There are few film categories that stir so much ire as found footage. The format has become such a cliché in the horror genre that the mere mention of it can send people into a rage. The problem is that the found footage formula, when adhered to strictly, is a gimmick that has a tendency to paint itself into a corner. The conceit is this: the story is told through film or video recordings that have been found or uncovered, and the footage is presented as the only surviving record of the events, with the participants usually missing or dead. This approach is not limited to horror and science fiction but these genres have relied on it most frequently.
The events on screen are typically seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, often accompanied by their off-camera commentary. The cinematography may be done by the actors themselves (in the hopes of lending a more “realistic” feel to the proceedings), and shaky camera work is the oft condemned byproduct. The footage may be presented as “raw” and unaltered, or as if it has been edited into a narrative by those who “found” it. The narrative approach has its roots in literature and the epistolary novel (think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Stephen King’s Carrie), which can consist of correspondence and diary entries written by one or more of the characters, or through other recorded documents such as newspaper stories.
I will unofficially credit Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) for planting the seed of found footage being used as a horror device. His film is not technically a found footage film – it opens with credits and lists actors as stars – so there is no pretense that everything you are about to see is real. But the use of the found footage element helped bring the film notoriety and flagged the technique as a potentially sensational one.
Here, in chronological order, are ten films that put the found footage device to good use, and manage to hook you with a story and not just a gimmick.
1. 84 Charlie MoPic (1989)
The first serious theatrical feature to commit itself wholeheartedly to the found footage format is a Vietnam War film that works on the conceit that the entire film is a documentary about a single army unit on a mission into the jungle. The footage is gathered by an army photographer from MoPic, the army motion picture corps. The limited perspective is effective in building intimacy and tension. The cameraman only lets us see what’s in his field of vision so we don’t know what’s happening to everyone in the company during heated moments of fighting, which is more realistic of being in the midst of battle. The film doesn’t cover any new thematic ground about the war but it is well acted and compelling. Director Patrick Sheane Duncan came to the film after working on The Vietnam War anthology TV series and a Vietnam War documentary so there’s some gritty reality to it. The film only breaks with the found footage formula in the end credits where it identifies the actors. A great little film to check out.
2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This is the film that put found footage on the pop culture map. Not only did it use the format of found footage to good effect but the filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, also created a viral web campaign laying out the mythology of the film and convincing many people that it was all real. That savvy publicity ploy helped to make the film wildly popular on the indie scene and inspired other filmmakers and studios that this relatively cheap approach to telling a story could pay off big. The film is best in the early scenes but strains credibility when things start to get crazy yet the filmmakers continue to shoot even when their lives are in danger. And that is the biggest problem with most of the horror found footage films: how do you show some horrific end involving the characters when they are supposed to be the only ones recording the events?
3. [REC] Franchise (2007-2014)
Kudos to the [REC] franchise (now at four films) for managing to keep the format fresh and fun. The first film begins with a TV reporter and her cameraman doing a fluff piece about a fire station. But then the firemen are called out on an emergency and everyone including the reporter and videographer are trapped inside a dark, creepy building where people seem to be rising from the dead and attacking them. Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza give us a cameraman who tries to deliver well composed shots and hold the camera steady (after all he’s meant to be a professional), and that’s a plus. The first film gives us a tale of infection with some zombie overtones; the second film lets the attacking creatures take on a quality of demonic possession; the third one is a prequel that goes for horror comedy and starts with a wedding video; and the fourth one abandons the format of the first three to reunite us with the female reporter from the first film and supposedly bring the franchise to a dramatic, action thriller close. [REC] uses the first person camera well and by the third film plays off the cliché knowingly with some delicious humor.
4. Diary of the Dead (2007)
George A. Romero has been dealing with zombies for decades. This time out he focuses on a group of film students making a movie as the starting point for what turns into a found footage film about the zombie apocalypse and media manipulation. The reason this film stands out as a found footage film is the clever way Romero uses the first person camera point of view. Take the opening scene. It begins with a TV news cameraman placing his camera on a tripod, which is like flipping off those shakycam films that think bad handheld camerawork is more realistic. He’s filming a female reporter on the scene of a double murder and suicide. When an ambulance pulls up, he tells them to move because they are ruining his shot. Then as the woman begins to deliver her report on-camera, we hear the cameraman exclaim that the dead bodies are moving. But we can’t see anything because the reporter (center framed) is blocking our view. You feel yourself leaning to one side to try and see around her but Romero deliberately denies you a good view of the action, which has the effect of pulling you in even more.
