Last month, I posted a list of thirteen horror mockumentaries (if you missed it, be sure to check it out), films which arguably fall outside the domain of the insanely popular postmodern film genre known as “found footage.” I also promised that I’d examine the found footage phenomenon itself in greater detail… and, ready or not, it’s time to open that creepy, controversial can of proverbial worms.
As I mentioned earlier, found footage as a film medium is the subject of endless debate, puzzlement, and often straight-up hate among horror fans – and often for good reason. It’s ironic, then, that the use of fictional film or video footage as a narrative device more or less began with one of horror cinema’s most revered entries: Ruggero Deodato’s gritty, shocking and highly controversial 1980 jungle epic Cannibal Holocaust. Oddly enough, very few genre films adopted Deodato’s revolutionary approach until nearly two decades later, when a little indie film called The Blair Witch Project exploded into a worldwide phenomenon. Following that film’s runaway success, the floodgates officially opened: hundreds of filmmakers fired up their camcorders, hoping to capitalize on the found footage craze and turn a micro-investment into box-office gold. The momentum doesn’t seem to have let up since, with major studios and respected filmmakers continuing to add their own POV shaky-cam offerings, with wildly varied results.
It’s impossible to fully rank and rate the best and worst of these due to the sheer volume of titles. Instead, I decided to compile a chronological list of film, television and web programs that made significant contributions to the found footage subgenre – whether for their originality, shocking content, high-profile creators, or popularity with audiences. I narrowed the pack down to 20 titles that meet these criteria, and I’d consider this a pretty damn definitive list, if I do say so my damn self. Still, you may have some choices of your own to add, so please do so in the comments below!
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
The granddaddy of found footage horror, the most famous entry in Italy’s prolific cannibal exploitation genre of the ’70s and ’80s is also the best. While it’s dated a bit since its premiere, the movie-within-a-movie footage (shot on hand-held 16mm film to give it a documentary feel) still shocks the uninitiated today, and iconic images like a young woman impaled on a giant spike adorn everything from t-shirts to jewelry at horror conventions. The footage was so realistic (for its time, anyway) that director Ruggero Deodato was actually put on trial for allegedly killing his actors – some of whom were instructed to lay low for a full year to convince audiences their deaths were authentic. My only issue with this film, along with many of its cannibal brethren, is the very real inclusion of multiple scenes of violence against animals; to this day, I can only watch the “cruelty-free” version (overseen by the director), available on the DVD from Grindhouse Releasing. Eli Roth pays homage to Deodato’s vision in his latest feature The Green Inferno (recently pulled from theatrical distribution), which takes its title from Holocaust‘s doomed film-within-a-film.
Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985)
This grotesque, surreal cult video series from Japan actually began with the episode The Devil’s Experiment, but this chapter is the one that kicked off its notoriety in the US – mostly thanks to a news-making reaction from actor Charlie Sheen, who popped in a bootleg copy during a party and was reportedly convinced the horrific footage was real. Once transferred to DVD, the gore doesn’t quite stand up to close scrutiny, but I can imagine how a degraded, multi-generation VHS copy (not to mention a cocaine-addled viewer) would mask its imperfections. The plotless episode involves a madman clad in samurai armor, whose artistic subject – a young woman drugged and bound to a bed – is also his chosen medium, and we’re forced to watch him messily mutilate and dismember her still-living body in extreme and unflinching detail. Much like Cannibal Holocaust, the director of Flower was brought up on charges, and had to prove to the courts that the footage was staged. Believe it or not, the Guinea Pig series now has an American reboot (subtitled Bouquet of Guts and Gore), but I can’t imagine it recapturing the shock value of the original.
UFO Abduction a.k.a. The McPherson Tape (1989)
This early micro-budget entry, presented as camcorder footage by a rural family under siege by alien visitors, actually established most of the genre tropes that we take for granted today. The story begins as a rather dull home video of a child’s birthday party, but descends into chaos and terror when members of the family venture into the woods after seeing some strange lights. While it seems a bit clunky today (and in dire need of editing), one can imagine how chillingly believable it must have been in 1989. The “video vérité” look, now a staple of the subgenre, was entirely new to audiences at the time, but much of that realism was lost in the slicker and more widely seen remake Alien Abduction: Incident in Lakewood County, created by the same filmmakers nearly a decade later on a significantly bigger budget.
