Found footage horror films have become very popular in recent years. But with so many out there, which is the best? Most importantly, which is the scariest..?
10. 8213: Gacy House (Fankhauser, USA, 2010)
Highlighting the impact The Blair Witch Project had on the genre, Gacy House, about a group of ghost hunters spending the night in a serial killer’s former home, basically retreads the same ground with different actors spouting similar lines. It just goes to show, however, that cliché in generic horror can still excite if you allow yourself to buy-in to the set-up.
9. Lake Mungo (Anderson, Australia, 2008)
The faux-documentary film from Australia uses the found footage device as an addition to the story, preferring to narrate the film through on-screen interviews. However, once the “found” footage is discovered it makes for a terrifically unsettling slice of horror cinema and is certainly the highlight of Anderson’s film.
8. The Last Broadcast (Avalos/Weiler, USA, 1998)
Mixing found footage with mock documentary, Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s twisty horror sees a documentary crew set out to document the legend of the Jersey Devil in a large forest area known as the Pine Barrens. Only one of the crew exists alive and is convicted of the other’s deaths. However, as some “discovered” footage proves, not all is as it seems.
7. Troll Hunter (Ovredal, Norway, 2010)
Scandinavia gets in on the “found footage” bandwagon with this appealingly alternate take on the technique. Instead of ghosts, a group of students set out to document the life of a bear poacher only to find his prey is actually the mythical Troll.
6. The Last Exorcism (Stamm, USA, 2010)
An effective found footage film about a sceptical Reverend who happily performs dramatic fake exorcisms to help those who claim to be possessed. He meets his match, and finds his sanity severely tested, when his latest case proves to be, shall we say, uncooperative!
[Read my celebration of horror in my short memoir here]
5. Paranormal Activity (Peli, USA, 2009)
Ghosts are perfect fodder for the found footage genre as director Oren Peli proved. Paranormal Activity has to be on this list if only for its phenomenal success at the box. It struck a chord with audiences like no film since The Blair Witch Project. And rightly so, given the director’s smartly orchestrated scares and tension-filled build-up to a haunting climax. The performances are also a cut above the usual level you see in the genre.
4. Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (Alioto, USA, 1998)
This “home video” tells of the night aliens came calling on the McPherson family. Set at a house in the middle of nowhere, the McPherson’s are terrorised by malevolent extraterrestrials who, it appears, aren’t particularly pleased that their endeavours on earth have been captured on camera. Thankfully, the videotape survives, depicting the family’s horrific ordeal.
3. Cannibal Holocaust (Deodato, Italy, 1980)
The film that inspired the found footage revolution of the late 1990s and 2000s, Ruggero Deodato’s film tells of the doomed expedition of a documentary film crew to the Amazon to film cannibal tribes. Cannibal Holocaust, in addition to its influence on the genre, is perhaps most noted for aspects outside of its control. For example, it was banned in several countries (and that ban still remains in some areas), while its director was arrested at the time of release on obscenity charges. There were allegations that actors were killed on camera but this was proven false and Deodato was cleared. However, the film’s oppressive mood and violence sets it apart from any other film on this list. Indeed, this remains one of the most hard-hitting and emotionally affecting found footage films.
2. Rec / Rec 2 (Balagueró/Plaza, Spain, 2007/2009)
Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s Rec follows a television reporter as, along with her cameraman, she films the exploits of a local fire station on a night shift in Barcelona. This being a horror film, things get very strange after the crew respond to a call about an old woman trapped in her apartment. Along with police, the responders enter the woman’s apartment only to find her becoming agitated and violent. Eventually she becomes so crazed they shoot her. Now, trapped inside the building after it becomes quarantined, the inhabitants must survive a deadly plague that appears to be passing amongst them, turning those inflicted into raging, animalistic killers.
Rec 2 picks up the story from the perspective of a doctor who is sent into the quarantined building with a heavily armed police unit immediately after the events of the first film. The story is naturally progressed, taking the zombie plague themes of the first film into more supernatural territory. It neatly (and surprisingly) interlinks itself with characters from the first instalment. It’s arguably an upgrade on the franchise’s debut and is another terrific addition to the found footage genre.
1. The Blair Witch Project (Sánchez/Myrick, USA, 1999)
Shot for less than $1 million and grossing nearly $250 million worldwide, the film, one of the most profitable ever released, made its fledgling creators Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick so rich they never had to work again. The found footage craze that appeared after the film can be attributed to The Blair Witch Project, which made the horror sub-genre tick like never before.
Unlike others, such as Alien Abduction, which arrived a year earlier, the performances were excellent, the photography from the actors was well orchestrated, and the production’s ultra low budget enhanced rather than detracted from the story. The film-makers also utilise the story’s setting – a dense Maryland wood – to perfectly convey a sense of detachment from civilisation and disorientating claustrophobia. Its intriguing set-up – a trio of student documentary makers head into the Burkittsville woods with a 16mm film camera and video camera in order to document the legend of the child-killing Blair Witch – is suitably macabre. Yet, it is the way this darkly mysterious beginning is conveyed to us, an ordinariness that importantly fails to prepare us for the ensuing horror. Through astute editing of the footage “found” by police after the group goes missing, the film brilliantly yet gently turns up the tension.
Sánchez and Myrick have to be applauded for their pacing of the drama, the cinema’s answer to the calm before the storm. We begin with a mystery that grabs the attention and build towards a devastatingly effective encounter with a malevolent unknown. The technique to convey this terror through the “footage” the trio capture is particularly important to the film’s overall impact. Not only does it have an inherent sense of authenticity (which isn’t necessarily a given with found footage as Cloverfield proved, but an indication of the film-makers intelligent use of the technique), it puts the audience within the action. Therefore, we feel the characters’ sense of alienation from the world as well as their increasing paranoia. As our point of view never wavers, we are part of their terror.
The Blair Witch Project is the best found footage film for a number of reasons, not least its effective use of the technique. It took its influences and perfected them, while its impressive marketing campaign drew upon the power of internet buzz well before it became an ingrained part of promotional budgets. It is arguably the most influential found footage film ever made and while Paranormal Activity trumped it for profitability (largely because of the proliferation of cheap digital technology that wasn’t available to Sánchez and Myrick in 1999), one of the most popular. While the sub-genre has produced more misses than hits, The Blair Witch Project is one of few found footage films that would find its way on to top horror movie lists regardless of the technique used to produce them. That’s why, perhaps more than anything, it is the best of the lot.
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens
Discover More Horror on Top 10 Films: Dan Grant looks at the horror movies that scare him the most and the dumbest moments in the Friday the 13th franchise while Neal Damiano checks out a selection of the most disturbing slices of cinema. Elsewhere, I take a look at the best horror film beginnings, the scariest movie monsters, and the curious horror sub-genre that sees television become the bad guy.