OP-ED: 10 Found Footage Films Worth Finding{0}

In 1999 The Blair Witch Project terrified audiences around the world and made an absolute killing at the box office. It was safe to assume that it wouldn’t be long before other filmmakers started jumping on the ‘found footage’ bandwagon – and they did.

Fifteen years and a number of found footage franchises down the line, the popularity of the ‘found footage’ film – a phrase which, in usage, tends to encompass other ‘P.O.V.’ narrative and montage-based films, not merely those which, like The Blair Witch Project and its antecedent Cannibal Holocaust, purport to be ‘found’ or ‘recovered’ footage – shows no signs of giving up the ghost any time soon. (Blair Witch co-director Eduardo Sánchez even retraced his steps to the sub-genre this year with the Bigfoot chiller Exists, although it paled beside his previous outing in the woods.)

Despite the sub-genre’s endurance, many horror fans take the announcement of a new first-person film as the perfect excuse to vent via their social network soapbox, and it became a hot button issue at this year’s Fantastic Fest, when Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League went toe to toe with director Ti West (who recently dabbled in found-footage with The Sacrament) to thrash out their differences of opinion. When the final bell rang the outright winning conclusion seemed to be that “the ‘found footage’ genre is a cancer eating away at the integrity of cinema.” I beg to differ.

For me, ‘found footage’ is never really going to outstay its welcome, for two reasons:

Firstly, films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity showed the world (i.e., not just filmmakers) how feasible it is to create an effective horror movie without a hefty budget or bankable stars. Lamentably, this is where the sub-genre also kind of shoots itself in the foot, with the vast majority of ‘found footage’ films better off lost.

The upside is that when you find yourself amidst predominantly bad-to-middling releases, there will always be an assiduous few ready to exploit a void in the market and actually go out and make something interesting – and not only first-time filmmakers: Barry Levinson and Bobcat Goldthwait are among the experienced directors who have chosen to dabble in the ‘found footage’ field.

With that in mind, filtering out as much of the bad from the good as possible, I’ve come up with a list of ten ‘found footage’ films that are more than worth tracking down.


The Blair Witch Project (1999)

It would be illogical to start with any other film than The Blair Witch Project. Considered by most as the founding father that spawned the subsequent deluge of ‘found footage’ films right up to present day, it certainly offered a sui generis treat providing audiences with an abecedarian student film, something rarely seen on a cinema screen. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ organic approach, combined with the calculated removal of certain parts of their jigsaw puzzle, heightened audience suggestibility to an all new level.

All three leads are completely convincing as Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, who head over to Burkittsville to interview locals in an attempt to unmask the 200-year-old Blair Witch urban legend. The stories are told in such a natural manner and so intriguing that you just can’t wait to see the protagonists trek off into the woods for a good old camp out.

Whilst this won’t fare quite so well with anyone with a penchant for spoon-fed blood and violence, The Blair Witch Project flat out knows how to stoke your imagination, and rather than the film itself scaring you silly, your mind is by and large the culprit for those dangerously high levels of adrenaline that will run through your system.


Paranormal Activity (2008)

Sticking along the lines of The Blair Witch ProjectParanormal Activity also exploits the illusion of amateur camerawork to turn simple daily events into the things of nightmares. Be it a creaking wall or squeaking door, these are all sensations we can all plug into and director Oren Peli knew right there that he had the perfect concept which he could pull off on a shoestring budget.

The film follows Micah and Katie who decide to film every waking and sleeping moment in their abode as disturbances that Katie has been experiencing since childhood are becoming more and more relentless. Culling footage from handheld cameras and security cameras scattered around the house, Micah hopes to find a rational explanation to put his wife, and himself, at ease once and for all. As you can imagine, the recovered footage does everything but provide comfort.

On paper, the thought of having to endure drawn out scenes whilst the protagonists toss and turn in bed sounds pretty sleep inducing in itself but you couldn’t be farther from the truth. This technique actually escalates the tension and anticipation giving the mind plenty of time to imagine what kind of scares are waiting to happen. It’s no one trick pony though. Cattle-prod scares aside, Paranormal Activity provides a revelatory look at the couple’s relationship and their decaying bond gradually builds another front of fear, making it impossible to know exactly what or who we should be afraid of.

