The enormous success of both The Blair Witch Project and, later, Paranormal Activity was a double-edged sword for the found footage horror film. Both were made by independent filmmakers working on miniscule budgets, but the off-the-scale box office made found footage look to studios like a no-risk opportunity to churn out content with very little outlay. Found footage has a bad reputation, and it’s true that much of what's emerged from the subgenre over the last quarter century or so has been cynically throwaway and ill thought-through. But there are also any number of examples where filmmakers working smartly within the format’s limitations came up with great results.
That body of work also provides a fascinating history of the evolution of accessible equipment. In the ‘70s and ‘80s found footage had to have been filmed by a documentary crew, because who else would have the gear? With the advent of the camcorder that was no longer the case, and found footage movies document the the rise of videotape cameras, which then become digital, then smaller, then wearable. Phones mark the next seismic shift, and then it's swiftly onto social media instant-messaging apps and video conferencing software. The recently released DASHCAM, Rob Savage's follow-up to Host, is (supposedly) a Periscope livestream. Film social media hates found footage almost as much as it hates remakes (although to be fair, film social media pretty much hates everything). But increasingly, found footage loves social media.
(NB: Just to get it out of the way, found footage and faux documentary aren’t quite the same thing, but the former term has become something of a catch-all that encompasses the latter, so we’re allowing both here.)
The Legend Of Boggy Creek (1972)
Charles B. Pierce’s film, shot for less than $200k, purports to be a documentary exploring stories of a Bigfoot-like Arkansas creature known as the Fouke Monster, but it blurs the line between fiction and reality by including interviews with real Fouke locals. Pierce followed the film in similar style with The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976). Arguably the found-footage ur-text, it’s certainly an influence on Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’ The Blair Witch Project, and both Sanchez’ later Exists (2014) and Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek (2013) also owe Boggy Creek a clear debt.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Part of the insane onslaught of Italian cannibal exploitation movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, director Ruggero Deaodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is justifiably infamous. It’s the story of a New York academic who leads a rescue mission into the Amazon to find a lost crew of documentary filmmakers. All they find are the cans of film the crew had shot, and the contents – murder, mutiliation and yes, cannibalism – are obviously appalling. Deodato’s then-unusual faux-documentary approach fooled people to the extent that he found himself on trial accused of actually killing people, and had to demonstrate in court how special effects work. That may seem quaint now, but the film is – rightly – still vilified for its genuine animal cruelty. Deodato has thoughtfully put together a ‘vegan cut’ in recent years, excising those awful scenes.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
Part of the wave of violent, cool, arthouse indie movies that upset the tabloids in the early ‘90s (see also Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant, One False Move), the Belgian Man Bites Dog is the blackest of black comedies. In grainy 16mm, a documentary crew follows a serial killer as he goes about his random business, chatting amiably to camera as he does so. To begin with there’s an amusingly dispassionate distance between crew and subject, but as the film progresses and the fictional filmmakers get more involved, the film (intentionally) stops being funny. It’s a bit like a mean practical joke on the viewer, where you’re not entirely clear what you did to provoke it or what the point was.
The Last Broadcast (1998)
Like Boggy Creek, this is a documentary about the search for a folk myth: in this case the Jersey Devil. But it’s also a documentary about that documentary! The set-up is an investigation of a high profile murder case, in which four filmmakers enter the New Jersey Pine Barrens to shoot a low-rent paranormal cable show, but only one of them returns. The footage they shot becomes central to the murder trial of that survivor, and the documentary about that murder trial. The usual amateur talking heads and spooky shaky-cam are all now familiar, but it’s a compelling yarn nonetheless, and its (not entirely successful) twist ending asks muted questions about authorship and point-of-view. Who’s filming those final scenes? Overlooked on release, it’s gained cult significance since, both for the narrative’s forward-thinking use of the then-nascent internet, and the fact that it pre-dated The Blair Witch Project and the furore it created by an entire year.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
It’s hard to remember now quite the extent to which The Blair Witch Project blew everyone’s minds on first release. It certainly isn’t true to say there’d never been anything like it (kids with a camera hit the woods looking for the fabled Blair Witch; it goes wrong), and yet it caught the cultural imagination and became a phenomenon in ways that nobody could have predicted: viral before viral was a thing. A large part of that was the mystery around it: there was nothing in the way of filmmaker publicity, and the film had no beginning or end credits. There was a shonky website pretending it was all real. On the IMDb, the cast were listed as missing presumed dead. Narratively, there was no on-screen editorialising either: unusually Blair Witch wasn’t presented as a documentary per se, but as cobbled-together raw material with no contextualising or narration. It was found footage in its purest form. Amusingly, since there was no music in the film, the soundtrack album was found footage too: supposed to be the mix tape found in Josh’s car. Many imitators followed (including ill-advised official sequels) but nothing ever quite matched it.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Not quite a decade on from Blair Witch, found footage seemed to have burned itself out. But it flared right back up again when Oren Peli’s supernatural poltergeist stalker classic took audiences by storm. Made for practically nothing, there was some studio thought for a while of treating it as a sort of unaired pilot and remaking it for release, before everyone came to their senses and realised that would be unnecessary and insane. Multiple sequels and prequels followed annually for the next few years; chronologically the series ran backwards until part five, expanding the mythology and cleverly retconning what we thought we knew each time. But all of them kept to the aesthetic Peli had set out: ‘vintage’ video footage, prolonged static shots eking out moments of anticipatory dread, mischievous rug-pulling where you thought you were safe to relax for a few minutes and then learned otherwise. But Peli himself has only directed once since, seeming happier as a producer.
The Spanish REC has a simple set-up but a complex mythology. A documentary crew are stuck in a locked-down apartment building as a zombie outbreak kicks off. But there’s something nasty on the top floor, revealing that those ‘zombies’ are the result of a bizarre Catholic conspiracy involving a viral synthesis of demonic possession. It is, to put it mildly, a trip. REC arrived in the same year as Paranormal Activity, but the spontaneous, handheld similarity was coincidence, and much of REC’s energy and freshness comes from the sense of its directors – Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero – inventing their own formal rules as they go along.
"Found footage hadn’t really been a thing in Spain, so our main influence was TV," Plaza reflected to Empire a year or so ago. "There’s a way of telling stories on television, like on the news, that qualifies as 'true’. Jaume and I both remembered a programme where they were shooting from outside a psychiatric hospital with very long lenses. The images were blurry, the sound was really poor, and it was scary! You could imagine something terrible was happening but you couldn’t see it."
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
Horrible but unforgettable; a film that stays in your head, though you may not want it there. John Eric Dowdle takes the documentary approach to the mystery of a serial killer who makes POV tapes of his crimes (murder, torture, kidnap, prolonged psychological abuse and brainwashing), and also of his brazen trips out in the world to mess with the relatives of his victims. What’s compelling about this difficult watch is the gradual piecing together of clues towards the identity of the man behind the camera - and there are weird, dark laughs from details like his apparent balloon fetishism. Ultimately though, it’s devastating and troubling, and it was hard to get hold of it for years, which only added to its disturbing mystique.
Lake Mungo (2008)
Recently revived with a spiffy new Blu-ray, Lake Mungo has been undeservedly neglected but is now getting the attention it deserves. Joel Anderson’s talking heads and handheld camera document a mystery and a grief-stricken ghost story, channelling some of the melancholy, hazy, haunting vibe of other Australian classics like Picnic At Hanging Rock. Its slow-burn pace will have you scouring the backgrounds looking for hidden scares, and perhaps the film’s most impressive success is a final twist that was literally in plain sight right at the beginning: a brilliant piece of misdirection.
Found footage on a big budget: on the cheap side as far as blockbuster filmmaking goes, the $25m that Cloverfield cost is colossal for the found footage genre. It seriously pays off though: director Matt Reeves conjuring a post-9/11 Godzilla from street level. Cloverfield is uncompromising both in its brevity and its singular vision. The single camera POV alienated many viewers by limiting both what we’re shown and what we can ever learn about the unfolding horror, but the point is the experience. Answers are irrelevant, and if the cinematic ordeal that made for serious monster action and large-scale destruction is obviously lessened on the small screen, the camcorder style translates really well to home viewing. Cloverfield still holds up.
Proving that found footage can be both fantastical and funny, Andre Øvredal here sends a student documentary team into the Norwegian woods. They think they’re investigating poaching, until it’s revealed that their hunter subject (Otto Jespersen) is employed by a clandestine offshoot of the Norwegian Wildlife Board, dedicated to keeping giant folkloric creatures both secret and under control (what did you think pylons were really for?). Troll-hunting paraphernalia includes UV lighting to turn them to stone, and gross-out “troll-stink” to hide the scent of Christians. It’s all delightfully silly, but the ground-level lo-fi footage of the 100ft Jotnar is still awe inspiring. And always remember: sometimes trolls just explode.
A found footage anthology in which a collective of cool indie filmmakers each took on an established horror scenario – motel (David Bruckner), road trip (Ti West), slasher (Glenn McQuaid), sci-fi (Joe Swanberg) and haunted house (Radio Silence) – with funny, scary and clever results. Adam Wingard provided the wraparound (burglary gone wrong, plus the linking concept of a house full of videotapes documenting strange and alarming phenomena) and Radio Silence pulled out all the stops for their climactic segment, stretching the rules of found footage to their limits. "My section was rooted in reality and what’s logical for found footage," West laughed to Empire at the time. "Then I saw the finished product and it has monsters and flying demons and ghosts and aliens and gore! I was like, 'everybody else cheated!'"