Alien Autopsy (1995)
This intriguing oddity was first brought forth by UK producer Ray Santilli and sold to TV networks around the world, under the pretense of being genuine classified footage of government scientists dissecting an alien creature recovered from a crash in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The grainy 17-minute black & white short reached the eyeballs of US viewers via the Fox Network special Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?, and was also one of the first found footage films to generate a firestorm of debate on this newfangled thing called the Internet. Though now widely known to be a hoax, the short is still quite unsettling in its grisly realism, thanks in large part to some very convincing makeup effects. The hoax itself became the subject of the British comedy Alien Autopsy in 2006.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The first found footage feature to achieve massive box-office success, this labor of love by filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick is more significant for its brilliant marketing campaign – which fully exploited that Internet thing that all the cool kids were talking about – than actual onscreen scares. In fact, much of the backlash against the film came from fans who felt robbed by the story’s lack of visceral payoff (spoiler alert: we never see a witch, or anything else of a supernatural nature). It’s still pretty damn creepy, even if seen only as a firsthand account of three naïve kids getting hopelessly lost in the wilderness. While the meta-style sequel Book of Shadows was an even greater disappointment, and a proposed prequel continues to elude us, at least Sanchez has returned this year to the genre that made him famous with the upcoming Bigfoot feature Exists.
August Underground (2001)
The notion of a snuff-style film edited from a serial killer’s home movies wasn’t a new thing by 2001; classics like Man Bites Dog and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had already made harrowing use of the concept. But audiences had never seen anything so utterly depraved, sadistic and puke-inducing as this splattery camcorder odyssey by gonzo auteur Fred Vogel. Presented as home movies shot by a band of psychopathic spree killers, August Underground is really more of a guerrilla show-reel for makeup effects work by Vogel’s then-fledgling company Toe Tag Productions. To say this is not for all tastes is probably the understatement of the century, as we’re presented with every possible atrocity committed against the human body; if it doesn’t happen here, it’s probably covered in one of the two August sequels. I’m not a big fan of this series, but I admire Vogel’s fearless audacity in serving up the ultimate in onscreen sadism.
Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
The first high-profile film to bring together the rising phenomena of found footage horror and reality TV, this intriguing indie entry was inspired by ’70s sci-fi films like Rollerball, but also predates dystopian survival-game epics like The Hunger Games. The premise involves a popular TV game show in which contestants are chosen by lottery, armed and pitted against each other in a literal battle to the death, with freedom awarded to the last person standing. As the title suggests, we’re on season seven of the show, where we follow the actions of a ruthless, gun-toting pregnant woman (Silence of the Lambs‘ Brooke Smith, a long way from putting lotion in the basket), a champion/survivor from two previous years, who is forced to compete one last time to win her freedom. The film fumbles a bit toward the climax, when it attempts a clumsy meta-fictional twist.
Diary of the Dead (2007)
Now we’re onto the first found-footage entry from a legendary horror director: in this case, the godfather of the modern zombie film, George A. Romero. After the tepid reception of his first big-budget zombie sequel Land of the Dead, Romero scaled down his aspirations for his next project, this time using the found footage medium to revisit and essentially reboot his undead universe. Sadly, despite a few chilling set-pieces (the shot of zombies walking on the bottom of a swimming pool, for example), it’s overall a lackluster effort, and alienated many fans of the director’s earlier classics; but it’s still significant for being the first time one of horror’s most beloved icons tackled this particular style.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Not since Blair Witch has a found footage flick so dramatically captured the attention of audiences around the world. The two films share similar modest beginnings and rock-bottom budgets; director Oren Peli saved money by shooting in his own house with his own camera. Also like Blair Witch, Peli hired unknown actors to lend more realism to the tale of a young couple tormented by an unseen demonic presence, and he uses low-tech practical effects and a sub-bass rumble on the soundtrack (there is no musical score) to achieve simple but heart-stopping chills. The most intriguing aspect of Activity is its ability to generate maximum tension through long, unbroken takes – something unheard of in this age of ultra-short attention spans. While it screened successfully at festivals in 2007, the film failed to gain traction with distributors until none other than Steven Spielberg screened a copy; allegedly he was so freaked out that he refused to keep the screener in his bedroom. After a few modifications to the ending (including some not-so-convincing CGI effects), Paramount released the film in Fall of 2009, and the rest is history. To date, there have been three direct sequels and one spinoff (The Marked Ones), with a fifth installment now slated for release in 2016.