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The Bay (2012)

It was director Barry Levinson who found a way to shake up the found-footage genre in 2012 by adding a social commentary slant to the melting pot in the form of the eco-horror film, The Bay. The footage is by-and-large made up of a retrospective campaigning film which was confiscated by the government as is documented an incident involving humans serving as hosts for a deadly, mutant breed of the parasite known as Cymothoa exigua. Well the report got out and this, combined with a composite of all manner of recordings from mobile phones, social media and police surveillance cameras are all efficiently intertwined to relate the sequence of events. What really hits home here is the light The Bay shines on just how many breadcrumbs we all actually leave behind nowadays. Whilst the idea of us serving as hosts for a mutant parasite sound pretty far fetched, and it is, the film still manages to get you wondering how a similar situation might actually play out in real life, sucking you even deeper into the narrative.

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The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

Recently released on Netflix, Adam Robitel’s The Taking of Deborah Logan not only provides one of the most novel concepts on this list but also, for me at least, the creepiest lead performance I’ve seen in a very long time. Yes it’s yet another student documentary but the hook here is that the lead reporter is a medical student commissioned a grant to document Deborah Logan (Jill Larson), a patient suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Whilst Deborah doesn’t seem overly content on the idea of a film crew documenting her each and every move, it is her daughter who convinces her to agree, given their financial problems.

As I said, the beauty of this film is Larson’s absolutely daunting portrayal of Deborah as she deteriorates into something no one could ever expect. At first she comes across as a sprightly, affable golden girl until her symptoms begin to diverge from those typical of an Alzheimer patient, putting everyone in jeopardy.

I’m sure the idea of an elderly woman suffering Alzheimer’s may not sound like the stuff of nightmares but you have literally no idea where the film will take you until it’s too late and its crawled right under your skin. The physical manifestations on Deborah’s body are certainly shock inducing too, but it’s Larson’s expressions that seal the deal as each and every one of her glares and stares convince you she’s scheming something evil somewhere in that head of hers. As there’s no guessing what she’s capable of next, The Taking of Deborah Logan is a film you won’t be forgetting any time soon.

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The Den (2013) 

Next up is The Den which brings the online video chat phenomenon into the mix giving the found footage genre yet another fresh lick of paint. This feature debut from director, Zach Donohue follows yet another graduate student, Elizabeth Benton (Melanie Papalia), who receives a grant to study video-chat culture. To do so she devotes her every waking moment to a website called The Den. This plot premise results in 99% of the action taking place on computer monitors with window upon window of streaming videos and, surprisingly, it’s much more of an audience immersive experience than you’d think.

As can be expected, Elizabeth stumbles across all manner of dumb teenagers, eccentrics and fetishists until she clicks on someone she shouldn’t have. Despite being in the safety of her own home, it’s not long before the evil lurking at the other end of her broadband connection literally hacks into her life putting both her and her friends and family at risk.

The concept works particularly well as it touches on the use of social networks that each and every one of us can relate to. It helps ground the whole thing and raises some serious awareness as to just how safe the internet is – albeit somewhat exaggerated. If, like the film’s star, you are an avid video chatter, when the shit hits Elizabeth’s CPU fan, this film will definitely have you thinking twice before Skyping your loved ones again.


Banshee Chapter (2013) 

Rightfully earning Total Film’s coveted ‘Scariest Movie Award’ at last year’s Film4 FrightFest, writer-director Blair Erickson’s first feature, Banshee Chapter is up next. Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond,’ the film follows journalist Anne Roland (Katia Winter) as she investigates the strange disappearance of a friend, which could be related to a government top secret drug which tunes users into the same wavelength as malignant entities from another dimension. It sounds bizarre, and it is, but in all the right ways.

Despite the Lovecraftian inspirations, Erickson’s significant research into many conspiracy theories is also brought into play. Accordingly, the film is a classic haunted house film of sorts with the American society being the “house” and the scares being the cultural and conspiracy boogeymen kept under lock and key. Spattered with dark humour, particularly in the form of Ted Levine, Erickson perfectly tightropes the fine line between creepy and comedy to make sure the dark, tense atmosphere is maintained throughout. Relentless use of raw, grimy video footage for a dark and brooding atmosphere combined with a smart political spin earns the film a more than rightful place on this list.

