To introduce an exciting feature to Cinema Spotlight I wanted to focus on a movie subgenre that I have been fascinated with for a very long time. The found footage filming style, where a movie is filmed through the lens or lenses of a camera or cameras to act as home made or documentary footage, has become a cliché in recent years, but the subgenre has created some of the scariest and most enjoyable films out there nonetheless. From its more common use in the world of horror to its application to other genres like science fiction and action, the found footage filming style puts the audience in the drivers seat and creates a movie-watching experience like no other.
That being said I’ve decided to count down the top 15 found footage films to date, a very difficult task for someone who is a massive fan of this filming style. Using a combination of cultural impact, effective use of the found footage technique and overall film quality I managed to cut down a list of around 30 to only 15 with special consideration to those films that received critical acclaim as well. To be on this list a film must utilize the found footage narrative style completely, or at least the bulk of the film, so movies like “The Pyramid” which only partially utilize the format do not count. Also movies like the recently released “Hardcore Henry” will also not be found on this list as that is considered part of a new subgenre altogether as a first person perspective films, not an actual found footage film. One last thing, only one film per franchise can be represented on this list.
Honorable mention goes to “The Gallows”, “The Last Exorcism” and “The Den”, all great movies in their own right worth checking out that just barely missed being on this list. Also an honorable mention goes out to 2012’s “Project X” which may be the most controversial exclusion from this list, but it’s a fun and entertaining party-themed found footage film worth a watch that just doesn’t live up to the quality and uniqueness of the films that made the cut.
Without further ado here we go:
The 2014 found footage film “Unfriended” is truly a unique entry in the subgenre, utilizing modern social media tools to tell the story of a group of friends who become haunted and hunted by the spirit of a classmate who committed suicide exactly one year before. As it becomes clear that it is a spirit that is taunting them each member of the group finds themselves picked off one by one in gruesome fashion while the spirit tries to get them all to admit who was behind the compromising tape that drove her to commit suicide after it made its way online. Using Facebook, Skype, YouTube and other social media outlets to show the recordings and interactions between the teens and the ghost “Unfriended” is not only an appropriate film depicting the subtle message of danger on social media and the larger message of the effects of bullying, it’s also a scary and intense thriller of a horror film that will make you think twice before posting that nasty Facebook message to target those you feel are unworthy of respect.
- The Visit
The newest film on this list, “The Visit” is a true comeback story for the once great M. Night Shyamalan and his first relatively good movie in years. What stands out about “The Visit” is its self-awareness as the young girl behind the camera openly admits throughout the film that she is an aspiring movie maker and is taking the opportunity to visit her grandparents for the first time as a chance to make her first documentary style film. This adds legitimacy to the found footage premise rather than shoehorning it in for effect and creates opportunities for plenty of jump scares and creepy situations that make this an effectively spooky and intense guessing game right to the end. Like any found footage film it has its dry moments, but even in those situations the film utilizes its atmosphere and style to perfection to create one of the better horror-themed found footage films to come out over the past few years.
- Diary of the Dead
The fifth film in George A. Romero’s “Dead” series, “Diary of the Dead” follows a group of young filmmakers who find themselves at the dawn of the zombie apocalypse. It’s a premise that is surprisingly underutilized in the found footage subgenre, but in the hands of a horror icon like Romero the found footage format is expertly used to add a lot of fun and anticipation to every scene. The whole movie plays out like a home video recorded during “The Walking Dead” and while it’s not Romero’s best work “Diary of the Dead” offers an effective and unsettling new look at the zombie apocalypse as it unfolds around both the character and the viewer through the lens of a video camera.
- The Sacrament
A common cliché in the found footage subgenre is the filmmakers claiming to be making a documentary, legitimizing their obsession with capturing everything on film. Here is a situation where this formula actually works. The film follows a group of friends who travel to the utopia of Eden Parish, where one of the main character’s sister lives. The society claims to be a utopia free of drugs and influence from the outside world and immediately gives the feel of a classic cult with a single leader, named “Father”, being the central figure in the community. As the film progresses the filmmakers, and thus the viewers, watch the dangers and tragedies of cult life play out before them in a very unsettling turn of events that borrows heavily from tragedies like the Jonestown Massacre. The film includes some very graphic scenes and the use of the found footage perspective effectively keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat and right in the middle of the action right up to the final scene.