While many countries have jumped aboard the found footage express, the first and best contribution from Europe is this Spanish film by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. The story involves a TV news reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her crew accompanying a fire and rescue team as they answer a call in a creepy apartment complex; once on the scene, the situation quickly goes horribly awry, with signs of a mysterious, rapidly-spreading plague surfacing throughout the building. A sure sign of a horror film’s stamp on the public consciousness is the inevitable Hollywood remake, and thus the shot-for-shot English version Quarantine hit US screens two years later, followed by its own sequel (which is neither found footage nor a remake of REC 2. Even Balagueró and Plaza abandoned the format halfway through the third installment, REC 3: Genesis, suggesting that the medium might be losing steam among more established filmmakers. The concluding chapter, REC 4: Apocalypse, recently premiered at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, and continues to hold to a more traditional narrative structure.
Lost creator (and now hopeful Star Wars franchise savior) J.J. Abrams brought his high-concept sensibilities to the genre with this inventive giant-monster flick, which benefited from the best advance publicity campaign since Blair Witch: the theatrical teaser for the film gave audiences a shocking glimpse of the destruction to come, but didn’t reveal what might be causing it… or even the film’s title, for that matter, leading to a firestorm of online speculation befitting a vast conspiracy theory (one line of misheard dialogue led some to conclude that the film was a big-screen adaptation of Voltron!). The film’s main hook is the way it plays out much like a Godzilla flick told from the point-of-view of a few confused bystanders, who never fully grasp the extent of what’s going on until it’s too late. Abrams also crammed the film with numerous in-jokes and Easter eggs, inspiring another wave of fan theories following its home video release.
Lost Tapes (2008)
It was inevitable that found footage techniques would find their way into television series, and there are certainly plenty of examples to choose from. But possibly the most effective and memorable of the bunch is this hit series from Animal Planet, which follows the escapades of (fictional) cryptid hunters following up reports of legendary monsters – including Bigfoot, the Chupacabra, the Mothman, the Jersey Devil and the Mongolian Death Worm, to name just a few. The episodes are not always convincing, but if you buy into the illusion, there are some truly chilling moments to be found. The successful series spawned (no pun intended) the contentious mockumentaries Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, both of which caught flak from legit scientists for passing off their dramatizations as genuine.
Marble Hornets (2009)
Arguably the first truly successful found footage YouTube series, this ongoing project is the creation of writing/directing team Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage, who took the pervasive urban legend of “The Slender Man” as their central theme and inspiration. The story is told mainly through the lens of a fictional film student who abandoned the title project after experiencing strange and terrifying phenomenon revolving around a tall, faceless and impossibly thin figure known as “The Operator.” He eventually surrenders his tapes to a friend, who later digs into the footage in an attempt to solve the mystery; it’s through this friend’s perspective that we view the videos, unraveling the enigma with each subsequent entry. The series became a viral sensation, generating the kind of viewership normally reserved for series television, and after three full seasons there’s currently a feature film in post-production, with Doug Jones (Hellboy) as The Operator.
The Bay (2012)
Another significant entry in the genre from a well-known filmmaker, this highly realistic, deeply disturbing and just plain gross feature from Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson was one of the most-requested titles in the comments section of my mockumentary list. Since it’s not formatted as a documentary, but as raw footage salvaged from a doomed TV news crew, I saved it for this list instead. Although it uses legit science and genuine scientific concerns about the impact of climate change to send its message, this isn’t really a preachy film, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from scare tactics and often goes straight for the gut – and I mean that quite literally. After seeing The Bay, you may never eat shellfish again… or any fish, for that matter.
