The following true story is based on the re-assembled found-footage of … Anyone who’s watched a horror movie in the last 20 years should be familiar with that cold open. Cheap to produce and distribute, studios increasingly embraced found-footage horror over the 2000’s into the first half of this decade. Though Cannibal Holocaust may the true original found-footage horror (FFH) movie, The Blair Witch Project is the movie that really kicked off the craze. Following Paranormal Activity’s box office success, the FFH sub-genre really took off. Yes, there’s been some duds along the way (Apollo 18, The Devil Inside). But in the 20 years following The Blair Witch Project’s release, the sub-genre has produces some stand-out horror movies. Below are 10 of the sub-genre’s best offerings.
The Last Exorcism, Cloverfield, V/H/S 2, The Sacrament, Home Movie
10 – Willow Creek (2014)
Willow Creek may be somewhat of a divisive entry on this list. Critics heaped praise on Bobcat Goldthwait’s Bigfoot found-footage effort. In contrast, audiences turned up their noses. Like many FFH movies, Willow Creek toes a fine line between ‘slow burn’ and uneventful. Certainly, Goldthwait takes his time with the movie’s story. And Willow Creek bares more than a passing resemblance to a certain other ‘lost-in-the-woods’ FFH movie. But Willow Creek’s extended nighttime tent sequence is terrifying. It’s a movie moment that draws on everything that works best with found-footage. Add on a cleverly ambiguous ending and tight runtime, Willow Creek is a stand-out example of FHH.
9 = Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Remember when Hollywood was obsessed with J-horror? That fascination produced a series of generally inferior American remakes. Arguably, The Ring and The Grudge stand out as the lone good efforts to remake great Japanese horror. Japanese horror jumped on the found-footage relatively early. Look no further than found-footage ghost story, Noroi: The Curse. Generally, FFH movies are relatively streamlined with few characters and just scraps of background mythology. In contrast, Noroi: The Curse is a long movie, filled with characters, and laden with complex narrative. This movie requires your full attention. But it’s worth it. Simply put, Noroi: The Curse is a scary movie that balances jumps with disturbing imagery that haunts on the periphery.
8 – Grave Encounters (2011)
Found-footage is truly an international sub-genre. Our Canadian contribution to the sub-genre, Grave Encounters, doesn’t really do anything different with the format. If Grave Encounters has been shot like a standard horror movie, its story of a television ghost investigation team that goes missing in an abandoned insane asylum would be standard fare. But directors Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz know how to use the FHH format to generate maximum scares. True, Grave Encounters relies more heavily on jump scares than other FFH movies on this list. But those scares are perfectly executed. And the tongue-in-cheek poking fun at ‘real’ ghost hunters. like Zak Bagans (Demon House), is a bonus.
7 – Lake Mungo (2008)
Australian FFH movie, Lake Mungo, makes perfect use of the format. Technically, Lake Mungo’s story is pretty standard stuff for supernatural horror. Our protagonist discovers a haunting, investigates, finds evidence of restless spirit, and helps the spirit find peace. But it’s all in the execution. First-time director Joel Anderson uses the found-footage format to tell a familiar story in ways that feel fresh. As a result, Lake Mungo is a truly unnerving movie experience. In this case, the faux-documentary approach grounds the narrative in such a way to make it believably haunting. Sadly, Lake Mungo is a criminally under-seen horror movie. To date, it remains one of the best examples of the sub-genre.
6 – Hell House LLC
On the one hand, Hell House LLC doesn’t re-invent the wheel. As compared to Unfriended or The Blair Witch Project, this FFH movie about a haunted attraction’s tragic opening night doesn’t add anything new to the sub-genre. Nonetheless, Hell House LLC does what it does very effectively. If the approaches are familiar, they’re executed perfectly. As a result, this FFH hidden gem builds slowly, boasting several brilliant scares. One of the best scares – a character waking up to talk to the camera while a body in the corner slowly approaches with each edit. The chaotic ending in the Abaddon Hotel doesn’t annoy like other shaky cam footage; it’s disturbing in part because you’re not entirely sure what’s happening. Though two sequels followed, it’s still the original you’ll want to re-visit.
5 – Unfriended (2014)
Technological advancements in portable, digital cameras made the viability of found-footage as a subgenre possible. Likewise, smartphone technology opened up an even wider set of possibilities. Today, prestige thrillers, including Unsane and Searching, have relied entirely on laptop and smartphone cameras. Prior to these thriller, Unfriended experimented with the format. A supernatural twist on cyber-bullying, Unfriended unfolds entirely on laptop screens using Skype, Facebook, and YouTube pages. In spite of its limited setting, Unfriended manages to be quite a tense affair. There’s little in the way of jump scares, but that’s compensated for by an increasingly tense approach to the material. A decent, but disappointing sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, followed.
4 – REC (2007)
When Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later re-imagined zombies as fast-moving ‘infected’, he paved the ways for a decade-plus ‘living dead’ renaissance. Aside from offering filmmakers a cheap way to produce movies, the found-footage format has allowed horror directors to re-imagine familiar monsters and narratives. In 2007, two FFH movies jumped on the resurgent popularity of zombies. Zombie master George A Romero released his found-footage take, Diary of the Dead. But it was Spanish release, REC that proved to be the more successful. REC’s story of a special-interest news team caught in a quarantined building with ‘infested’ residents was scary in any language. Fast-paced, brutal, and filled with jumps, REC would inspire several sequels and an equally good American remake. Moreover, there’s just enough mythology in the movie to engage audiences in between scares. And that ending is one of the best in horror in the 20 years or so.
3 – Paranormal Activity (2009)
The Blair Witch Project kick-started the FHH sub-genre, but Paranormal Activity proved it was a viable, and profitable, direction for studios. Yes, it was the Paranormal Activity franchise that kicked the Saw series to the curb as the annual October horror release. Before either Insidious or The Conjuring re-invigorating the haunted house movie, Paranormal Activity used found-footage to contemporize the sub-genre. Director Oren Peli used the format to create some innovative and refreshing scares. Watching an unseen entity drag Katie from her bed with just a night-vision camera was a blood-curdling the first time. Moreover, Paranormal Activity weaved in enough ambiguous mythology to justify two good sequels before going to the well once too often.
2 – Creep (2014)
Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass’ Creep is a nerve-wracking experience. Consistent with most FFH movies, Creep’s premise is pretty threadbare. Videographer Aaron agrees to film a ‘day-in-the-life’ of the terminally ill Josef. Not surprisingly, Josef doesn’t come as advertised. As things grow increasingly strange, Aaron finds himself in the middle of nowhere with a man who may not be who he claims. What makes Creep so damn effective is how Brice slowly turns up the fear factor. You know something is wrong right away. But Creep relies more on unsettling interactions then generic jumps. For example, Josef’s story about his wolf mask, ‘Peachfuzz’, is about as unsettling as it gets. Factor in Mark Duplass’ terrifying turn as Josef, and you have a classic horror moving in the making.
1 – The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Audiences have always been split on The Blair Witch Project. Some gripe about the shaky cam, while others hail it as a horror classic. I fall into the latter category. First, The Blair Witch Project should be considered a pivotal genre movie for introducing mainstream audiences to found-footage. In addition, the movie’s marketing campaign was something of a trailblazer. This was viral marketing before social media. And lastly, The Blair Witch Project is a scary movie. It works. From its slow-burn build to its ambiguously haunting ending, The Blair Witch Project is nothing less than a classic.