13 Excellent Found Footage Horror Films
Article By: Tony Timpone
Critics say you need an air sickness bag and a comfortable pillow to watch them. Fervent fans, meanwhile, line up for blocks to see the latest Paranormal Activity chapter (the sixth one, The Ghost Dimension, is in theaters now). Welcome to the ongoing phenomenon of the “found footage” movie, whose roots go back to at least 1980. Known for their low (and sometime no!) budget aesthetics, dizzying first person subjective camerawork (i.e. shakycam) and/or a faux documentary style, these addictive movies have emerged as the most profitable horror films ever. Today Chiller’s latest edition of The Friday 13 looks over all the lost reels and top-secret videos to divulge Favorite Found Footage Freakouts. (Titles arranged according to year of release.)
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Over three decades later, this Italian gorefest remains a fixture on the midnight movie circuit. Genre historians point to this Ruggero Deodato movie as the first found footage exercise, and followers consider it a classic of the form. The concept: an NYU professor (prolific porn star Robert Kerman) reviews the recovered film cans of some student moviemakers, who met a gruesome end while documenting a people-eating tribe in the Amazon. The camera does not shy away from numerous scenes of graphic human (and animal) mutilation and consumption by the natives, all convincingly captured by the unflinching lens of DP Sergio D’Offizi. Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno pays homage to Cannibal Holocaust.
2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The movie that started it all and revolutionized the way movies are made and marketed in Hollywood. Shot for a mere $60,000 on cheap consumer video cameras, but cannily promoted on this new thing called the Internet by a savvy publicity team, The Blair Witch Project took the country by storm on the eve of the new millennium. This cinematic game changer follows three camera-toting students (a trio of unknown actors, one of whom, Heather Donahue, now works as a professional marijuana grower!) into the Maryland woods as they investigate a local supernatural legend. Of course, tragedy ensues, but we never see anything. Despite this, directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick (inspired by Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of… series!) build a palpable sense of dread throughout, and their low-tech technique and sense of verisimilitude convinced millions of moviegoers that they were watching a real documentary. With $141 million in the till, The Blair Witch Project remains the highest grossing found footage movie thus far.
3. My Little Eye (2002)
This little seen little gem skewers the early days of the reality show craze with an ice pick to the head. An assemblage of five strangers gather in a remote Real World-type home environment. They must stay in the house for six months straight, omniscient webcams recording their every move for our viewing pleasure. A $1 million prize awaits the “stars” at the end of the stint, as long as no one leaves prematurely. The situation soon takes a dark turn as the contestants fray on each other’s nerves more and more, and when an outsider (a pre-stardom Bradley Cooper, who delivers the film’s most chilling line) gains entry to the house, things really go bad fast. A sort of Jersey Shore with butcher knives or a Survivor with no survivors, My Little Eye will keep you transfixed to the bitter end.
4. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
In this satirical mock documentary, a naive film gaggle tags along with a talkative serial killer (Nathan Baesel) as he goes about his bloody business. Inspired by his slasher heroes Freddy, Michael and Jason, Leslie strives to be the ultimate teen-killing machine. The objective filmmakers interview the plotting psycho, as well as those who know him most, including guest stars Robert Englund (as the determined Donald Pleasence character), Poltergeist’s diminutive Zelda Rubinstein and The Walking Dead’s Scott Wilson as Leslie’s murder coach. Director Scott Glosserman and co-writer David J. Stieve fill Behind the Mask with tons of in-jokes and amusing scream star cameos, making this one truly entertaining meta horror film. Sadly, a promised sequel never materialized, nor did lead Baesel achieve acting stardom (he’s now a production coordinator on Storage Wars).
5. Alone with Her (2006)
In this unsettling thriller, a disturbed man (Colin Hanks, son of Tom, offscreen for a good chunk of the film), obsessed with a beautiful stranger named Amy (telenovelas regular Ana Claudia Talancon) he spies in a park, breaks into her apartment and secretly installs readily available surveillance equipment. (And you thought the NSA was terrible!) From the knowledge he gains from his illegal shadowing, the stalker ingratiates himself into the victim’s life and eventually graduates to dating her. Amy’s BFF catches onto the creepy boyfriend’s intentions, and we know what happens to suspicious friends. With Alone with Her, writer/director Eric Nicholas forces us into being complicit voyeurs, resulting in a disturbing and unsettling experience. Hanks didn’t get to play this mean again until his serial killer turn on season six of Dexter.
6. Diary of the Dead (2007)
Keeping up with a trend he launched (zombies) and tackling the emerging found footage craze at the same time, Night of the Living Dead creator George A. Romero delivers a fresh and exciting horror film. A troupe of undergraduates decides to document the early days of the zombie apocalypse with ever-ready cameras and their drunk professor in tow. Will these kids be able to stop filming in time before winding up as zombie chow? How eager are they to die for their art? Romero answers these questions and more in this gory road trip, and Diary of the Dead rates as the finest of the many first-person zombie flicks. Co-star Shawn Roberts keeps turning up in these gut-munchers; the actor tackled the muscular role of Wesker in the Resident Evil movies, got eaten in Romero’s Land of the Dead and spoofed the subgenre in A Little Bit Zombie.