In just a few moments, Romero clearly defines the first person point of view the film will take; reveals sly humor in his shot choices; delivers the gore; hints at the theme of media manipulation; and creates a scene that he can go back to later in a re-edited form to show how “the truth” can easily be manipulated. That’s efficient filmmaking. Later he has fun with the student filmmaker having his batteries die at a critical moment in the action so we miss seeing something and then while he is plugged in recharging his batteries he hears screams but cannot get his camera past the doorway to see what’s going on because he’s plugged into a wall socket and can’t move more than a few feet. This is a clever way to employ the restrictions of the found footage format to create and build tension.
5. Paranormal Activity (2007-now)
This year will see the fifth Paranormal Activity film and Oren Peli deserves props for putting the found footage formula to successful use, especially in the first film. In the original film he smartly recognized that he had a limited budget but made his limitations work for him. The fact that he has a handful of actors and a single location become a strength because the story locks us in the new home of a couple trying to figure out what might be possessing or haunting the wife. The husband sets up cameras throughout the house, which means they are steady and that it makes sense that they are running even when the occupants of the house are scared or even asleep. Peli uses the claustrophobia of the single location to his advantage to intensify the story and there are some genuinely creepy moments that we observe through the “surveillance” cameras but that the couple is initially unaware of. This has proven to be one of the most profitable horror franchises since the first film was so economically produced. Points for DIY inventiveness.
6. Long Pigs (2007)
Nathan Hynes and Chris Power offer a kind of spin on the Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog (mockumentary and found footage films do crossover but the main difference tends to be that a mockumentary presents itself as a finished but ultimately faux documentary while a found footage film will often pretend it is just raw material that’s been discovered and the material used might not have been intended for use in a documentary). In this case a pair of young filmmakers stumble upon a thirtysomething cannibalistic serial killer who surprisingly agrees to let them document his life – in all its gory detail. The interesting twist in this film, which is similar to what happens in Man Bites Dog, is how the filmmakers are to a degree won over by their subject. But when they do try to pin him down about facts and his feelings, tensions rise. The film has not been widely distributed but it serves up equal amounts of black humor and disturbing social commentary.
7. The Last Exorcism (2010)
What’s great about this found footage film is that it starts out as a documentary about debunking exorcisms. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a troubled evangelical minister who has performed exorcisms in the past. But he’s suffering a crisis of faith and wants to expose how easy it is to con someone into believing a person is possessed and that a demon has been exorcised. The sarcastic humor of the first half of the film and the reveal of how to pull off an exorcism scam are entertaining and compelling. It falters in the final act but up until then it’s well worth the time.
8. The Conspiracy (2012)
If you didn’t know this was a found footage film the opening scenes would likely fool you into believing you’re watching a real documentary. This Canadian film is smartly written and builds characters that you care about (something that Cloverfield failed miserably at doing). It builds a deeply paranoid tone (harkening back to that delicious period of paranoid cinema of the ’70s) and constructs an engrossing tale that explores the conspiracy theories of one seeming nutcase. The surprise is that the film doesn’t take a supernatural or alien turn but stays rooted in the real world. A more polished found footage film than most, and well-written and thoughtful – not typical qualities of the genre.
9. Final Prayer (The Borderlands) (2013)
Originally released at festivals as The Borderlands and later changing the title to Final Prayer, this film looks to a group of Vatican investigators arriving in a remote village to debunk some strange happenings. The premise allows the techie character to set up cameras and microphones, and equip the team with cameras mounted to their heads. This reduces the shakycam aspect of the found footage and allows for footage to be gathered when it makes no sense that someone might still be shooting during eerie occurrences. Some genuinely creepy moments, strong performances, and an ending that requires a leap of faith (considering the subject matter maybe that’s appropriate) from the audience make this one worth watching.
10. The Den (2013)
Two years before Unfriended served up a horror tale that unfolds entirely on a computer screen, Zachary Donohue gave us a similar spin on the found footage genre. While Unfriended looks to cyber bullying, The Den looks to a young woman studying the behavior of webcam chat users. Almost the entire film plays out on her computer screen. Less busy on screen than Unfriended and taking place over a more extended period of time, The Den is a slow build to terror and suggests that there’s some nasty sh-t going on out there. Lead actress Melanie Papalia is attractive but a bit flat. Fortunately Donohue builds in some nice scares and is not afraid to leave us with a bleak, brutal ending. You’ll leave wondering just what might be real and what’s a hoax on the Internet.
Honorable mentions: Alone with Her (2006, from the p.o.v. of a stalker), Lake Mungo (2008), Cloverfield (2008), Look (2009, using security cameras), Exhibit A (2010, a family’s home videos provide a disturbing view into their private life), Sinister (2012, nice use of super 8mm), Afflicted (2013, impressive effects work for a low budget film), Europa Report (2013, nice sci-fi twist), Willow Creek (2013), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014, good use of the real horrors of Alzheimer’s), and Unfriended (2015, for capturing what a teenager’s life online might actually be like and how callous seemingly nice kids can be on the Internet).