Maybe it’s because The Blair Witch Project, [REC], and the Paranormal Activity films have made it look so easy (not to mention profitable), but there are lots of pretty terrible “found footage” horror movies hitting the virtual shelves these days. Just bring up the phrase “found footage” around most horror fans and you’ll notice that a fairly firm backlash is in full effect, and that’s fine. The found footage (or faux documentary) approach isn’t going to disappear any time soon, and sometimes a little bit of backlash is a good thing; it makes filmmakers work a little harder to create something original, memorable, or at least fun.
But why focus on the well-intentioned misfires and the absolutely cynical cash-grabs? It’s much more interesting to throw a spotlight on a filmmaking style that is lambasted fairly often, but very rarely championed. As a lover of all things horror, I’m glad that I’m not sick to death of found footage (yet), because that’s where I’ve found some rather nice surprises this year.
(Note: if a film is on this list, that’s neither a 5-star rave review nor a personal guarantee that you’ll enjoy it. Some of the movies listed are what I’d call half-decent at best, but also display some sort of craftsmanship and creativity on the “found footage” front.)
15. The Hunted — Lead actor Josh Stewart (The Collector) writes and directs a somewhat dry and laid-back found footage thriller about a hunting trip gone horribly awry. Suffers from the Golden Problem of almost all found footage films — it takes way too long to get to the scares, suspense, or splatter — but the film earns points for combining a basic horror tale with the “aspiring reality TV star” hook, and Stewart does a fine job of building a character you’ll probably dislike but also kinda like watching.
14. Delivery: The Beast Within and 13. Devil’s Due — It’s only natural to record a lot of videos as your first pregnancy progresses, right? Well, here are two horror films that hope you agree with that theory. Neither flick is exactly flawless, but if you’re looking for “perfection” you might want to stop digging around in found footage movies. (OK, [REC] 2 is pretty much perfect.) Both films benefit from strong performances, effective Act III jolts, and themes that touch on the naturally protective way we all feel towards pregnant ladies.
12. Willow Creek and 11. Exists — Given that Bigfoot’s most infamous appearance is captured in grainy old 8mm film, and that most found footage horror movies take place in the woods, it only makes sense that we’d get a handful of movies like these. It’s always interesting to see two teams of filmmakers take on the same story (and right around the same time), and for that reason these two make a particularly interesting double feature. The former is a bit more mature and relaxed; the latter is a bit more energetic. Both have good actors filling a whole lot of time before “the good stuff” hits, but I guess we’ve established that this is a key issue in found footage flicks.
10. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones — A change of location often helps a popular franchise to stay interesting, and that was certainly the case here. The established formula (cameras barely capturing ghostly visions inside a big house) is still fun stuff, but the characters here are a bit more pro-active, which gives us more story to focus on in between the scary bits.
9. V/H/S: Viral — Even if you watch it just for Nacho Vigalondo’s gloriously insane look at how alternate dimensions might work, you’ll probably walk away happy. Fortunately there’s some other good stuff in the form of an evil magician’s cape, some skateboarders who kill demons, and all sorts of various mayhem. May be the slightest of the trilogy, but all three have stuff worth seeing.
8. Inner Demons — As The Hunted uses one of those hunting shows as a springboard for a scary tale, this creepy little indie uses those “Intervention” programs as the focal point for its horrors. What if your troubled daughter actually isn’t a maladjusted drug addict, but is instead (yep) possessed by a demon? Simple combination, done rather well. Also Act III has some very nice jolts.
7. The Houses October Built — Most Americans are familiar with those haunted houses the pop up every autumn. Maybe it’s a neighbor’s house, could be an empty store at your local strip mall, or perhaps it’s a big, creepy mansion that’s way off in a cornfield somewhere. This movie offers a bunch of documentary filmmakers as they seek out the most “extreme” faux-haunt imaginable. Suffice to say they find one.
6. The Taking of Deborah Logan — “Demonic possession” and “Alzheimer’s victim” sound like a potentially tacky combination for a horror movie, but fortunately the filmmakers seemed to have considered that ahead of time. Plus, let’s be fair: Alzheimer’s is a terrifying disease, and one of the reasons we enjoy horror stories is because they help us deal with our true fears. Wow, this just got deep. Sorry. This is a very solid chiller, thanks mainly to some great performances, a nice sense of suspenseful restraint, and a finale that packs a lot of fun jolts into a very tight frame.
5. Mockingbird — The second feature from the writer/director of The Strangers, and while that one was a small-scale but wide-release studio release that sold lots of tickets, Mockingbird debuted on VOD without a whole lot of attention earlier this month. It’s sort of three mini-stories that gradually come together, and while one can plainly see why Mockingbird is not a “wide release” horror movie, it’s also a crafty and compelling rumination on our own egocentric nature. In other words: humans love themselves, they love recording themselves, and they will often continue to do so when they plainly shouldn’t.
>—-> Late addition! Right about here is where I should have placed a film called As Above, So Below. I know it’s cheating to add something late, but I’d rather include a decent movie than leave it out. Thanks to those who pointed out the omission. I was also asked about Open Windows, which is definitely found footage, of a sort, but since I’m actually in that movie (honest truth) I try not to write about it too often. But yes, I do like it. <—–<
4. The Possession of Michael King — A documentary filmmaker who has lost his wife challenges the dark forces of the universe to make their presence known. Once and for all. While he films the whole thing. I’ll say no more than that. Except to say that this flick is a whole lot better than its simple premise and relatively generic title may imply.
3. The Den — “Found footage” graduates into “all webcam” territory, and if it weren’t for the film’s clever concept and unexpectedly engaging visual presentation, this could have been an 88-minute eyesore. It’s about a woman who wants to research the “down & dirty” online chat sites, and (very) quickly lives to regret choosing creepy chat rooms as her college thesis topic.
2. Afflicted — You’ve probably heard this one described as a horror version of Chronicle, and that’s because it’s a very fitting description: two old pals discover that they’ve gained “otherworldly” powers, have a good time, and then realize that freaky powers often come with alarmingly unpleasant side effects. Quite a bit “slicker” than most found footage horror movies, which helps things on a visual level, but Afflicted also benefits from two strong leads and some really nifty horror beats once all the mysteries are solved.
1. The Sacrament — “Faux documentary” is another way to say “found footage,” at least in some cases, and it’s entirely true of Ti West’s The Sacrament, which has no need to “explain” why its characters are holding cameras all the time: it’s because they are journalists who have barged in on a quietly kooky religious cult and promptly begin poking around where they are not welcome. A deeper sense of “realism” is one of the bigger strengths of the found footage horror movie, and The Sacrament underlines that theory in a big way. That you sometimes forget it’s a horror movie is a testament to how subtly effective these films can be.
(P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should mention that I’m a producer on an upcoming movie called Found Footage 3-D. No, wait. I don’t mean “full disclosure.” I mean “a shameless plug.” Sorry.) —@scottEweinberg