Found footage horror is a much-maligned sub-genre but with more and more of these films appearing in cinemas every year, there seems to be no sign of the technique running out of tape anytime soon. Recent efforts have taken the horror out of found footage with the superhero themed Chronicle and partying teens of Project X but horror is still very much at the heart of the genre (just ask anyone who sat through Project X). There may be more straight-to-DVD offerings than you could point a shaky camera at but the films that use the found footage aesthetic well, and in interesting and often new and exciting ways can be hugely profitable and offer audiences a unique and immersive thrill like few other horror films. Time to dust off those lost tapes and take a look at the best found footage horror films of all time.
10. TrollHunter (2010)
You’ll believe it when you see it ran the tagline for this Norwegian found footage oddity. Not quite, but the sight of giant trolls tearing through the countryside is made slightly more believable by the clever mythology and handheld camerawork of the documentary crew that decides to follow the titular troll hunter. On a low budget, director André Øvredal has his characters capture the fantastical sight of these awe-inspiring but ugly creatures as they attempt to make a documentary about Otto Jespersen’s grouchy Hans. Many argued the mock-doc format was getting old and stale by this point but the blend of impressive visual effects to create the trolls and the well-judged moments of comedy made up for the lack of genuine horror and left many with the feeling that there was life in the found footage film yet.
9. Diary of the Dead (2007)
George A. Romero’s second return to the original ‘Dead’ trilogy after Land of the Dead follows film students as they capture the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse. Using a range of found footage from news reports to webcams and videos uploaded to MySpace (remember that?), Diary of the Dead is a typical Romero film with plenty of blood, guts and subtext. With so many characters with cameras, it gives all new meaning to the idea of shooting the dead. There are also some great little additions to the found footage format with a scene where a character is filming while charging his camera at a plug socket and is therefore limited in his movements as zombies close in on him. Romero seems to bemoan the rise of bloggers and vloggers taking over the airwaves as the mainstream media crumbles during the apocalypse. The jumbled transmissions of thousands of people with access to sharing their thoughts over the internet are more of a concern than the traditional shuffling zombies.
8. REC 2 (2009)
The only sequel on this list is a deserved entry into the found footage sub-genre with cops with helmet cameras attempting to survive in an apartment block full of repossessed zombies. Following from its predecessor, the squad enters the quarantined Barcelonan apartment block to find more rabid, rapid zombies sprinting manically around the claustrophobic confines and we get front row seats, positioned as we are on the helmets of our heroes. It’s a mad rollercoaster ride of a film and just when the action seems like it might get a bit repetitive, we switch to seeing from the point-of-view of the camera of a group of kids who have made the fatal mistake of also entering the possessed residence. Taking the story further than the first film and adding to the mythology can’t hide the fact that there is nothing that can compare to the terrifying final scene of the first film. But if you want the cinematic equivalent of a first-person shooter game like Doom, look no further!
7. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Ever wanted to get under the skin of a sociopath killer; find out what makes him tick, what he does in his down time between random slayings and the odd bit of rape? Well meet Ben, part time thief, full time psycho. A film crew follows him around as he robs, kills and rambles on and on about art, music and society. It soon becomes apparent that this film crew is becoming more than just documentary makers as they become embroiled deeper and more explicitly in Ben’s crimes. The line between watching and participating becomes increasingly blurred, implicating you in the audience as you keep watching this most realistic of Belgian mock-docs. Don’t be fooled by Ben’s apparently amiable nature, this is one sick puppy that bites as much as he barks.
6. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Arguably more influential than the number one film on this list, a couple of suburbanites Katie and Micah fall foul of a poltergeist/demon as creepy occurrences are caught on tape by Micah’s trusty camcorder. Bedroom antics are filmed for scares, not pleasure, as the nights get tenser with an unwanted entity attacking the pair in their bed. Filmed on a tiny budget and distributed by DreamWorks, this reminded young and poor filmmakers what could be achieved by the found footage horror genre when it’s done right. It started the biggest found footage franchise, out-grossing (but not grossing out) the Saw sequels and only just seems to have wrapped up with the (supposedly) final film in 2015.
5. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Banned until recently, this is easily one of the sickest, most despicable films you will ever see. So realistic the director was nearly tried for murder, Ruggero Deodato eventually had to bring his cast out of hiding to face the media so that the authorities would really believe he hadn’t killed them. How could a film be this realistic? Well, this is where found footage really began. After a team of morally challenged documentary makers disappear in the Amazon, their footage is later recovered. What the rolls of film reveal is that the local tribes didn’t take too kindly to having their homes destroyed by the documentary makers who were craving a bit of sensationalism. The inclusion of real scenes of animal cruelty makes this extremely hard to watch and deeply disturbing but if that doesn’t upset you enough, try the grueling and realistic depictions of abortion, rape and castration. That should do it.
4. Cloverfield (2008)
When a giant rampaging beast (think Godzilla but scarier) hits the streets of New York, ruining the leaving party of young professional Rob, his best friend Hud decides to document the night on camcorder. Taking the imagery of 9/11 - crumbling buildings, severed landmarks, dusty streets and a city in panic – and keeping the amateur aesthetic of so many 9/11 YouTube videos is exploitative but incredibly exciting. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In) and writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) care little for the flimsy characters but Hud’s cinematography mixed with the destructive power of a truly awesome monster keeps you on the edge of your seat until the explosive climax.
3. REC (2007)
A TV presenter and her camera operator get more thrills than they bargained for when they follow a crew of firefighters into a zombie infested Barcelonan apartment block. Quickly quarantined by the authorities, the fire crew and the presenter must work with the residents in order to stay alive while the camera operator keeps filming. These aren’t the shuffling zombies of Romero’s films; these are the speedy, terrifying zombies of modern horror. Think 28 Days Later but all shot by one of the characters in the story and all trapped in one claustrophobic location. The final scene filmed in total darkness with only the night vision camera allowing the characters to see is one of the tensest and scariest things you will ever witness.
2. Zero Day (2003)
Based on actual tapes created by the Columbine high school killers, two teenage boys create video diaries capturing their preparation for a school shooting massacre. The footage they produce is a scary, fascinating portrait of the banality of evil. These two kids are close friends, a little introverted and insular but pretty normal. But they are planning an unspeakable crime and are documenting their thoughts and actions as they prepare for their big day. It’s a worrying insight into how two seemingly normal teenagers can deceive the world and consider committing a terrifying act without a care for the consequences. Switching from their own camcorder captured footage to the CCTV in their school for the final scene, it’s a bleak, chilling reenactment of a frighteningly real phenomena.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
In October of 1994 three student filmmakers went down to the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary… the rest is cinematic history. Heather, Mike and Josh get lost, hungry and scared in their quest to get to the bottom of the Blair Witch mythology. Roaming in circles with no way out of the woods, they are surrounded by strange noises in the night as they try to sleep. Then objects appear outside their tents, the sound of distant children crying wakes them and then one of the students disappears. Though the witch might never be seen, less is definitely more in this most influential of found footage films. The actors really shot the film themselves and with the directors only giving minor instructions and the actors’ genuine hunger, frustration and fear burn through the screen. One of the scariest films ever made. Please consider buying a copy of my book on The Blair Witch Project here.
5 others to find if you’re not feeling sick of shaky-cam action:
Paranormal Entity 2 a.k.a Gacy House (2010) See this if you loved Paranormal Activity.
The Magician (2005) See this if you loved Man Bites Dog.
Exhibit A (2007) See this is you loved Zero Day.
The Last Exorcism (2010) See this if you loved REC 2.
The Last Broadcast (1998) See this if you loved The Blair Witch Project.