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Willow Creek (2013)

Coming from comedian-turned-auteur, Bobcat Goldthwait, Willow Creek is essentially a 60 minute ‘mockumentary’ culminating in a 20 minute shockumentary. Whilst this might not sound particularly enticing for hardcore horror fans, Goldthwait skillfully gets his audience to warm to the protagonists, Jim and Kelly (Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore), as they head to the Six Rivers National Forest, where two filmmakers allegedly captured Bigfoot on film.

The rabbit in the hat here is the banter between the two protagonists and the townsfolk as it essentially leads you into the perfect false sense of security. The humour subsides pretty darned swiftly when cracks begin to show in the couple’s relationship and, differences aside, they head into the woods to camp out alone. This is where the purpose of Goldthwait’s comedy-tinged documentary becomes apparent. We have bought into the characters so much that by the time Bigfoot starts causing a commotion we feel just as tightly zipped up in that tent as the protagonists do.

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Trollhunter (2012)

Whilst films like The Blair Witch Project and Willow Creek rely on a less-is-more approach, Trollhunter stomps firmly on the other end of the found-footage spectrum, which is particularly surprising given its shoestring budget.

Following a documentary team on the trail of a simple poacher they soon discover that he is actually serving to protect the locals from something much bigger than they could ever have imagined. The hunter reluctantly lets the crew tag along, despite their scepticism, and what they find in the woods I’ll leave up to your imagination. Steeped in classic Norwegian troll folklore, the film is equal parts chilling and amusing. Trollhunter makes for not only one of the best found-footage films of all time but provides a fresh, unconventional monster movie to boot with effects on a par with J. J. Abrams’ recent outing in the genre, Cloverfield.

Neil Marshall has laid down quite the gauntlet for himself in taking on the remake of this one.

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[REC] (2008)

In the early stages of the Spanish-made [REC], the audience is softened up with an ingenious concept as we follow a reality TV crew shadowing a team of firefighters over the course of one night. All seems innocuously quiet at the HQ until a call comes in requiring their services as an ageing woman is trapped in her apartment. Unluckily for them, the woman in question just happens to be a blood-lusting zombie (or demonically possessed), and the whole film takes a startling about turn akin to Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn. If that wasn’t enough on their plate, the building is swiftly put under a quarantine lockdown with no manner of escape.

The apartment block setting and its residents and visitors – who gradually start to turn, one by one – make for the perfect haunted house ride with rage and delirium building in the confines of the building. Then, when you think it can’t go anywhere else the film throws in a last-minute supernatural swerve ball which notches the shock levels up even more, and then some, whilst providing the perfect set up for the (surprisingly strong) sequel.

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The Last Exorcism (2010)

Last Exorcism took found footage to demonic possession territory, as the spotlight shines brightly on the minister called to the scene of the possession rather than the demon’s host. Built as a documentary film, a film crew are allowed to follow preacher Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) on one last exorcism. Marcus, whose faith is waning, doesn’t believe in any of this possession malarkey but his intentions are good. He does what he does in the hope of saving his “possessed” clients from other exorcists who could do them more harm than good. It’s not long before Cotton realises that he may have just come face to face with the Devil as he finds himself battling to save the soul of an innocent farm girl, Nell Sweetzer.

By focusing on the preacher, The Last Exorcism pays homage to classics like The Exorcist whilst never trying to outdo all the great possession films we’ve seen before and, in all fairness, Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland’s script works remarkably well in its own right. Said duo also manage to inject a fair share of humour into such sordid subject matter and, despite the film touching on waning beliefs and divine deceit, not once are religious beliefs lampooned.

As a standalone film this is certainly a found-footage film worth finding. It’s just a shame the sequel didn’t live up to the expectations engendered by the original.

Howard Gorman

UPDATE: Check out some of Scott Weinberg’s favourite ‘found footage’ films in this VODcast: