The new Blair Witch has revitalized interest in the once-ubiquitous found footage genre, and though the Adam Wingard-directed reboot-cum-sequel isn’t exactly blowing up the box office, it has reminded us of what movies helped to define this particular horror form.
Now, we recognize there are plenty of misfires to water down the phrase found footage. For every original Blair Witch, there is a Devil Inside or Devil’s Due. Basically, any movie with Devil in the title (except for the movie Devil; that was pretty harsh).
However, anyone who says “found footage sucks balls” (or really that anything “sucks balls”) is probably overlooking these gems, or they haven’t seen them at all. This list could easily be 20 films, but I’m not going to write that long-ass article, so I’ll just make an Honorable Mentions doohickey right here:
- Digging Up the Marrow, Mockingbird, The Bay, Cloverfield, Exists, The Last Broadcast (precursor to The Blair Witch Project), [REC], Paranormal Activity, etc etc etc…
Below is our actual list of 10 Scary Found Footage Movies. Enjoy!
1. The Den
First on the list is Zachary Donohue’s FaceBook-meets-Chat-Roulette flick The Den. It features a young woman ostensibly studying how people interact with social media, and it turns into a really unsettling exploration of how our online lives can have a really dark outcome, if we’re not careful.
This one, like a few others on the list, deals specifically with new technology and how we are influenced by our constant need for voyeurism, and it apes Rear Window in obvious but interesting ways.
I’m still kind of surprised The Den hasn’t received more attention than it has. It’s a legitimately tense and well-plotted found footage movie. It kind of loses itself in the third act but is otherwise a solid and entirely watchable film. My only regret is that we haven’t stalked Zachary Donohue for an interview.
My goal with this list is to avoid naming all of the eye-rollingly obvious movies you’d expect to be on here. The Paranormal Activities and Blair Witch Projects of the world. While I think those movies are understandably awesome, there are also some amazing and unique films out there to draw you further into the genre.
Afflicted is one of those movies. Derek Lee and Cliff Prowse tell the story of two friends embarking on a world-wide trek when something goes horribly wrong for them. It’s an improvement on Chronicle, which I liked but didn’t love. The first act is basically, what would you do in another country if you found out you had superhuman powers? I think Lee and Prowse basically answer that question with this kinetic and yet entirely resonant movie about friendship and, well, horror.
Also, the camera work is ever-inventive, so much so that I spent a great majority of the flick wondering how in the hell they went about doing what they did. A great viewing experience; I wish I could have seen it in theaters.
V/H/S is kind of an unfair entry into this list, since it’s a collection of entirely scary found footage movies, rather than just a single one. It’s like I snuck several more onto our listicle here. When it came out, V/H/S felt original and full of energy and buoyant in a way many self-serious horror movies aren’t.
And, unlike the sequels, which drift into some pretty inane territory, the original V/H/S is relatively straightforward with how it uses technology to tell the various tales contained therein. I mean, GoPros felt relatively new when the movie came out, so perhaps the movie won’t age as well as some of the others on the list. It might feel unfairly clunky after a few years, so bear that in mind if you’re reading this article after the robot overlords have enslaved humankind.
Specifically, the first segment in V/H/S is worth discussing. David Bruckner’s Amateur Night shifts so suddenly from a story about drunken revelry to something wholly compelling-yet-gruesome. Amateur Night is perhaps the most controversial tales, but for my money it’s also the most memorable. Although, now that I think of it, Safe Haven, the penultimate story, is also a keeper. It predates The Sacrament by some several months or years — I am terrible with release dates — and is somehow more frenetic at its most frenetic moments.
4. Troll Hunter
Troll Hunter is a movie I wish I had paid more attention to when it came out. I only remember watching it the one time, but this Norwegian Blair-Witch-in-the-snow-and-ice is a subtle, lumbering beast of a movie. It follows a group of college students ostensibly on the hunt for bear poachers. What they end up encountering is so much more horrifying / breathtaking. A Trollllllll. (Insert internet neck-beard joke here.)
The effects are surprisingly good for a low budget movie, and the camera work is similarly impressive. It is probably the most unique film on the list, in part because of the tone it manages to strike. While the other movies here are overtly self-serious, Troll Hunter balances humor and horror in a way that completely engrosses the viewer. Of all the flicks I’m writing about on this list, Troll Hunter is the one I’m most likely to re-watch. It has a style and a panache unique to itself but is also approachable and inventive. I’d liken it to Gareth Edwards’s Monsters (which, if you haven’t seen, you should put on your to-watch list).
5. The Sacrament
All hail Ti West. The Sacrament takes true crime and turns it into fodder for West’s foray into the found footage movie. The Sacrament is based almost entirely on the events at Jonestown and its drug-addicted leader, Jim Jones. Which, let’s be honest, you should totally research if you know nothing about it.
Here’s the short version: In November of 1978, nearly one thousand Americans in The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project drank grape Kool-Aid laced with cyanide (among other things) in order to commit “revolutionary suicide,” which, as it turns out, was just a command from their paranoid leader to prevent governmental interference in the cult.
And that’s really the whole set-up for The Sacrament. It’s a fictitious scenario, but the basic idea is the same. Some American journalists venture into “Eden Parish” to locate one of the main characters’ sisters. It’s not wholly different from the plot of the new Blair Witch. Here, though the horror lies in the potential for human beings to fall completely under the spell of a self-aggrandizing father figure. (In this case, it’s a cult leader played note-perfect by Gene Jones.)
Once everything goes all Kool-Aidy, the movie becomes a frenetic, horrifying experience, a clench-the-armrests kind of movie. I happened to see it at the Chattanooga Film Fest a few years ago, and the audience reactions to the violence were absolutely, deliciously perfect.
6. The Poughkeepsie Tapes
This one is the really horrifying one on the list, if you ask me. The Poughkeepsie Tapes splices together footage of a killer’s conquests with an Investigation Discovery-style docu-series. There are interviews with victims’ families, told in a matter-of-fact, this-is-actually-happening
What makes The Poughkeepsie Tapes stand out is the drab brutality of John Erick Dowdle’s film. It is a straightforward exploration of a serial killer’s depravity, and it genuinely makes me feel sort of gross on the inside. It is overly voyeuristic and relentlessly bleak, the extreme end of what Hitchcock explored in Rear Window, and it does it in a way that is devoid of fake dramatic tension.
The fact that the movie was more-or-less unreleased at the time I watched it made it even more unsettling. Getting it all on YouTube elevated the film from mere trifle to something more ominous. It’s the 2000s version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It is one hell of a scary found footage movie, indeed.
7. Grave Encounters
A big complaint people have about found footage movies is that they never feel natural. NO ONE, they argue (often correctly), records every moment of their lives. When the shit goes down, nobody is trying to get that last-minute-before-the-decapitation footage, so it just feels fake and shitty in a movie.
In fact, in plenty of horror movies, I’ve found myself saying the same thing. “NOBODY would keep filming right now.” And in most cases it’s the truth. Even in our selfie-obsessed society, most people would drop the camera and GTFO.
Grave Encounters provides the audience with a fair and believable premise. It’s about a group of paranormal investigators filming an episode in an abandoned asylum. Great idea, IMHO. And naturally, the host is a preening, self-centered prick, so when everything goes bugfuck, he wants to continue filming their shenanigans, all the way down to the bitter end. The movie is scary, weird, self-aware, and yet oddly satisfying as a genre flick.
The last act isn’t as good as it is crazily weird, but the bonus is that the second movie is easily as good (and twice as fourth-wall-breaking) as the first, so if you like the first movie even a little bit, you’ll end up getting a two-for-one here.
8. The Conspiracy
Oh, this one is for all the people who believe in The Illuminati, and holy shit, are there plenty of you out there. The Conspiracy is the most politically-charged of the films on this list, but it manages to treat the subject matter with enough respect and research to make it a passable horror movie.
Two young filmmakers become enamored with a conspiracy theorist and his man-yelling-at-pedestrian act, only to find out he might not be as crazy as they say. The movie grows increasingly more Eyes Wide Shut with each passing moment, and you can almost feel the tinfoil hat being molded onto your head as the most pervasive theories are spewed, reinforced, and then given fictional credence in the movie.
Plot-wise, this is one I kind of want to leave alone, because it benefits from a cold watching. It suffers from a laggy third act, but the payoff at the end is just…watch this movie.
9. The Houses October Built
The Houses That October Built is a pretty solid premise: amateur filmmakers and horror fans alike decide to make a documentary while trekking cross country, visiting the nation’s best and most well-run haunted houses. They meet carnies of all varieties, and it’s all fun until they realize they might be getting followed. Then, it gets real, folks.
It’s a fairly simple affair, and some of the movie is a little slow, but for the most part it’s a blast to watch. It’s also a pretty amazing piece of fantasy, since I often think about what happens to people who fly too near the sun of low-rent schlocky Halloween entertainment.
If you’re sensing a theme, you’re not wrong. One of the most common ideas for a found footage movie involves people going out, doing something, and then realizing that maybe they shouldn’t have done that thing. It’s the same feeling I get when I eat cheap Chinese buffet. The screams, oh God, the screams.
This is the other truly unsettling bit of existential found footage horror on the list. S&man, written and directed by the inimitable JT Petty, who went on to write the breakout survival horror game Outlast, breaks the fourth wall in some pretty interesting and effective ways, and it is meta as all hell without winking too obviously at the camera. In retrospect, what made this movie so disturbing was where I was emotionally at the time. I was in a dark place, and so seeing S&man put me into a real bad headspace…so it worked. I would say this one is a companion piece to The Poughkeepsie Tapes, so if you’re looking to really lose all faith in humanity, watch them back-to-back.
Blair Witch might not be the kick in the ass the moviegoing public needs in order for this genre to be dragged back out into the light, but if you look hard enough, there’s plenty out there to see. Our friends over at the Found Footage Files Podcast even manage to find enough for a consistent (and kick-ass) podcast. It’s not like the genre has gone away. Found footage is relatively easy to do, and it requires less of a budget, for obvious reasons. (We’ve got a video camera! Let’s go to [insert really bad idea] and see what happens!)
I’m also under no illusions that people will love this post. Found footage is kind of like the ugly stepchild of the horror world. They tend to be pretty controversial, because purists don’t find them nearly scary enough — very often, nothing happens until the climax — and they can often display the worst aspects of horror storytelling. Still, I’d love to see a movie like Paranormal Activity hit again so that we can get a slew of new nerds-with-a-camera movies.
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