The "found footage" genre has been divisive from the start. Here are a few that stand out as some of the best.
The Bay (2012—directed by Barry Levinson): Like it or not, no one can deny that Barry Levinson did something different with The Bay. Not only is a major director of Academy Award-winning films like Rain Man dipping his toes into horror, but he does so in a way that’s unlike any found footage film we’ve ever seen. Instead of the approach landmarked by Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, which use one camera to follow a small group into oblivion, Levinson gives us a “zeitgeist” approach, utilizing all types of media to present a growing catastrophe with extreme urgency.
A small town off the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland awakens to celebration, a parade, news crews interviewing the winners of the hot dog-eating contest, and quickly—irrevocably—descends into utter chaos. People begin breaking out in boils and sores that cover their bodies, parade patrons upchuck blood on their neighbors’ lawns, screams echo off the buildings and into the bay, shots are fired, and it’s only the beginning. Levinson and his editors show us all the action as they deftly switch between news broadcasts, dash cams, voiceover narration, Skype calls, and recorded phone conversations to keep the tension and realism ratcheted to fever pitch. This doesn’t feel like a horror film—it feels like this is really happening.
Despite some weak performances (the teenage girl in the hospital behaves as if she just took a bath in horse tranquilizers), it’s the overall pacing and real world feel of The Bay that make it stand head and shoulders over most all other films in this genre. Just try and drink water out of the tap after watching it. ***
The Blair Witch Project (1999—directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick): The Blair Witch Project certainly wasn’t the first found footage film to come out, but it definitely was one of the first to appeal to mainstream audiences. It made use of the burgeoning social networking scene to advertise the film on the internet and television. “Viral Marketing” wasn’t really a thing back then, so people didn’t really know what to make of it. The filmmakers pioneered its use beautifully, with everything from a published “Blair Witch Dossier” to a faux documentary shown on the Sci-Fi Channel. Every move was calculated perfectly to lend credence to the initial claims that the footage was authentic, lending mystique and atmosphere to the film before it was even released. Everyone wanted to see it just to see what the fuss was about.
The film itself is quite terrifying at times, especially since it starts off somewhat lighthearted and unassuming. They did a good job conveying that it was really all filmed with a handheld camera, and it certainly feels authentic. Some found footage films make the mistake of throwing in fancy editing which breaks your suspension of belief; that is what really sells this genre of films and makes them work.
Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams were very natural in their acting and it manages to not come off as contrived or fake. The last five minutes of the film are absolutely harrowing and scary; many movies since then have tried to capture that feeling unsuccessfully. The Blair Witch Project ended up being one of the highest grossing independent films of all time and spawned the many imitators we see today, which strangely enough doesn’t include its own sequel: the 2000 stinker directed by none other than Paradise Lost documentarian Joe Berlinger. Blair Witch 2 is a film so worthless and disconnected from everything that made the original memorable; it’s only purpose is to confound, confuse, and remind us how good we had it the first time. **
Cannibal Holocaust (1980—directed by Ruggero Deodado): The granddaddy of all modern found footage films has to be the infamous Cannibal Holocaust. It’s an Italian film, directed by Ruggero Deodato and scored by giallio/mondo film alumni Riz Ortolani. Because this film came out before the advent of the internet, people seriously thought some of the actors were actually killed for the film! Deodato was arrested for making a snuff film after the premier and was only cleared after gathering up the actors from the film to prove they were still alive. That just shows how effective this genre of movies can be if done correctly.
Cannibal Holocaust follows the exploits of a group of documentary filmmakers as they traverse through the Amazonian jungle to film the local tribes. As always happens, they end up meeting some trouble, and the camera footage gets recovered by some broadcast executives who want to make a film from the raw footage. What they end up seeing while reviewing the tapes absolutely horrifies and disgusts them.
