[The following blog post was found in the middle of the woods, corresponding the mysterious disappearance of Z-list internet blogger Enigma Bigglesworth VanNoLastNameInParticular. What you are about to read is entirely real.]
The found footage film has officially become a genre in and of itself. At first, it was a neat little gimmick employed to provide eerie realism to low-key horror films. Now however, we have comedies and action films joining the found footage bandwagon. With recent flicks like Chronicle and Project X expanding what a director can do with the gimmick, we also find that the gimmick is stretching itself thin. There are so many films claiming to be found footage now, that it is starting to get rather tired taking X genre but applying it to the found footage aesthetic. But I still do remember a time long ago where this gimmick was fresh, inventive, and clever. And today, I’m honoring those films that still feel fresh, inventive, and clever in its use of the found footage gimmick, even during a period of time where there’s been a glut of this sort of movie. So without further ado, here are my picks for the top 10 found footage films of all time…
#10: Chronicle (Directed by Josh Trank)
The only non-horror film I’ve included in this mix, Chronicle uses the found footage style to breathe life into one of the most traditional, commercial stories in pop culture: The superhero origin story. When three teenagers discover a strange object under the ground, they discover that it has given them the power of telekinesis. Rather than doing the usual origin story thing of “With great power comes great responsibility”, Chronicle instead shows plenty of footage of the three kids dicking around with their new powers. And it’s all a lot of fun, until the buried emotions of one of the kids, Andrew, begins to surface with furious rage. And those new powers don’t seem to help with that.
While Chronicle does stretch the realms of believability in terms of “who” is holding the cameras, “why” they’re still filming, and other logical errors (Especially in the climax), Chronicle is an interesting take on the superhero origin story that has great performance from its young cast, many thrilling moments, and clever ways to use the aesthetic.
#9: Cannibal Holocaust (Directed by Ruggero Deodato)
One of the most shocking and controversial films of all time, known mostly for its shocking violence, Cannibal Holocaust is also noteworthy for another big reason: It’s literally the first film to ever use the found footage style. So yeah, regardless of whether people considered this film too disgusting for merit, it is notable for pretty much inventing the genre itself.
Centering around a crew of documentary filmmakers studying an indigenous cannibal tribe in the Amazon rainforest, when they suddenly piss of the tribe they’re documenting, the viewer plunges into a bloodbath filled with over-the-top amounts of rape, torture, gore, and yes, cannibalism. While certain things about this film haven’t aged well, and its metaphors are about as subtle as a boat crashing on a train crashing on a plane crashing in the middle of a freeway, it’s worth watching if you have the curiosity (and stomach) for one of the most profoundly disgusting and shocking films of all time.
#8: Paranormal Activity 3 (Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman)
I’ll admit, I think the Paranormal Activity sequels are good. This is coming from someone who was fully trying to find reasons to hate them while watching them, but couldn’t find much to truly “despise”. They have problems, sure, but they deliver in giving you the heebie-jeebies when appropriate. Paranormal Activity 3 was especially surprising for me. While I liked the second film despite a few little problems, I think the third film did a good job at employing new scares into the franchise and had one helluva climax. Which isn’t to say this entry doesn’t have problems too. There are a few terrible jump-scares and some logical fallacies to the franchise’s mythology (Yeah, who would’ve thought that Paranormal Activity would have its own mythology), there are moments of great build-up and equally great payoff. The final 10 minutes in particular, were sweat-inducingly scary (Though that may just be my fear of old ladies slowly walking up to the camera…very specific fear, I know).
#7: Cloverfield (Directed by Matt Reeves)
Of all the films in this list, Cloverfield undoubtedly has the most incomprehensible shaky-camera, but deservedly so. I mean, if I were recording something while skyscrapers all around me were being toppled over by the mighty swipe of Cthulu and Godzilla’s bastard child, I’d be shaking the camera around like an idiot too.
Cloverfield may not be horror in the traditional sense, but it is a pitch perfect example of a film that has almost non-stop suspense from beginning to end. The effect of being thrown right in the center of the chaos you typically see in most monster movies, almost as if you’re an ant in the middle of a tornado storm, is wickedly executed and insanely intense from the first explosion to the final moments. And while the constant shaking of the camera may be vomit-inducing, Cloverfield delivers on what it’s supposed to: Diving the viewer head first into the chaos. And it does this simple fact better than just about any other monster movie.
