Talk about your much maligned sub-genres. Found footage has a usually love or hate relationship with horror fans with little room in between. For many, “jerky” camera movements tick them off to no end, and for others, this sub-genre is getting really, really tired due to story redundancy. Worst still, a simple argument from many is this: Why wouldn’t the idiot with the camera just drop it and run?
To date, nearly 100 found footage horrors have been produced. Sadly, most rely on the same elements of shock and awe to keep the audience guessing – which leads to a conditioned response of near boredom. Granted, horror does that in general, but with found footage, we’ve grown accustomed to filmmaker’s expectations. For example, it seems as if most actors have to prove how well they can scream as they’re dragged into the darkness by unseen forces, or how to yell at the other red shirts they’re with in whatever spooky house they’re visiting.
Like any horror film, two items are key: storytelling and characters. Whether it’s a ghost story, alien mayhem, or found footage, you can’t pass those up by any means.
Here’s the best found footage has to offer and why:
Cloverfield (2008) – 4.5 stars
This is the creature feature that came with the jerky camera warning. Another problem: people hated the characters – maybe because they were so real. Even so, no one could fathom why Hud (TJ Miller) would hang onto that damn camera. Well, why not record a historical document? And if that sounds lame, put me in Hud’s place and I’d do the same. Yes, I love history because it’s preservation is our only time machine. As for CGI, this is one of the few that did it well. In fact, it’s hard to believe in this virtually hopeless tale that almost every element was shot on green screen. Too bad Godzilla films don’t bring us such a sense of foreboding and hopelessness.
Paranormal Activity (2007) – 4.5 stars
Oren Peli’s surprise venture earned him an office at Paramount. The film explores an average young couple in an average house dealing with above average phenomenon. Better still, the story didn’t rely on trite jump scares, but played with the imagination to such a degree that the suspense never waned (think old time black-and-white horror like THE UNINVITED with Ray Milland). The tale captured the nightmares of my childhood and each time I watch this thing, I freak out to the point where sleep’s almost impossible.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) – 4 stars
Nathan Baesel sells it all the way as Leslie Vernon, the man who has a film crew follow him as he tries to get his name up there with “Jason” and “Freddie.” The movie’s funny, bloody, and bizarre, and serves as a killer commentary on American media’s love for turning serial and spree killers into household names. Witty and unsettling, the blackness of the comedy makes this one poignant low budget horror. Play Morrissey’s “Last of the International Playboys” now.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) – 4 stars
The film delivered a monochromatic foray of desperation and intensity that set the standard for the rules of found footage. Though many claim it ripped off CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, the only reason found footage films didn’t happen sooner was because of the lack of access for regular people to carry around cameras due to size and film costs. Thanks to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, their tale of naïve documentarians in search of the truth behind a legend launched a sub-genre. Like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, this played on my childhood fears.
The Last Broadcast (1998) – 4 stars
Actor David Beard brings the creep factor in this chilling mockumentary. Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos delivered a story about the hunt for the Jersey Devil to viewers with a twist and a turn that proved disconcerting. Smart and suspenseful, the film delivers on an emotional level that unleashes a cold and distant feeling. Now that’s horror. Embrace the dark atmosphere and see why Weiler is one of the best independent storytellers of our time.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) – 4 stars
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman made what many think is the best of the demonic franchise (too bad the pair blew it with the fourth installment). The scares are intense, come out of nowhere, and leave us shaken thanks to excellent visual effects. Until the second film, which feeds on the success of the first film like a stupid parasite, this one brings wit, charm, and a more professional look to the series.
The Last Exorcism (USA/France, 2010) – 3.5 stars
Many fans questioned the end of this film, though it does work on several levels once one mulls it over. Regardless, Patrick Fabian’s turn as Cotton Marcus is fabulous, and we’re also introduced to the phenomenal Ashley Bell and the equally amazing Caleb Landry Jones. The story of a young woman either being brutalized by her father or a demon is completely disturbing. With solid acting and a tumultuous tale, this movie’s hard to ignore.
My Little Eye (UK/USA/France/Canada, 2002) – 3.5 stars
Are you in for found footage from a reality show? Sean CW Johnson brings frenetic realism to this conflict-ridden tale, also featuring Jennifer Sky, and a young Bradley Cooper. As for the reality show: What would you do to win big when you think the show you’re on might not really exist? With this broadcast, getting voted off the island takes on a whole new meaning. Shot in a lonely house in the dead of winter, there’s no room for escape from cameras that are always watching.
Skew (2011) – 3.5 stars
This one still leaves me in contemplation and upon a second viewing, the star rating could change for better or worse. Besides some decent scares, great character interactions, and more, the final scene is one cool head scratcher open for interpretation. But if you’ve ever had an obsessed friend who doesn’t know when to turn off the damn camera, you should appreciate this film. However, it may leave you with one freaky feeling when the credits roll.
The Tunnel (Australia, 2011) – 3.5 stars
This one outdoes many mockumentaries with a strong story and solid acting, as well as great structure. The only problem: from the interviews we know who lives and who dies long before the final act. But pay close attention to actor Steven Davis. In real cinematic life he’s a cameraman, but he delivers a highly spirited performance. Enjoy this news team as they research those things down under in Down Under.
Other great found footage horrors: Cannibal Holocaust (Italy, 1980), The Last Horror Movie (UK, 2003), [Rec] (Spain, 2007), Quarantine (2008), Undocumented (2010), and Europa Report (2013), V/H/S 2 (2013)
Over-rated and over-hyped found footage follies: Home Movie (2008), Trollhunter (Norway, 2010), V/H/S (2012), and the idiocy that is Evidence (2013).
(Cloverfield photo from Wodu Media.)