This film is infamous for a reason; it shows graphic rape, real-live animal killings, and stomach-churning blood and gore. It has been banned in several countries and exists in many edited and censored versions. There is an authenticity and realness to this film that is missing from most of the found footage movies released nowadays. It’s not polished and sexy; it’s sleazy and repulsive. However, there is a deeper theme running through it that rings true: man at his core is uncivilized and he has to take great pains to keep himself in check. **
Chronicle (2012—directed by Josh Trank): An original idea wrapped in a trend with a clever, enticing trailer that didn't completely fail—Chronicle is a unique creature. There are a lot of films presented and built up just like Chronicle that end up tipping over with top-heavy cheese and no subtlety to be found. The film is far-fetched, no doubt, yet allows for easy suspension of disbelief as our three leads accidentally become imbued with super powers. The story is classic comic faire in every sense, but it's tasteful, not too overt, and features characters worth caring for. Max Landis' script wears its influences on a superhero t-shirt. It's so obvious, but it works. Dane DeHaan's Andrew made for a stereotypical, but solid villain origin a la Tetsuo in the legendary anime Akira. DeHaan is still young and a bit rough around the edges, but it's clear his path is taking him toward that one role that will propel him to the A-list. He's made for villains.
Unfortunately, he was shoehorned into Amazing Spider-man 2 as the new Green Goblin when they should have picked any other villain for him to play besides one we've seen a few times already and far too recently. DeHaan's time will come. It's too bad both Landis and director Josh Trank went through the typical industry loops that brought a potential sequel to Chronicle to a standstill. While Trank has moved on to direct the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot (just as unasked for as it is lambasted by fans) a Chronicle sequel now will most likely turn out to be too little too late. *
Cloverfield (2008—directed by Matt Reeves): Viewers of Michael Bay’s Transformers were treated to an elusive viral marketing idea by J.J. Abrams in the form of a nameless trailer showing handheld footage of an unknown disaster befalling a group of New Yorkers at a going away party. Buzz of “What could it be?” no doubt helped generate interest in what would eventually become Cloverfield.
Directed by Matt Reeves, the film is a kaiju disaster thriller seen through the found footage of an average joe who tags along with his peers in a fight for survival. It begins slowly as it establishes the usual brand of stock characters, but once all Hell breaks loose, it doesn’t let up the adrenaline and tension levels. This was one of the first times the cinema verite style had been supplanted by a Hollywood budget and elaborate visual effects.
Despite the enormous commercial success of the surprise secret movie, it was also not without its detractors who would dub Abrams (Lost, Super 8) as “the guy with a monster running around” in his material. Still, this is a really fun old fashioned science fiction thriller that far exceeds the recent Gareth Edwards Godzilla, which incidentally, is largely dominated by adversaries that look very like the one which crawled from the ocean in Cloverfield. ^
The Last Exorcism (2010—directed by Daniel Stamm): Any horror fan will tell you that if you see Eli Roth’s name on something, it’s really a crap shoot. It’s either going to be a great experience (hello, The Sacrament) or a nice waste of time (I’m looking at you Cabin Fever). Roth lends his hand producing The Last Exorcism and the result is a real treat.
Filmed as a professional documentary, we don’t get the typical shaky camera and speedy editing evident throughout the found footage genre. With this level of professionalism, the experience becomes much more real, almost as if you’re watching a major news network. This style of shooting leaves a lot less to the imagination due to the fact that the camera is always steady and focused—you actually see a lot, which isn’t so typical in found footage pieces.
Normally I wouldn’t be a fan of removing room for the imagination, but here it just really works. The slower camera work often creates an atmosphere in and of itself, and when the action is happening, it becomes rather creepy. Patrick Fabian gives an awesome performance as a believable skeptic minister and Ashley Bell’s performance as Nell rivals Jennifer Carpenter’s work in The Exorcism of Emily Rose—she definitely makes you rethink ever wanting to befriend a farm girl. Take all of this to an unexpected yet very well done final act and this film easily stands out among the countless other Exorcist copycats around today. ^^
Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 (2010, 2011—created by Oren Peli): Now wait a minute. Why are the first two entries in the world’s most successful found footage franchise both on this list? Isn’t it enough to pick one? No, it’s not. They are just too good. Paranormal Activity re-sparked the found footage craze for a new decade singlehandedly by doing something so simple, yet so revolutionary, that it seems stupid to say it out loud: They put a camera on a tripod. Crazy, right? In this age of shaky-queazy cam and lightning fast editing, here’s a film that actually forces us into the perspective of a captive audience with no other choice but to stop, look, and listen. Never has absolute silence with nothing happening been so terrifying.