#6: Noroi: The Curse (Directed by Koji Shiraishi)
Now here’s one I can guarantee just about none of you reading this list have seen. Not a fan of the slam-bang chaos of Cloverfield and Cannibal Holocaust, but looking for something eerier, creepier, and more along the lines of the best Japanese horror films such as Ringu, Ju-On, and the original Pulse? This will be the source of your wildest nightmares, to be sure.
Noroi follows a paranormal investigator tracking down the activity of a mythical demon named Kagutaba, and how he makes life a living hell for the people under his curse. As the incidents become more and more bizarre and unsettling, Kagutaba soon begins to haunt our protagonists everywhere they go. Filled with some of the creepiest imagery you’ll ever see in J-horror history (Two words: Ghost babies), Noroi is just unsettling to the core. This film is hard to find in the US, so if there is a way to see this film without having to pirate it, I’d be more than happy to know so I can share this little gem with more people.
#5: Grave Encounters (Directed by The Vicious Brothers)
Grave Encounters was perhaps the most surprising film on the list for me. I heard almost nothing about it other than a few recommendations from critics I respect and a brief summary of the premise: The crew of a GhostHunters rip-off show entitled Grave Encounters decides to investigate paranormal activity in an abandoned mental asylum for a night, only to discover real, actual paranormal activity that is much more than they bargained for.
I’ve seen a surprising amount of negative reviews for this one, and I can see where they’re coming from. Grave Encounters doesn’t really do anything too fresh or innovative to set itself apart from other found footage films, or other horror films in general. The acting is solid but you never give a damn about the characters, some of the effects look cheesy, there are some absolutely cheap jump scares that are admittedly effective but for all the wrong reasons, and the beginning of the film that parodies the fallacies of ghosthunting shows is tonally different from the bleak final moments.
But god damnit, this movie scared the living shit out of me. This is mostly due to one of the most excellent uses of an abandoned mental asylum since Session 9, logical explanations on why there would be so many cameras and equipment to capture the footage, and the way The Vicious Brothers the directors* take the usual “safety nets” of these sorts of premises and remove them from the viewer, leaving for a horror setting that works insanely well and more than makes up for the flaws in character development. If pure atmosphere is all you need to be terrified, this will chill your bones for good.
*Oh, and dear directing duos: Please don’t ever call yourself something like “The So-So Brothers” or “The Brothers Herpaderp” because it’s stupid. Hell, the Vicious Brothers don’t even have the last name “Vicious”! And they aren’t even brothers! At least those hacks “the Brothers Strausse” that made Skyline had an excuse! You aren’ the Coen Brothers. Stop it.
#4: [REC] (Directed by Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza)
Much like Cloverfield, the Spanish film [REC] is all about taking viewers into a chaotic situation, and plunging them all headfirst into it with the mockumentary approach making everything feel more intimate and visceral. And also much like Cloverfield, the film rarely stops to take a break. Virtually non-stop intensity all the way through, [REC] takes an already terrifying situation (Being trapped in a quarantined apartment crawling with zombies) and ups the suspense at every chance it can have. And while that does include a lot of jump-scares, my oh my, what incredibly well-executed jump-scares they are. The only thing scarier than the first 70 minutes are the final 10, in an almost pants-wettingly suspenseful climax.
The film was later remade into the inferior American film Quarantine, and also got a sequel back in Spain called [REC]2 that explained what the viral outbreak was with mixed results. I say skip those and remain with only this pants-crapper.
#3: Home Movie (Directed by Christopher Denham)
Home Movie meanwhile, lies on the opposite end of the spectrum of Grave Encounters and [REC]. While Christopher Denham’s Toronto Film Festival hit doesn’t offer up a logical enough explanation for the found footage style and the atmosphere is more low-key than some of the other titles in this list, Home Movie is absolutely terrifying largely because of the way Denham develops his characters, makes you surprisingly care about them, and then show you unspeakable atrocities involving children. Basically, think Children of the Corn but with more believable characters and more subtlety.
