5. [Rec] 2 (2009)
Like V/H/S/2, [Rec] 2 is the kind of sequel that closely follows the established formula of its predecessor, stubbornly refusing to stray from the beaten path or make any drastic changes. However, the film is so well made that this doesn’t really matter. Indeed, [Rec] 2 is one of the best horror sequels precisely because it holds on to everything that made its predecessor so great in the first place.
The film picks up straight after the events of the first [Rec] as a group of heavily armed Spanish Special Forces and a priest sent by the Vatican enter the zombie infested apartment building to contain the infection. All the famous [Rec] tropes are still in place; the shaky found footage camera, the dark claustrophobic apartment, the monstrous running zombies, and the constant panic induced yells of “vamos!”.
While [Rec] 2 is a natural continuation of the [Rec] franchise with the same tropes and style, it isn’t just a carbon copy of the original. The second film expands the scope a little with multiple cameras this time around. All the Special Forces characters have head cams attached to their helmets, allowing for a number of different perspectives and camera angles. This makes [Rec] 2 a more varied, action-centric film than the original with its closed-in claustrophobic single camera approach.
The addition of the Special Forces naturally adds more action to the sequel as they unleash a hail of bullets on the undead, leading to a greater focus on gory splatter. It is in this way that [Rec] 2 follows in the footsteps of sequels like Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day; sequels that add more action to the mix without jettisoning the character or mood of the original film they are based on. [Rec] 2 also takes on more of a supernatural bent than the first film, explaining that the infection is actually a form of demonic possession.
Of course, the addition of more action means that some of the intense horror of the original is sacrificed in favour of loud guns and extravagant bloodletting. Despite this, the film still contains enough well-timed shocks and frightening creatures to almost rival the first film. It certainly isn’t as claustrophobically intense as the original, but even so it remains a striking exercise in fast-paced found footage horror and a more than worthy sequel to the first [Rec].
4. V/H/S (2012)
V/H/S, as the title suggests, is something of a throwback to the video nasties of the 1980s, those forbidden videotapes of outrageous over-the-top violence and bad taste. However, under the veneer of exploitation sex and violence, there is a genuinely creepy atmosphere of mounting dread that permeates each segment of this ambitious anthology film.
Unlike many anthology films, V/H/S is surprisingly consistent, each of its six segments (including the wraparound story) showcasing its particular director’s unique take on found footage horror while, at the same time, never feeling like completely separate entities. Instead, the segments coalesce perfectly, always feeling like they belong to the same disturbing video collection.
The wraparound story, Tape 56, introduces us to the dark world of V/H/S as a gang of thugs break into an old man’s house in search of a tape requested by a mysterious stranger. Director Adam Wingard does a great job of establishing a disquieting atmosphere with the pitch-black house, buzzing static on the TV set, and a figure lurking in the shadows.
As for the old man’s tapes, they house a variety of unsettling tales of horror. In Amateur Night, a group of friends planning to make an amateur porn video receive a fright as the tables are turned by one of the girls they try to take advantage of. Second Honeymoon is typical Ti West with a suspenseful slow burn plot, centring on a couple who discover that a third party has joined them for their honeymoon.
With its title a clear reference to Friday the 13th, Tuesday the 17th is a wonderful throwback to 1980s backwoods slashers but with a modern twist – the supernatural killer’s image is obscured when filmed. Without a doubt the scariest segment, The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger captures Emily’s terrifying encounters with what appears to be the ghost of a little girl while on video chat with her boyfriend.
Boasting incredibly frightening imagery and an unexpected twist, The Sick Thing is a definite highlight. While nowhere near as frightening as the preceding segment, 10/31/98 is nevertheless a fun haunted house story set on Halloween night.
Together these tales of terror combine to create one of the best anthology horror films of recent years. By mixing the offensive content of the video nasties with an unnerving quality rarely found in such gleeful exploitation fare, V/H/S has proved to be a somewhat divisive film. However, if you can stomach the abrasiveness and appreciate the atmosphere, it reveals itself to be a unique, entertaining foray into found footage horror.
3. Cloverfield (2008)
Boasting one of the most inventive found footage concepts of recent years, Cloverfield juxtaposes the massive city destroying scale of the kaiju (monster) film with the inherent claustrophobic intimacy of the found footage format. By filming the devastating power of the monster from the ground level, the film distances itself from the over-the-top absurdities that mar many a kaiju film attempting to take a more serious stance.
Cloverfield differs to other kaiju films in that it is much more interested in exploring the very real human drama caused by the monster than it is in the monster itself. The monster is merely the catalyst in a story of Rob and a group of his friends banding together to brave the destruction in order to rescue Rob’s childhood sweetheart Beth who is trapped in the city.
Perhaps the most frequently discussed aspect of Cloverfield is the way it plays out like a parable of 9/11. Indeed, watching the film with those simultaneously fascinating and harrowing images of destruction in mind, it is easy to see why Cloverfield is viewed as a metaphor for the terrorist attacks of that fateful day.
Unlike most of the films on this list, Cloverfield isn’t about investigators, it is about average everyday people deciding to film these extraordinary events simply because it seems important. It is in this way that the film acts as a snapshot of those awe-struck bystanders who filmed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.
People continue to film in Cloverfield for the same reason they continued to film on 9/11, to filter reality through a lens in order to distance themselves from the awful events unfolding before them.
