Stand back, because I’m about to bust open Pandora’s Box and unleash hell by addressing a touchy topic among horror fans – that being the popular but controversial subgenre known as the horror “mockumentary.” By definition, a horror mockumentary is a fictional documentary production addressing horrific subject matter (including scary supernatural/fantastical themes or more down-to-earth horrors like serial killers) by treating it as if the source material were 100% genuine.
Now, the first thing that probably springs to your mind when I mention this topic is the “found footage” phenomenon… but that’s not what I’m going to discuss today. There’s obviously a very fuzzy line between the two, but for the sake of this list I’m ruling out any feature film that treats its visuals as raw, unedited footage and not the product of a fictional filmmaker’s editorial vision. In other words, you won’t find Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, the Paranormal Activity series, Cloverfield or any of their countless imitators listed here.
Sure, all of the titles below contain a variety of staged footage, fictionally claimed to have been obtained by the filmmakers, but that’s where the similarities to typical found footage entries end; instead, these films use a documentary framework to lend a sense of believability to the events depicted onscreen, and when done properly the technique is often more terrifying, as the structure of a documentary implies an authority and authenticity that most found footage features lack. Maybe I’m nitpicking, and maybe you’re hoping to find more traditional found footage titles here… but don’t worry, I’ll be tackling the found footage craze itself in the future, so those films will get their own moment in the shaky spotlight.
Here are thirteen mock-docs that creeped me out the most, listed in chronological order… and if you have a favorite that isn’t listed here, be sure to add it in the comments!
The War Game (1965)
You may be surprised to see such a vintage entry in a genre that is otherwise a 21st-century phenomenon, but you’ll be amazed at how chilling this extremely controversial UK television movie can be. It uses a news/documentary format to package a grim and horrifying scenario in which Cold War tensions finally ignite into a thermonuclear exchange over Europe. For my money, this one is far more disturbing than the infamous TV drama The Day After, which aired a full 20 years later.
Punishment Park (1971)
Another old-school entry, this experimental film is set in a fictional dystopia where protesters are labeled traitors by the state and rounded up into camps. The main twist here is that the authorities offer the prisoners a shot at freedom if they volunteer to take part in a bizarre, twisted game of “capture the flag” over a 48-hour period, under the watchful eye of paramilitary police – who are beginning to show moral tensions within their own ranks. This seldom-seen production may have been the product of Vietnam-era angst (and it’s more than a little preachy), but in light of police brutality stories making the news today, with images of protesters facing police tanks on small-town streets, it’s kind of relevant again. [On a lighter note, this film likely served as inspiration for the Australian exploitation flick Turkey Shoot, which was tons of sleazy fun, but not nearly as disturbing.]
The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)
The first monster movie to disguise itself as a docudrama was the invention of Charles B. Pierce, producer of popular drive-in fare throughout the 1970s. Pierce’s first film capitalized on ’70s “Bigfoot mania,” delving into local legends of the “Fouke Monster” which has allegedly terrorized Arkansas river dwellers for decades. Threadbare production values and an amateur cast (Pierce recruited locals to play themselves) lend a kind of gritty realism to the film, and some genuine scares combined with the “G” rating meant some impressionable young kids were soon scarred for life. [Not only is a Boggy Creek remake in the works, but a new version of Pierce's creepy 1976 thriller The Town That Dreaded Sundown hits screens next month.]
Another UK television special, this prime-time chiller was packaged as a completely legitimate news program. The scenario: a camera crew spends one night with a family in their reportedly haunted suburban home (itself based on a reported poltergeist incident) while hosts, paranormal researchers and other talking heads analyze their footage in real time from the studio. A cast of familiar faces from British TV news and talk shows, combined with very few disclaimers that the show was fake, led many viewers to believe the events onscreen were real, which prompted a wave of panic – especially during the final moments, when the evil forces occupying the house apparently possess the TV signal itself.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
This French/Belgian production is equal parts pitch-black satire and skin-crawling horror. Shot on hand-held 16mm cameras in grainy black and white, it’s presented as the project of two renegade film students who somehow convince a brutal serial killer (co-director Benoît Poelvoorde) to allow them to film his day-to-day routine as he plans his next string of murders. It’s a given that this scenario will soon get completely out of hand, but you may not expect just how twisted things eventually go down. The makers of The Blair Witch Project must have viewed this film at some point, since many of the shots – especially the terrifying finale – are remarkably similar.
The Last Broadcast (1998)
Another kindred spirit to Blair Witch, this micro-budget DV production (the first feature film to be projected digitally in theaters) went before the cameras first, but was released around the same time. But where Blair was one of the first films to discard a narrative framing device in favor of raw (fabricated) found footage, Last Broadcast sticks to the documentary format… at least up to a point. I won’t spoil the film’s climactic twist, but suffice to say it divided audiences in a major way; some viewers despised the final scenes, while others are still haunted by them. Either way, it’s a thoroughly creepy little flick about a filmmaker searching for the truth behind the bloody murders of a public-access TV crew shooting a show about the legendary “Jersey Devil.”
Noroi: The Curse (2005)
This Japanese production seems to have slipped under the international radar, and I’m not sure why; at the time, Asian horror mania was still in full swing, and Eastern shockers were being remade by the dozens in the wake of The Ring‘s box-office success. While director Kôji Shiraishi is better known for his graphic 2009 torture-fest Grotesque, Noroi is a surprisingly subtle, slow-burn piece in which a documentary director (Jin Muraki) investigates of a psychic child’s disappearance, which may be linked to a creepy, reclusive woman and a demon said to dwell within a submerged village. It’s dense, complex and maybe a little too slow for viewers expecting over-the-top shocks, but the horrific final scene is worth the wait.
