjoy with its tale of evil aliens attacking a bunch of annoying teens.
V/H/S/2 is a surprisingly strong sequel that does justice to the original while introducing more tongue in cheek elements. Along with [Rec]2, it shows that found footage sequels can be just as frightening, impressive and well made as any of the original films on this list.
6. Troll Hunter (2010)
Troll Hunter is a big, fun monster movie. From the outset it is clear that the film’s primary goal is to entertain, with huge monstrous beasts, quirky characters, and a great sense of humour dominating the proceedings. What else is clear is that this Norwegian production is proud of its country’s heritage, drawing on Norse mythology and Norway’s beautiful ancient landscapes.
Troll Hunter isn’t all about nostalgic patriotism though. No, the film also presents a critique of modern day Norway that takes the form of a biting satire. This can be seen in the film’s claim that the Norwegian government is culling the troll population while, at the same time, covering up and denying their existence.
The film follows a group of students setting out to make a documentary about an individual they take to be a bear poacher, but they soon discover that the subject of their documentary isn’t interested in bears. The students begin to document the titular troll hunter’s exploits as he introduces them to a secret world of monsters and government conspiracies.
Aside from the imaginative story and wonderful creature designs, the highlight of the film is Otto Jespersen’s performance as Hans, the grizzled, hard as nails troll hunter. Reminiscent of the shark hunter Quint from Jaws but with a sympathy and respect for his prey the Robert Shaw character lacks, the troll hunter is certainly one of the most memorable characters to emerge from a found footage film.
Along with great special effects and surprising satirical humour, Jespersen’s performance makes for a bold, incredibly entertaining monster of a found footage film.