The Top 13 Found Footage Horror Movies
In light of the overwhelming success of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, the found- footage subgenre of horror has never been more popular, including figuring into the plots of such current flicks as “Sinister” and “V/H/S.” As such, I thought I’d take a look at the heavy hitters of the subgenre, from both the past and present. Here, in roughly chronological order, I give you the best of the bunch!
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Though many acknowledge the “Faces of Death” series to be the first found-footage flick; in fact, much of that film’s footage was long proven to be completely faked, with the rest consisting of documentary footage of newsreels and the like. (Even if you consider what remains to count, nonetheless, then the “Mondo” films of the 60s would have to be included, as they also feature similar footage.) Besides, that film is presented like a documentary, and thus, not really a true found-footage film, regardless. Therefore, most point to this film as the first “true” found-footage film in the more modern definition of the term, as in characters find some footage left behind by someone and “watch” it, with that footage factoring into the film itself.
It’s a nasty piece of work revolving around a cannibalistic tribe in the Amazon, in which actual animals are killed horrifically before your eyes (a version of the film does exist without said footage for those who would understandably rather skip that particular footage) and a girl is viciously raped and impaled, in the film’s most notoriously hard-to-watch sequence. Indeed, the film was so convincingly real, it was not only banned in several countries- and remains so to this day- but charges of it being a snuff film were leveled and the director forced to produce his actors simply to prove they were actually alive!
2. Guinea Pig (1985)
Another film so effectively real, people notably tried to have it banned- including, rather notoriously, Charlie Sheen, of all people! Indeed, this is pretty much ground zero for the much-maligned so-called “torture porn” subgenre as well. There’s no real plot and the experience of watching it is as if you were watching a feature-length version of one of those “Videodrome” bootleg transmissions. The Japanese flick was so popular it inspired seven (!) sequels, all of which followed the same basic set-up: someone is kidnapped and taken to an isolated locale and tortured in a wide variety of progressively bizarre ways. That’s it. Believe it or not, it was originally based on a manga. You probably wouldn’t want to spend much time alone with anyone who owns the entire series.
3. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Probably my fave of the entire list, this French film was revolutionary and ground-breaking at the time, going onto inspire any number of similarly-bent flicks, including “Natural Born Killers” and the gritty “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” both of which feature faux-found footage and serial killers as the lead characters. Don’t let the subtitles keep you from seeing this marvel, which dims the gore factor by being filmed in black and white. It also injects a healthy dose of humor into the proceedings, such as the moment in which the camera crew following the killer runs into another camera crew filming another serial killer! This pretty much nails where culture was headed at the time, or at least seemed to be. Some reality shows come pretty close, as it stands.
4. Ghostwatch (1992)
Presented originally on BBC TV as if it were real, a la the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast version of “The War of the Worlds,” this scared the be-Jesus out of a lot of people, who to this day hold it up as the gold standard of what the found footage genre should be. Imitating a live broadcast in which a group of real-life “ghost-hunters”- sound familiar? – explore a supposedly haunted house and do indeed find a spooky denizen called Pipes. People were so scared by this, the BBC hasn’t shown it since, and many consider it a better version of what “Paranormal Activity” was going for.
5. The Last Broadcast (1993)
A nifty little film about a group of documentarians who host a show called “Fact or Fiction” and decide to head to the Pine Barrens to look for the notorious “Jersey Devil,” a real urban legend of the area. They, of course, film everything, broadcasting it live on TV, the internet, and the radio. This features a lot of the tropes that would be stripped down and more or less perfected by our next entry.
6. The Blair Witch Project (1994)
I was living in Tennessee at the time this was filmed and got a hold of a bootleg copy on VHS from some friends who worked on it. I then showed it to a group of people pretending it was the real deal. They all bought it hook, line, and sinker- as did millions of others when this became a huge hit, inspiring legions of spoofs for years to come. While flawed, the film nonetheless does a great job of capturing the raw terror of being lost in the woods. Alas, the sequel forewent the approach of the original and was D.O.A., stopping the potential franchise dead in its tracks. I was certain it would inspire a whole host of low-budget filmmakers to take up arms for the dirt-cheap horror movie cause, but it was not to be.for a while, at least.