The second film in the series continued with the plot crux of a small group terrorized by an increasingly malevolent entity, but upped the ante in major ways that avoided the pitfalls which kill 99% of sequels on arrival. Instead of merely throwing more money at the screen, the filmmakers used their brains, more cameras, and the more expensive tricks to create not just a sequel, but an equal—if not better—film than the original. Not only does this not skimp on the scares, but we dare say it: This one of the most brilliantly written horror sequels of all time. Why? Because it’s not just a sequel. It actually begins as a prequel (usually the first way to screw up right out of the gate) and winds up continuing the story that ended with part one. There were so many places where this could have gone wrong, where the continuity could have taken a back seat to a filmmaker determined to be “clever,” and the writers managed to avoid every single one of them while respecting our intelligence at the same time.
After Paranormal Activity 4 completely derailed the series into nonsensical “gotcha” moments and a plot twist so shoe-horned in that it made this writer want to throw his television out the window, it would be easy to dismiss the rest of the series as a joke. It was upon revisiting these first two films that it becomes apparent just how indispensable they are to one another, and why they both deserve a spot on this list. They are well-written, well-acted, superbly executed companion pieces that represent the true appeal of the found footage genre, and why it remains the stuff of nightmares when done just right. ***
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007—written and directed by John Erick Dowdle): Long before John Erick Dowdle remade [*REC] into Quarantine and gave us this summer’s As Above, So Below, his career more or less began with the found footage serial killer mockumentary/horror film, The Poughkeepsie Tapes. The film is a series of interviews with townsfolk, senators and officers of the law on the crimes and the discovery of what would become known as The Poughkeepsie Tapes: over 800 tapes the serial killer made of his stalking, kidnapping and torture/murder of his victims. Jumping back and forth between clean cut film interviews and heavily worn, poorly photographed VHS footage from the killer’s tapes, The Poughkeepsie Tapes manages to elicit a fair amount of discomfort from the viewer as helpless victims scream for help only to the Halloween masked face and ears of the killer.
To this day, the film continues to be swept under the rug for reasons unknown. Despite a hefty advertising campaign in 2007 including theatrical trailers and posters, the film was withdrawn and never released officially on home video. In July 2014, The Poughkeepsie Tapes briefly had its first official release through DirectTV’s on-demand service, before it too pulled the film from its site without explanation. Most viewers familiar with the film came across bootlegs and uploads on YouTube. Not unlike 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat, which was also pulled from release despite heavy promotion including a hardbound making-of coffee table book, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is something of a lost-and-found footage entry for being without a distributor or proper release but still circulating enough on the internet for people to still manage to see it.
Since the film was yanked from DirectTV, MGM dropped rumors of a forthcoming official theatrical release. With the recent success of the genre, here’s hoping this lost film will finally see the light of day and walk tall and proud down the red carpet others like it continue to tread time and time again. ^
[*REC] (2007 – written and directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza): The birth of a Spanish horror film franchise (as well as the American remake Quarantine), [*REC] is among the more adrenaline-filled found footage horror offerings, achieving a fever pitch intensity, and maintaining a fight-or-flight pace to the proceedings. The film follows a spunky female reporter doing a story on firemen when she and her videographer decide to tag along to the scene of a crime within an apartment complex. Little do they know they’re about to become embroiled in a terrifying situation as a bizarre zombie outbreak erupts within the apartments, and the firefighters and news crew find themselves fighting for their lives.
An exercise in pure terror, [*REC] is best remembered for Javier Botet, a Spanish actor stricken with Marfan syndrome, a disorder causing unusual growth with pronounced tallness and especially long, skinny arms, legs and fingers. The disorder can also cause a litany of breathing problems and often requires multiple surgeries to survive. But for Botet, a self-proclaimed horror fan, it’s a platform for him to use his body to terrify moviegoers as he becomes one of the most completely horrifying movie monsters ever created. I remember watching [*REC] with my peers, and the moment Botet’s character showed up, they averted their eyes. Trust me, he’s THAT scary in this.
When the remake by John Erick Dowdle appeared and the scene was redone with a generic looking Exorcist demon lookalike, I couldn’t help but be disappointed the American remake couldn’t even port over the original’s best asset. Like anything else, the series would diminish with time, including a standard horror sequel that jettisoned the cinema verite technique. While the zombie genre has been beaten to death (including in the found footage genre), [*REC] still manages to produce one hell of a jolt which reminds that, like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, sometimes the best monsters aren’t created with makeup or CGI but our own implacable, irrational fears of physical deformity. ^
Redacted (2007—written and directed by Brian De Palma): Brian De Palma’s Redacted is a fictitious anti-war film effort denouncing the US army with its loose re-staging of the 2006 killings in Mahmudiyah, Iraq, when soldiers raped and murdered a young Iraqi girl along with her family. Told through footage and photographs of the platoon largely shot on night vision as well as security cameras, Redacted won the Best Director Silver Lion award at the 2007 Venice Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation.