7. [REC] (2007)
In this frightening Spanish hit which inspired three sequels and two English-language remakes (Quarantine), a reality show reporter (lovely Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman shadow an emergency response unit into a decrepit Barcelona apartment building. The place becomes ground zero for a frenetic zombie-like outbreak, and as all hell breaks loose, authorities forcibly lock down the structure with the infected and non-infected trapped within. Co-directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, [REC] will keep you on the edge of your seat until its nerve-frying attic-set finale.
8. Paranormal Activity (2007)
For series creator Oren Peli and distributor Paramount Pictures, Paranormal Activity persists as the gift that keeps on giving. Not bad when you consider that Peli shot the original film in his own home in 10 days on a budget of just $15,000! That first smash grossed nearly $200 million worldwide, making Paranormal Activity the biggest return on investment in Hollywood history. Why? ’Cause Paranormal Activity’s pretty damn scary, utilizing the simplest of tools—largely our own imagination and fear of the dark. A couple’s home security cameras capture the spooky goings-on at their suburban home, initially signaled by invisible sheet rustling and escalating to deadly possession. Even with the absence of fancy visual FX and splatter gags, Paranormal Activity became a must-see sensation-turned franchise that still has theater audiences jumping through the ceiling and screaming for more.
9. Cloverfield (2008)
Before voyaging to the final frontier with their Star Trek reboot and awakening the force for a new Star Wars, J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot company adopted the found footage gambit for this Toho-inspired story of a gargantuan monster flattening the Big Apple, events depicted through the lens of a city partygoer. We track said partygoer and his four pals as they scramble through a city under siege, narrowly missing collapsing skyscrapers and the decapitated head of Lady Liberty. Not until the film’s stirring climactic moments does director Matt Reeves provide us with a good gander at his towering creature. And it’s worth the wait. Hey, J.J., you promised us a Cloverfield 2…
10. Trollhunter (2010)
In this delightfully droll mock documentary from Norway, a trio of college film geeks sets out to record the arcane activities of an intrepid troll hunter (limned by local comedian Otto Jespersen). The redwood-sized fairy tale monsters periodically traipse down from their mountain hideaways, and it’s up to the troll hunter to cut them down to size. Writer/director André Øvredal creates a believable world for his giant creatures to romp in, and they literally come in all shapes and sizes and with their own distinctive mythology. Trollhunter’s outstanding CGI FX magic can compete with the best from the US. Pay your troll and see this fun film.
11. The Last Exorcism (2010)
Found footage devil movies are more plentiful than a draw full of rosary beads, but only this Eli (Hostel) Roth-produced effort got the recipe for a good scare right. A documentary crew fronted by a quack exorcist (a fine Patrick Fabian) head down south to shoot an actual exorcism. On a rural farm, something nasty (demonic or human) seems to be plaguing a young girl (the ambidextrous Ashley Bell). What the camera witnesses proves much more distressing than a possessed child… This faux documentary keeps us engaged throughout and only an abrupt ending takes away from the sinister pleasures depicted here. Despite the “Last” adjective in the title, a lame Part II followed in 2013.
12. The Bay (2012)
Not the first choice for this kind of material, Barry Levinson, director of Rain Man, Bugsy and Sleepers, helmed this environmental wake-up call masquerading as a horror film. The “documentary” we watch comes culled from the POV of a variety of cameras (security, news reporters, Skype, cell phones, police cruisers, etc.) and charts a single fatal July 4th holiday in a Maryland coastal town. A mutated isopod (spawned by irradiated chicken poop of all things) has infected the water. Before long, the carnivorous parasites commence feasting on the locals, the feds close the roads in and out, and everyone goes nuts. Levinson ingeniously assembles his grisly movie from the assorted snippets in compelling fashion, and overall, The Bay, unjustly skipped by audiences, rates very high on the “ick” factor.
13. Chronicle (2012)
The dark side of the superhero experience comes to the fore in this smart movie, written by Max Landis, son of American Werewolf in London creator John. High school misfit Andrew (Dane Dehaan, who’s in everything these days), decides to chronicle his life with a personal handycam. Joined by his cousin and a friend, they set out to explore an underground cave. There they stumble upon a mysterious substance that bestows upon them unusual powers, beginning with telekinesis and escalating to Superman-fashion flying skills. But the troubled Andrew fails to heed the “with great power comes great responsibility” motto, and next he’s playing cruel pranks and settling old scores with the bullies who plagued him. The bonds with his buddies come undone as well, leading to a grand battle in the skies above the city. Directed by newcomer Josh Trank, Chronicle soars by subverting all those overproduced comic book hero epics and depicting what the typical teenage would really do if granted superpowers. It’s the sci-fi version of Carrie.
OK, so you’ve taken your Dramamine and want more found footage favorites. Then settle in for the amusing Incident at Loch Ness (2004), the creepy kids of Home Movie (2008), the Jonestown massacre-inspired The Sacrament (2013) and the ongoing V/H/S anthology cheapies (2012-2014). And shoot us some of your own choices on our Facebook page or Twitter using #Friday13.
As a distribution chief with Fangoria Entertainment, Tony Timpone helped acquire the found footage fright flicks I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain (1998), The Last Horror Movie (2003) and Entity (2012).