Okay, so maybe this fascinating flick isn’t technically horror, but more of a darkly skewed sci-fi/superhero tale; still, it’s worthy of inclusion here because of some particularly chilling and heart-stopping moments. Presented as camcorder footage recorded by a group of three teenage friends who have suddenly acquired supernatural powers, the story begins as you might expect – with the kids using their abilities to play pranks and impress their classmates – but things escalate quickly, especially after one of the teens begins to see himself as a godlike being, above human laws and morality, which leads to a catastrophic showdown with his former friends. This unusual spin on superhero/supervillain themes won over audiences with some breathtaking set-pieces, including a fatal high-altitude encounter with a thunderstorm.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Scott Derrickson’s unique spin on found footage, but quickly found myself engrossed, surprised and occasionally shocked by what he had wrought. Framed in a traditional narrative, a box of creepy 8mm home movies – actually shot on Super-8 stock, not digitally simulated – are discovered by a true-crime author (Ethan Hawke) and presented here as raw, surreal and sometimes downright terrifying glimpses into a truly evil intelligence. The title sequence is truly the stuff of nightmares, and another 8mm clip provides one of the biggest jump-scares of that year. While it stumbles on the way to its conclusion, Sinister is still surprisingly effective in conjuring a surreal, nightmarish ambiance, aided greatly by a chilling score and sound design. Successful enough to spawn a sequel (currently in pre-production), it’s one of the most effective film-within-a-film stories in recent years.
A recent major player in the found footage universe, this bizarre, graphic and often shocking series unites the medium with another famed subgenre: the omnibus horror film. Tapping the talents of several up-and-coming filmmakers (Adam Wingard, Ti West, Gareth Evans, Eduardo Sanchez, and many more), these short-film anthologies employ a wide variety of video techniques and technologies to spin explicit tales of sex, gore and mayhem. For me, the first two films’ crowning moment is “Safe Haven” from V/H/S 2, set within the walls of an isolated Indonesian commune whose enigmatic cult leader has granted a film crew access to the coming apocalypse… which comes to pass in the most outrageously gruesome way imaginable. It’s so completely unhinged, throwing virtually every kind of horror imaginable at your face, that it eclipses nearly every other entry in the series. I can’t wait to see what madness awaits in the third installment, V/H/S: Viral, slated for On Demand release on October 23rd.
The Sacrament (2013)
This is a compelling hybrid of found footage and vintage exploitation from retro-influenced director Ti West (The House of the Devil). The strange events surrounding charismatic cult leader Jim Jones made headlines around the world in 1978, when his followers gunned down a U.S. congressman and his delegation and later committed mass suicide, ending with a body count of nearly a thousand. The Guyana-based community of the People’s Temple, better known as “Jonestown,” was the subject of many features since the ’70s, from documentaries to crude grindhouse fare, and West artfully brings all of those elements together in depicting a documentary crew invited into the seemingly Utopian commune of Eden Parish, only to find themselves unable to escape the grip of the creepy, all-powerful cult leader known as “Father” (played with a chilling charisma by Gene Jones). The story adheres fairly closely to several real-life moments from Jonestown’s tragic history, giving it a realistic weight – although I was puzzled by West’s choice to credit the actors in the opening titles, which completely breaks the illusion that follows.
Willow Creek (2013)
This Bigfoot tale is significant not for what transpires in front of the camera, but for who’s standing behind it – legendary comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait, whose penchant for pitch-black social commentary boosted his films God Bless America and World’s Greatest Dad to cult status. Willow Creek narrows its focus, centering on an obsessive cryptid hunter in search of Bigfoot, and his beleaguered, skeptical girlfriend. The first half of the film plays as a surprisingly gentle satire of Bigfoot mania, but soon enters Blair Witch territory as the couple come under siege in the depths of the woods near the site of the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film (which was recently proven to be a hoax). Goldthwait keeps things nicely ambiguous until the conclusion, which unfortunately squanders the slow but intense build-up, and he doesn’t really break new ground in the genre; nevertheless, it’s still worth noting due to Goldthwait’s adept handling of sharp dialogue and sly satire.
Alien Abduction (2014)
This recent arrival, which loosely takes the same premise as 1989’s UFO Abduction and blows it up to massive proportions, gets a mention here thanks to a narrative device that solves one of the main points of contention with found footage films: why does the camera operator insist on filming when his life is clearly in jeopardy? In this case, the central point-of-view is that of an autistic boy, for whom the camera is his chosen device for interacting with his surroundings, forging an unbreakable link between the camera and its user. You may have to suspend your disbelief for much of the film’s second half (for example, the idea that a video camera can survive being dropped from low orbit is stretching things a bit), but there are some intense shocks and creeps to be found along the way.