Despite the critical accolades, De Palma and his film came under fire for leaving out information that all the soldiers involved in the real incident were prosecuted for their crimes and the leader of the pack faced the death penalty. The much-discussed crime scene photos concluding the film were in fact recreated by De Palma, as lawyers prevented actual photos from being included. De Palma publicly feuded with the film’s distributor over said photos and why real ones couldn’t be included, a controversy which contributed to the film’s financial failure.
Upon theatrical release, the film was widely attacked by conservatives as being slanderous towards veterans and soldiers in combat, and that it could incite retaliatory violence. Around March 2, 2011, those prophecies of retaliation came true when a German man of Albanian descent shot and killed two U.S. airmen at the Frankfurt Airport in Germany after seeing a video of U.S. Army soldiers raping a Muslim girl. Upon incarceration, the said video turned out to be footage from Redacted. It just serves as a reminder of the dangerous power of film and how easily the distinct line between art and reality can be blurred. ^
The Upper Footage (2013—directed by Justin Cole): Billed as real footage, The Upper Footage takes terror and dread to an entirely new level. This film is a true piece of art that completely blurs the line between reality and fiction. Following internet popularity and a full out media shit-storm, the film was surrounded by controversy—Mr. Quentin Tarantino even got himself involved in the mess.
Director Justin Cole displays some of the most disturbing images and sounds that I’ve ever experienced in any movie of any genre. The piece is stunningly filmed and it’s near impossible to tell if you’re watching a movie or clips from someone’s personal video camera. This also goes for the sound design, which works perfectly with the way the film is shot. Our actors are in control here and play a major part in the production as well. We have one of our characters holding the camera and some of the shot choices are just pure genius.
As far as the acting goes, just like many other aspects of the film, it’s near perfect and makes it extremely hard to judge the validity of the footage. A film like this is an experience that just doesn’t come around too often. It reminds us that terror doesn’t always stem from the stuff of nightmares and that fear often comes from the choices we make as humans. ^^
V/H/S/2 (2013—horror anthology): After the first V/H/S anthology arrived on the cult scene in 2012 with all its slashes in the title—oh, now I get it—it didn’t seem prudent to continue with the concept. The overall impression left by the film was a mixed bag of segments that were clearly not shot on VHS, but also the wraparound story was full of disinteresting and unlikeable characters we didn’t give a crap about. So when the sequel was released the following year, we didn’t really give a crap about that either… but as you know, one of the great pleasures of being a film critic is getting to be completely surprised.
With a wraparound story of terrific intrigue and top-notch segments throughout, V/H/S/2 takes things to the next level in a big way, with some wholly imaginative storytelling and direction from its collaborators. Beginning with a terrific spin on the “guy who sees dead people” bit directed by and starring Adam Wingard (whose phenomenal film The Guest is now in theaters), the film gets off on the right foot from frame one. The “A Ride in the Park” segment features the return of Blair Witch director Eduardo Sanchez to the genre he helped bring to the mainstream, and once again he shows a flair for originality that manages to breathe life into the long-exhausted zombie schtick.
But, man oh man… nothing—I repeat—nothing will prepare you for “Safe Haven.” Co-writer-directors Timo Tjahjanto (Killers) and Gareth Evans (The Raid) should have demanded that their film be saved for last, because it blows the entire film wide open like an atom bomb. This is probably the single most intense and frightening anthology segment in the history of the entire horror genre. After a build up that puts you in mind of the David Lynch thrillers where the eerily “too good to be true” gnaws at your nerve endings until they’re raw, suddenly Tjahjanto and Evans go completely unhinged, and the experience becomes a rocket roller coaster of relentless terror and pants-fudging images of such unique energy that they will be burned into your retina for the rest of your life. Alas, it is so damn good that even a final segment as good as “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” suffers merely by association. A word of advice: Take a break after “Save Haven.” You’ll need it just to pick your jaw up off the floor and get a drink of water. ***
***Blake O. Kleiner