7. August Underground’s Mordum (2003)
After a few tried to ape “BWP” success with films like “The St. Francisville Experiment” and “The Colinswood Story,” a low-budget filmmaker decided to go a different route, finding inspiration in the aforementioned “Guinea Pig” and “Man Bites Dog.” Basically combining the two as we follow a serial killer committing heinous crimes as a friend films it in all its gory glory, the result “August Underground” comes off like “Henry” if it was entirely composed of murder footage. However, it’s the sequel, in which our anti-hero from the first film finds love and goes on a killing/torturing spree with said lady, with an assist from his brother that really disturbs. So much so, in fact, I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the third installment, “Penance” released in 2007. This may well be the most unsettling of the entire bunch, “Guinea Pig” notwithstanding.
8. [Rec] & [Rec] 2 (2007/9)
I include both films here because they are genuinely of the same piece, with the events of 2 taking place essentially concurrently with the events of the first, only with a different set of characters that then dovetail and join the group of people being chronicled in the first movie. So, it’s basically like watching one big film if you watch these two back-to-back. Though a Spanish import, a dubbed version is available, so don’t let the thought of subtitles scare you away. The first film was also remade nearly shot-for-shot in America as “Quarantine” (a non-remade sequel followed) but I prefer the originals. A third is being released on DVD later this year, with a fourth to follow which will wrap everything up.
9. Cloverfield (2008)
Somewhat unfairly maligned by critics and audiences alike when it was released, this creature feature actually holds up quite well upon further reflection. It’s basically Godzilla from the spectator’s point of view, only set in New York, with all the accompanying landmarks one might expect and an engaging cast that includes an amusing turn from stand-up comedian T.J. Miller, who mans the camera for most of the film. JJ Abrams (“Lost,” “Star Trek”) was the producer on this one, and it definitely far exceeds his take on similar material, “Super 8.” (Sorry, JJ! You still rock!) If you like this, see also the Norwegian import “Trollhunter” (2011) for similar thrills.only with subtitles!
10. Diary of the Dead (2008)
Another flick that met with mixed reception upon its release, this film actually holds up pretty well in retrospect, especially in these zombie-infested times. One certainly can’t blame director George Romero for wanting to do something different with the material, and let’s face it: when you all but created the subgenre, you can do pretty much anything you want with it- though perhaps he should have stopped short of a zombie western! (That would be “Survival of the Dead.”) Anyway, I liked the whole idea of a film crew shooting a horror flick, only to be besieged by actual horror. The gambit gave the zombie genre a much-needed sense of urgency and proved that there was life in those old corpses yet. It was sort of like a better version of the more subtle “Loaded”- but hey, to each their own.
11. Home Movie (2008)
To me, this is, in some ways, the most horrific on the list, simply because of the nature of the evil at hand. Though I must confess, I’m a sucker for creepy kids. This one benefits enormously from an effective cast, including “Heroes”-vet Adrian Pasdar, and a much more subtle approach than this sort of material typically receives. As a result, it’s much more dread-inducing than typical found footage fare and just plain disturbing at times. For once, the thrills are played entirely straight, and it makes all the difference. Parents of twins may want to avoid this one.
12. Paranormal Activity (2009)
No found footage list would be complete without this one, which spear-headed the whole movement in a big way, directly leading into a deluge of such material that one would have thought would have resulted from “Blair Witch” but never quite did. No longer. Truly a brilliant example of working with what you have at your disposal, creator Oren Peli knocked it out of the park with the this one, dethroning the “Saw” franchise form its roost as the king of Halloween, with each successive sequel ringing home the big bucks. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replicate that creepy feeling I got watching the original version of this on my computer- the one with the alternate ending- but seeing it with a packed audience was equally entertaining in its own way. This is the very definition of the “less is more” approach, and though the series has arguably gotten better with each installment- 3 was really excellent- many would argue that the first is still the best for its sheer minimalistic approach alone. Here was a movie in which half the work in scaring the viewer was done by the viewer themselves- and that’s a pretty nifty trick, if you think about it.
13. The Last Exorcism (2010)
Though it received mixed reviews, there’s a direct line between this and the direction the “PA” series is headed in- witness the ending, which is none too far removed from the admittedly scary ending of the latest installment of that series. I thought this succeeded largely because of the excellent central performance of star Patrick Fabian, which brings to mind the cult figure Marjoe Gortner if he had actually come face-to-face with real evil.
What do you think? Did I leave off any of your favorites? Be sure and let me know in the comments section!