- The Bay
One of many films in this list that debuted at a film festival, “The Bay” opens by claiming the film the viewers are about to see was confiscated by the U.S. government and was leaked for the world to view. What plays out are several different cameras filming different stories as Chesapeake Bay in Maryland becomes the target of a new breed of parasite that begins to take its toll on the town and its inhabitants and visitors over the 4th of July weekend. Different cameras and self-filming styles are used to tell the many different stories and the raw emotion and grade-A performances by the actors make it easy to become emotionally invested in the wellbeing of many of these people as their individual lives come tumbling down due to the epidemic. To that end it becomes a stylistically shot cautionary tale and one of the most unsettling films on this list.
- Man Bites Dog
This Belgian mockumentary might be one of the strangest films on this list, but it has one of the most interesting utilizations of the found footage style ever with a premise that focuses on the dangers associated with getting the story and the perfect shot. The film follows a documentary crew looking to film a day in the life of a sadistic serial killer. Through the camera the viewer witnesses gruesome murders at the hands of the killer with the film crew seemingly accepting these actions as part of getting the shots they need to make their movie. Eventually the camera crew becomes involved in the murders, becoming lost in the killer’s world of murder and sociopathic tendencies. It’s a film with a subtle message of how far someone will go to get the product they are looking for while also offering some very realistic and brutal scenes in an original and blunt tale. The film acts as a cautionary tale of journalism gone to the extreme. Not bad for a film made by a few students on a small budget.
Now here’s a fun film experience if I do say so myself. “Trollhunter” is a Norwegian fantasy film that follows, you guessed it, a film crew that discovers the existence of trolls as they try to create a documentary about a bear poacher. After hunting down the suspected poacher they discover he is actually a trollhunter. What unfolds is an epic adventure as the crew shadows the hunter who takes on a wide variety of troll species one by one, culminating in a showdown with a massive beast in the mountains. With imaginative creatures, a compelling and creative premise and some great use of the found footage filming style “Trollhunter” is a modern found footage classic. One can only hope its expected American remake will hold true to the quality of its source material.
- The Conspiracy
A perfect film for the conspiracy theorist in all of us, this movie’s title says it all. A seemingly perfect premise for a found footage film, the concept of a conspiracy theory is a surprisingly rare story for found footage filmmakers. This 2012 Canadian film focuses on a pair of filmmakers who try to create a documentary about a known conspiracy theorist. Their attempts lead them into a world they never expected as they become enthralled in the secrets and mysteries of a global organization clearly meant to parody the many different suspected global control groups in the real world, like the Illuminati. The film plays on many clichés of classic conspiracy theories and is enough to create paranoia in any viewer with its very effective presentation of fear, insecurity and danger as the two main characters try to unravel and expose something they don’t fully understand.
One of the most action packed found footage films you will ever see, “Chronicle” plays out like a super hero origin story with three young high schoolers coming into contact with a mysterious stone that grants them telekinetic abilities. A bullied boy, named Andrew, is the movie’s central figure, carrying around a camera to document not only his new powers but also his father’s abuse in hopes he will be able to get even with him. As the kids learn about their powers Andrew becomes more and more unstable, hungry for revenge against his father and those who have wronged him and frustrated with his mother’s deteriorating health. Eventually this creates conflicts between him and his friends and we all get to see it play out through Andrew’s camera, which he becomes obsessed with, and we see his transformation from bullied outcast to hardened villain. It’s a very original take on the subgenre and provided a rare glimpse of action and science fiction through the camera lens opening new doors for the filming style. While its epic final battle is a highlight of the film, its one downfall is that the film loses touch with the found footage premise during that confrontation, but not enough to remove it from this list.
“Cloverfield” was the film that launched a viral marketing campaign like no other and not only ushered in a new era for the monster movie, but a new style of advertising a film as well. Stylized to look like it was filmed through a handheld camera, “Cloverfield” follows a group of friends trying to make their way through New York City on a rescue mission after a massive beast attacks. As they make their way through the wreckage they experience the destructive power of the creature first hand, filming everything. The film became a modern Godzilla-like classic and hardcore fans have watched the film over and over looking for little hints and peaks at new details with every viewing. Few films on this list are as perplexing and exciting as this one as the many hints, Easter eggs and filming tricks used in the movie as well as it’s detailed viral marketing campaign still have fans guessing on the origin, species and motives of the monster to this day. You’ve got to hand it to a found footage film so intense they needed to post motion sickness warning at the theaters for potential viewers.