Head Case (2007)
One of the more extreme entries on this list, this gritty production may not depict as much onscreen violence as, say the notorious August Underground series, but the naked sadism of the psychopathic subjects is so realistically horrifying that it’s nearly impossible to watch some scenes without flinching. The sweet, vacant smiles of the white-bread couple featured in this film are masking a monstrous secret: it seems their shared hobby involves the systematic torture and and murder of numerous victims. More horrifying than the kill scenes themselves is the couple’s calm, nonchalant attitude toward their crimes, as they discuss the best ways to prolong a victim’s torment the way your favorite aunt might share her secret for red velvet cake.
Long Pigs (2007)
Taking an obvious cue from Man Bites Dog, this darkly comic gorefest is presented as the work of two young gonzo filmmakers who manage to ingratiate themselves to a cannibalistic serial killer, who decides he’d like to share his deranged philosophy – and his preferred method of butchering and preparing human meat – with an audience. You don’t have to see the film which inspired it (although you should) to know that things won’t go well for our camera crew as the macabre humor peels back to reveal some shocking and disturbing acts. But a compelling performance by Anthony Alviano as the surprisingly amiable madman will still keep you guessing.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
Unlike other serial killer titles on this list, the unseen villain at the heart of this gruesome tale – presented as an Unsolved Mysteries-style investigative program – has no charming qualities to lighten the proceedings. Our subject, known only as the “Water Street Butcher,” is a totally inhuman monster, whose sadism is unlike anything ever depicted on camera. There’s little onscreen violence, but it’s the Butcher’s manipulation of his victims and the investigators that will have you installing new deadbolts on your doors. While the “experts” interviewed throughout the film are a mixed bag of performers, the killer himself is so unrelentingly evil that his vile deeds – which he films for posterity – practically pry your eyes open and force you to watch. While this film never saw official release (not even on DVD), creators John and Drew Dowdle would soon find success in more found-footage features, including Quarantine and most recently As Above, So Below.
Lake Mungo (2008)
One of the most subtle and artful films on this list, this Australian production nevertheless contains one of the scariest scenes I’ve ever witnessed. On the surface, it’s a fairly straightforward documentary about teenage girl whose spirit allegedly continues to haunt her family after she drowns in a swimming accident. However, the accompanying interviews, still photos, and archival footage reveal a more earthbound mystery, exposing the unpleasant underbelly of a small, quiet suburban community. If this sounds a bit like Twin Peaks, that’s probably no coincidence (the victim’s last name is Palmer), but the subject matter is played totally straight… until the story takes a shocking, unexpected turn that pulls the rug out from under your expectations.
The Fourth Kind (2009)
While it has its fair share of flaws, this film gets a nod for taking a unique, two-tiered approach to the material: at the outset, we are told this alien abduction tale is a dramatization, with star Milla Jovovich introducing herself (as herself) to the audience in the prologue; but the more theatrical presentation is intercut with glitchy low-fi footage treated as the actual events of abduction stories, revealing a different set of actors who are a bit less glamorous than Jovovich and her co-stars. The stunt doesn’t entirely work (the “real” footage still feels too stagey, even contrasted with the slicker “re-enactments”), but it earns points for originality, and some of the body-morphing “possession” scenes are legitimately creepy.
The Tunnel (2011)
This Australian shocker plays much like a subterranean version of Spanish found-footage classic [REC], but sticks more closely to the documentary format, so I’m including it here. The simple premise finds a journalist (Bel Delia) and her team delving deep into a network of abandoned tunnels beneath Sydney to determine why the government has apparently hushed up the disappearances of several homeless people who took up residence within the concrete labyrinth. Needless to say, the scoop they’re seeking isn’t the real story here – the truth is much more dangerous. Interestingly, the folks behind this indie production used a distribution model which is now becoming the norm, raising funds via crowd-sharing sites and providing a download code to anyone who donated to the project.
Runners-up [Not Scary, But Still Awesome]
Below I’ve added a bonus handful of excellent mockumentaries that, while definitely horror-themed, are more deliberately comical than scary… but they’re so entertaining, I felt compelled to mention them somewhere:
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Dead-on references to all the classic slasher villains and an incredibly funny, charismatic lead (Nathan Baesel) make this mock-doc a must for any true slasher fan’s collection. Rumors of a prequel, Before the Mask, have been circulating for years; I’m still holding out hope that the amazing Baesel will reprise his role as Leslie.
Incident at Loch Ness (2004)
Legendary director Werner Herzog turns in a droll, sardonic performance as he lampoons his image in this hilarious jab at cryptid hunters, pretentious indie filmmakers, and direct-to-video monster crap (it’s such a dead-on satire that I’d overlooked it for years, assuming it actually was just a lame CGI monster flick). Totally worth watching, if just for Herzog’s contribution alone.
This eccentric meta-jumble begins as a legit documentary about the popularity of underground fetish-horror films, but it quickly turns dark (and, I hope, fictional) after digging deeper into one of the filmmakers (Erik Rost), a strange man whose gory video series looks a bit too realistic to be mere fiction.
Troll Hunter (2010)
Some of the coolest monsters ever depicted onscreen (yes, even for CGI, they’re awesome) grace this Norwegian pseudo-doc, which taps into local folk tales for a hilarious, spooky and rowdy snowbound adventure featuring the title character (Otto Jespersen), a grouchy monster exterminator contracted by the government, who’s quite sick of his extremely dangerous job.