The Den (2013)
Pre-dated by The Collingswood Story, Megan Is Missing, and Joe Swanberg’s section of V/H/S, this is still one of the earliest examples of found footage dropping the camcorder and going online. The Den of the title is a chatroom where Melanie Papalia picks up some deeply troubling contacts who hack her computer and start subjecting her to alarming live feeds - sometimes of herself. Eventually the action bleeds into her real life and the film begins to struggle to believably keep its formal conceit going, but Zachary Donohue’s film still smartly plays on internet problems and paranoias that have only become more entrenched in the decade since he made it.
The Borderlands (2013)
Somewhere in the South-West of England there are reports of supernatural phenomena at a rural church. Father Crellick (Luke Neal), concerned for his sparse parishioners, has video evidence of objects moving independently on his altar during a christening: set in motion by a presence that seems to corrupt the very recording. A team is sent in. Wall-mounted surveillance cameras are supplemented with a head-cam for each character that must be worn at all times (outside the bathroom). This cracker by Elliot Goldner has early 20th-Century horror author William Hope Hodgson (The House On The Borderland) in its DNA, but there's also much of The League Of Gentlemen and The Wicker Man in its set-up and vibe – Robin Hill at one point tells an amusingly taciturn local to "have fun with Edward Woodward".
Quietly lurking on Netflix, this psychological ordeal from co-writers, co-directors and stars Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice is an absolute gem. Brice is the videographer who answers Duplass' advertisement for a documentarian to chronicle a day in his life to bequeath to his as-yet unborn son. But as we get past the initial 24 hours it becomes clear that the real agenda is something altogether different. It’s a masterclass in WTF-is-going-on tension, part of which involves a masked alter-ego of Duplass’ called Peach Fuzz. And yes, that is as freaky as it sounds. Creep 2, while it can’t recreate the element of surprise, is also well worth a look.
The internet moves fast, and one thing that makes The Den feel slightly as if it’s not quite up to speed is that it’s still concerned with chatrooms in a world where social media exists. Cue Unfriended, just a year later, which smartly identifies that online found footage doesn’t have to stretch credulity with outlandish stories about dark web snuff sites. Teenage Facebook bullying can be disturbing enough – although it helps if you throw a ghost into the machine. Leo Gabriadze gets great performances from his young cast, in looooooong takes that play out in instant messaging boxes on a laptop screen. The scares are effective, but it’s the truth at the heart of the mystery that’s really affecting.
The Taking Of Deborah Logan (2014)
Students filming a documentary is a more than standard found footage set-up by now, but The Taking Of Deborah Logan proves that the format doesn’t have to be simplistic. Complex, surprising and suspenseful, the film tackles the tricky subject of Alzheimer’s Disease without seeming crass or exploitative, even while it’s throwing possession and the cannibalistic murder of virgins into the mix. Its impressive USP is the intense central performance of Jill Larson - a 67-year-old actress who’d spent decades in the daytime soap All My Children. First-time writer/director Adam Robitel, meanwhile, was quickly snapped up by Blumhouse for Paranormal Activity and Insidious sequels.
The Visit (2015)
M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t get arrested after the quadruple-whammy of Lady In The Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth. So he mortgaged his house to finance this back-to-basics quickie, which is scarier, funnier and has more energy than those previous four films combined. The story sees teen siblings Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould documenting a trip to visit their Nana and Pop Pop. The oldies, it turns out, get up to some very odd things after bedtime. You’ll never look at a game of Yahtzee the same way again. And yes, there is a Shyamalan twist, though it’s not hard to see coming. The revitalised M. Night immediately went on to make Split and Glass.
They’re Watching (2016)
Who’s watching? Moldovans! A horror film might not seem the obvious direction for Nickelodeon alumni like Micah Wright and Jay Lender (Hey Arnold, Spongebob), but when you see what they came up with, it isn’t such a reach. In a spin on the "idiot-Americans-go-travelling" subgenre (see Hostel, etc) the attractive crew of a home makeover show are lured to Eastern Europe to document a young couple renovating a derelict hovel. Cue off-kilter oddness, witchcraft, and arguably the most insane final few minutes since Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead.
And into the Zoom era! Covid’s greatest success story immediately prompted Rob Savage and his friends to get cracking on this lockdown project born of a prank, making canny use of the suddenly go-to video conferencing app. Poor old Skype. The plot set-up is basic – "Let’s have on online seance!" – and at least one of the big scare moments is a wholesale steal from REC, but the whole thing is so brisk and gonzo that you can’t help but love its sheer exuberance.
DASHCAM, Savage's much-anticipated (and already controversial) follow-up is out now.