Cloverfield isn’t just a downbeat retelling of 9/11 though; it’s also an entertaining homage to Japanese kaiju films and the American big bug movies of the 1950s. With its tale of a huge monster emerging from the ocean to lay waste to the city, Godzilla is an obvious reference point. Other nods to Godzilla films include Rob planning on moving to Japan, the home of kaiju films, and the end title theme which closely resembles Akira Ifukube’s classic Godzilla compositions.
The scenes in the subway tunnel, on the other hand, hearken back to the big bug movie Them! which features a similarly tense attack in a dark storm drain. Cloverfield is, then, something of a triumph; a found footage film that impresses in equal measure as an intimate drama and a huge monster movie.
2. The Borderlands (2013)
This time British folk horror gets the found footage treatment and the results are nothing short of spectacular. Emerging at a time when found footage films appeared to be outstaying their welcome, the marketplace saturated with shaky cam terror, The Borderlands came as a massive surprise. Unique, engrossing and full of subtle creeping terror, The Borderlands is a classy exercise in found footage horror.
It tells the story of a team of paranormal investigators sent by the Vatican to a remote church in the English countryside. Their job is to discover whether there is any truth in the claims that the church is witness to a miracle. They find out that something strange is happening at the church but it obviously isn’t a miracle. As the strange happenings turn increasingly sinister, it becomes clear that evil forces are conspiring against the team.
In contrast with the majority of modern horror films, The Borderlands features remarkably well-rounded characters and naturalistic, engaging performances. The two leads are brilliant and play off each other perfectly, Gordon Kennedy as a grumpy alcoholic Scotsman and Robin Hill as a chirpy, chatty Londoner. It is their compelling, funny, believable performances that help elevate the film above the run-of-the-mill found footage horror.
Another factor that differentiates it from other found footage films is that, for once, there is a genuine reason the team carry on filming once things start to go wrong. It is their duty to film everything for the Vatican and they don’t have to carry a camera around as they have head cams attached. What really sets it apart from lesser found footage films is that it is a legitimately scary viewing experience.
The sense of uneasiness rising as the mood darkens and the film’s imagery becomes increasingly disconcerting. Some of the most frightening images include a burning sheep running through a field, a spectre in white, a huge dog, and the bones of little children littered throughout an underground passage. Aside from the supernatural terrors, the team also have to deal with the very real horrors of living together in a cramped cottage, troublesome youths, and unfriendly locals.
With its British cast, English countryside location, and fish and chip suppers, it is obvious that, similar to Troll Hunter, The Borderlands is unafraid to celebrate its country’s heritage and traditions. It draws on Britain’s monochrome skyline, its ancient, foreboding architecture, and its mysterious pre-Christian pagan mythologies to conjure an aura of darkness, hostility and mystery.
All this makes for an absolutely terrifying modern day gothic classic which effortlessly transcends the inherent flaws of the found footage format, in the process creating one of the best British horror films since the glory days of The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw.
1. [Rec] (2007)
Wonderfully kinetic, completely immersive and utterly terrifying, [Rec] is quite possibly the greatest found footage horror film ever made. It is also one of the scariest, injecting some much needed terror into both the found footage format and the staid zombie film. In fact, after Night of the Living Dead, it is perhaps the most shocking film about flesh eating ghouls.
[Rec] centres around a late night TV reporter and her cameraman who follow a fire fighting team to an emergency call at an apartment building. However, when they arrive they discover that a strange infection is spreading, causing the infected to transform into animalistic monsters. They soon discover that there is no escape as a quarantine zone has been set up. Forced to fight for their lives, the survivors must try to avoid infection while they search for the mysterious cause of the outbreak.
Unusually, for a zombie film, [Rec] doesn’t adopt the siege approach of its forebears. In [Rec] the horror comes not from being cornered in a place of refuge with the ghouls trying to get in, but from being trapped inside with them.
The film capitalises on this sense of claustrophobic panic, using the found footage format to full effect, placing the viewer right in the centre of the apartment’s dark enclosed corridors. The shaky first person camera ratchets up the tension as the viewer is thrust head first into some truly nerve shredding situations.
As well as conveying cloying claustrophobia, the found footage format also increases the intensity of the chase sequences. The disorienting shaky camerawork as the characters run for their lives lends the chase sequences a thrillingly visceral quality. They are almost akin to a macabre rollercoaster, exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, with the viewer having no choice but to go along for the ride.
As the film progresses it takes on a much darker aspect, the palpable sense of tension becoming almost unbearable, culminating with one of the most frightening climaxes of all time. Trapped within the confines of the pitch black penthouse at the top of the apartment with no escape in sight, the survivors find they are being hunted in the dark by a terrifying demonic figure.
This ending confirms [Rec]’s position as one of the scariest films ever made and a true suspense classic. With its visceral scares, excruciating tension, and memorable monsters, it is a natural successor to the shocking power of such renowned horror films as Halloween and The Evil Dead. [Rec] is, therefore, the absolute pinnacle of found footage horror.
Author Bio: Oliver Innocent is an aspiring film critic/academic with a BA Honours degree in Screen Studies from Sheffield Hallam University. His real passion is horror cinema, loving all that the genre has to offer, from the subtle chills of prestigious terror like The Shining to the garish absurdity of 1980s slasher trash such as Slumber Party Massacre II. He hopes to one day transform his passion into a career.