Taking cues from classic demon-children films, Home Movie starts with a married couple (Cady McClain and Heroes’s Adrian Pasdar) moving into a new home in the woods of upstate New York with their two young innocent children. But as soon as they move, the children start to act strangely, refuse to talk, and perform seemingly random acts of violence on the family pets. Thankfully, the reasoning for the children’s behavior is wisely left unexplained, leaving you to wonder whether they’re possessed, insane, traumatized, what have you. While the movie is definitely a slow-build, it pays off with an incredibly disturbing climax that takes the usual cat-and-mouse chase scene but from the cat’s point of view. Another underseen little gem. Not for everyone, but fans of slow-building horror should keep an eye out for this one.
#2: Paranormal Activity (Directed by Oren Peli)
The success story of Paranormal Activity is indeed an astounding one. A little indie film that was made with a budget of less than $20,000 that goes on to become the biggest horror franchise of this generation. Even if you don’t like the film, you can’t help but appreciate how director Oren Peli was able to get so many people to become entranced and horrified by long stretches where almost nothing happens. It’s the best sort of suspense. The build-up of each crazy night, each night getting increasingly hectic, tiny details that can be seen at the corner of the viewer’s eye that are elegantly simple and eerie all at once. There isn’t really much more I can say. The scares are all inventive, the build-up is great, and the minimalistic scares prove that less can indeed be more.
But of course, all of these things that I’ve said also apply to my #1 pick…
#1: The Blair Witch Project (Directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick)
As an 8th grader, I actually wasn’t that into horror movies. I know, right?! How shocking! Then, I saw a little movie that changed my life called The Shining that not only scared me pantsless, but also left me with a craving for horror, a genre I was just getting into and was discovering to be a much more fascinating world than I previously gave it credit for. A friend of mine recommended to me The Blair Witch Project saying “It’s not that scary, so it would be a good ‘starting horror movie’ for you,” unaware of how utterly scarred I would be from the experience.
The Blair Witch Project is beautiful in its simplicity. We begin with a title card, there are no gimmicks except the central found-footage one, we are given a logical enough explanation for the gimmick to be justified, a basic enough introduction for the well-rounded cast of characters, an intriguing hook for the story, and what follows is some of the most terrifying shit ever assembled on screen. Except unlike every single movie on this list, that features kids with telekinesis, ghosts, demons, demonic children, giant monsters, and zomibes; all The Blair Witch Project gives you are bundles of twigs and the rest is up to you to go wild. To quote Roger Ebert’s review, “The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark.”
The Blair Witch Project remains one of my favorite horror films because of this golden principle of how the imagination is much more effective than any visual the director can conjure up. The audience becomes an active participant, and begins to create the fear him/herself into something that each different audience member will have a different reaction to, even though at the end, they’re ultimately both wetting their pants for the same reason: They created the horror themselves.
The directors never cheat. There’s never an explanation. There’s never a hint as to whether there really is a witch, whether it’s all in their heads, or even if it’s just some crazy old loon posing to be the witch. It doesn’t matter because the witch is what you want it to be. And what it is to me is my greatest fear: Pyramid Head. Because as we all know, everything leads back to Pyramid Head.
Beautiful in its simplicity, filled to the brim with eerie images and moments, and with a climax so unbelievably scary it makes seeing a man with geometry for a face raping two leg monsters in an abandoned apartment room seem pleasant. The Blair Witch Project is not only one of the best uses of the found footage gimmick, it’s one of the scariest movies ever and it still holds up.
That is all. If you liked this list enough, you can read more of my work this website including reviews, podcasts, and more top 10 lists; as well as follow me on the Twitter-machine @Enigma6667 so you can read more of my general ramblings on film, video games, television, etc.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll–
[Those were the last words Enigma ever typed. The authorities still haven’t recovered his body, nor do they even know if he’s even still alive. The only clue that could be found was his notebook stating that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was “a load of ass so unforgivably terrible it makes me want to eat monkey feces”. We will continue the search, so long as The Devil Inside doesn’t get $35 million at the box office. You idiots.]