- Cannibal Holocaust
The whole point of making a found footage film is to make it look and feel as if it was something that actually played out in real life. No film on this countdown managed to do that as effectively as the oldest film on this list, 1980’s Italian found footage classic “Cannibal Holocaust.” One of the earliest popularized films to utilize the found footage or mockumentary filming style, some actually believed that this was a true film, shot as real events played out before the camera and later presented to the public. The film was inspired by how the media covered the Red Brigade terrorism in Italy and tells the story of a film crew that went missing as they were filming cannibal tribes in the Amazon. A rescue crew recovers the film, thus literally finding the footage. The film contained so much graphic violence it was banned by many countries and even featured real animal deaths that caused issues among the crew members. Despite its brutal images it’s a must see for any fan of the subgenre and revolutionized the filming style that would go on to be the basis of this entire list.
A personal favorite of mine, “V/H/S/2” is the second film in a series of anthology films all shot using the found footage style. As with the other two films, the second installment focuses on a frame narrative, the main underlying story, with several other stories playing out as the main characters play a series of videotapes that portray different found footage stories of their own. In this film a pair of private investigators enter the dorm of a missing college student they are charged with finding only to discover a collection of VHS tapes. They play several of them one by one and we see different horror stories play out from a man with an eye implant that makes him see paranormal entities to a Go Pro view of a man-turned-zombie and even an alien attack on a family. Each story offers its own scary premise and as the videos are switched we also see the underlying frame narrative take place as well. What’s more is “V/H/S/2” introduces the concept of a much larger power at work with these tapes, expanding on the paranormal concepts in the first film. What makes “V/H/S/2” stand out is that its different stories and features all incorporate very different uses of the found footage style while also creating one of the greatest horror anthologies in modern cinema.
The most critically acclaimed movie on this list and one of the most iconic in the found footage subgenre, “Rec” is a Spanish film that utilizes feelings of dread, claustrophobia and the “shaky camera” technique so popular in found footage to their absolute fullest potential. Launching a franchise, the film was remade into the American film “Quarantine”, but the original plays out much more effectively as a camera crew documenting the night shift of a local fire crew finds themselves locked inside an apartment building where, unknown to them, the residents are turning into zombie-like monsters. The crew, residents and firefighters become trapped inside with the creatures and what plays out is a continuous recording of the events taking place inside as those trapped try unsuccessfully to find a way to escape. It’s considered by many to be one of the greatest found footage films and it’s not hard to see why. “Rec” stands as one of the most expertly shot and effective films of its kind and the suspense and fear felt by its viewers is real and constant as they await what will happen next. This is a fun one to watch with the lights off.
- The Blair Witch Project
Every film fad starts somewhere and for found footage it was “The Blair Witch Project” that ushered in the popularity of the subgenre as it took the world by storm in 1999. Grossing over $248 million on only a $60,000 budget the cast and crew went all out for this film about three friends filming a documentary about the legend of the Blair Witch of Maryland. After the crew heads into the woods looking for evidence of the witch they find more than they bargained for as they become lost and taunted by a seemingly malevolent and unseen entity night after night. Allegedly the three actors were left to their own devices with only cameras and their camping equipment to film the movie as the films crew created the torturous events that unfolded, providing genuine and real fear from the actors on screen. “The Blair Witch Project” launched the popularity of the found footage filming style and introduced many to the concept for the very first time. Still there is one film that made the genre even more popular and that film is at #1.
- Paranormal Activity
A $15,000 budget, word of mouth and a truly magnificently scary premise and presentation made “Paranormal Activity” a massive success and one of the most iconic found footage films of all time. Focusing on the young San Diego couple of Katie and Micah, the film is shot through Micah’s video camera as he sets it up in their room to capture strange occurrences happening in their home at night. We, the viewers, see everything through the camera in different cuts of action over the course of each night as the activity becomes more and more violent and active every night. The film was shot using an actual home video camera with minimal crew and only five credited cast members that, for the most part, used their actual names to add to the realism of the story. Despite attempts to replicate the formula in its many sequels and spin-offs no film has ever been able to match the creepy, spooky and downright unsettling feeling of the original “Paranormal Activity” which set the bar for every found footage AND paranormal film to come out since its 2007 release. Many have tried to imitate “Paranormal Activity” and few have succeeded. We may never see a movie that captures the found footage concept as perfectly as this film and that is why it sits at #1 on this list.