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Top 10 Found-Footage Horror Movies

by George Hickman on October 26, 2010

in Top 10s

When “The Blair Witch Project” was a box office smash in the summer of 1999, people braced themselves for a slew of imitators. But it wasn’t until recently that Found Footage as a sub-genre of horror has really started to mature and become respectable as more than just a collection of “Blair Witch” knockoffs. Like its cousin the mockumentary, Found Footage Horror uses filmic techniques associated with non-fiction filmmaking to tell a fictional story that feels more believable or realistic. In most cases, the film is purportedly edited from the recovered footage of characters who are missing or dead.

The first horror film to employ this device was “Cannibal Holocaust” in 1980. As a testament to how believable some people found it, the director had to prove in court how the footage had been faked. Though notorious and rightfully noteworthy, “Cannibal Holocaust” can be a bit of a chore to watch, and with the exception of a few very real scenes of animal cruelty, it isn’t nearly as a powerful as it once was. With “Paranormal Activity 2” dominating last weekend’s box office, it seems like the perfect time to take a look at the Top 10 Found Footage Horror Films.

diary-of-the-dead-romero10. Diary of the Dead (2007)

Sadly, it seems impossible for horror icon George Romero to secure funding for any film that doesn’t contain the words “Of The Dead” in its title. The most unique of the six “Dead” films he’s made is “Diary of the Dead,” which follows a group of film students who find themselves in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

While being very much a Romero zombie film, “Diary of the Dead” could easily be mistaken for the work of a much younger director, which works both for and against it.

look-20079. Look (2007)

The most experimental film on the list, “Detroit Rock City” director Adam Rifkin‘s voyeuristic and security camera-based “Look” is far from a traditional horror film. Yet it features spree killers, child abduction, and other horrific and seemingly random events touching the lives of an Altman-esque ensemble of characters.

It very effectively captures some of our deepest fears, while being consistently provocative, alluring, and disturbing.

The-Last-Exorcism8. The Last Exorcism (2010)

This year’s other box-office champ among found footage horror, the modest hit “The Last Exorcism” invests more in its characters and plot than its does in delivering traditional genre elements. It follows a disillusioned minister whose plan to expose exorcisms as psychosomatic spectacles backfires.

While still ticking off most of the expected demonic possession related scares, “The Last Exorcism” delivers an unsettling experience that makes you think just as much as it makes you jump.

home-movie-20087. Home Movie (2008)

Like “The Last Exorcism,” “Home Movie” invests a lot of time in its characters. It also pits science versus religion, as a minister and a psychiatrist struggle to understand and save their (possibly) evil children.

Told through a series of increasingly disturbing family videos, “Home Movie” is one of best “creepy children” horror films, found footage, or otherwise.

cloverfield-movie6. Cloverfield (2008)

One of the best recent examples of effective marketing and hype-building, “Cloverfield” had people lined up even before they knew what they were in for. It succeeded in revitalizing and humanizing the “giant monster terrorizes a city” trope in ways that Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” could only dream about, by following a group of friends who walk outside of a going away party to see New York City being torn apart.

While it leans on humor more than horror, “Cloverfield” delivers a consistently thrilling and bittersweet experience.

troll hunter 20105. The Troll Hunter (2010)

One of the most welcome surprises of this year’s Fantastic Fest, “The Troll Hunter” is a Norwegian movie that follows some film students who are trying to make a documentary about bear poaching and wind up with proof of the existence of trolls and the secret government conspiracy to cover it up. It may follow the “Blair Witch” formula pretty closely, but that just serves to make the frequent encounters with towering trolls all the more unforgettable.

This film was recently picked up for theatrical distribution by Magnet, so look for it next year.

blair-witch-project-camera4. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Despite the backlash, “The Blair Witch Project” truly is a great film. It’s just a much more modest film than the overwhelming hype could support. It tells the tale of three film students trying to make a documentary on a local legend, the Blair Witch.

Even 10 years later, the film’s masterful building of suspense and ingenious construction are still powerful, endlessly spoofed finale and all.

behind-the-mask-man-bites-dog3. Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) / Man Bites Dog (1992)

The controversial Belgian film “Man Bites Dog” follows a charismatic serial killer as he describes and demonstrates his methods to a documentary crew.

“Behind the Mask” borrows this approach, but transplants it into a world where Jason Voorhees, Mike Meyers, Freddy Krueger, and Leatherface were all real. As the equally charismatic Vernon reveals the tricks behind those killers seemingly supernatural powers, the film crew following him starts to sense their lives are in grave danger. With its more traditional final act, “Behind the Mask” may only be 2/3 “found footage,” but it’s also darkly comic, scary, and a more clever deconstruction of slasher films than the entire “Scream” series.

REC 22. [REC] (2007) / Quarantine (2008)/ [REC] 2 (2009)

The Spanish film “[REC]” and its American remake “Quarantine” are basically the same film. The biggest exception is a curious one. “Quarantine” ascribes the fast zombie-like creatures to generic zombie film origins, while the original posits that they are actually the result of a demonic possession that is communicable through blood. “[REC]” also feels like the stronger film because its easier to accept reality-TV levels of shallowness when it is presented in another language. “[REC] 2” picks up immediately after the end of the first, and is a mixture of two different sources of footage: that of SWAT-like team equipped with helmet cameras and a group of curious teenagers who stumble upon an unsealed entrance to the quarantined Apartment building. “[REC] 2” successfully builds on the events of the first in a way that makes both films stronger and fuels anticipation for a third film. It also makes the American film’s substitution seem that much more foolish.

paranormal-activity-2-secret-scene1. Paranormal Activity (2007) / Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

It took 10 years, but Hollywood truly found “the next Blair Witch” when the previously shelved “Paranormal Activity” was methodically rolled out to enormous success. “Paranormal Activity 2” is actually a prequel to the first film and has the welcome side effect of re-casting seemingly banal scenes from the first in a more sinister light. What could have been a pointless cash grab proves to be a worthy successor. While the first film was comprised of footage from a cynical and stubborn boyfriend using a camera to attempt to prove to his girlfriend that her fears are baseless, the second film is assembled from security camera footage capturing a family as they try to protect their children from supernatural forces. The “more is more” approach of the sequel’s scares and deaths may turn some people off, but it does manage to capture the feel of the first “Paranormal Activity” as well as the magic that made genre classic “Poltergeist” so great.

George Hickman

George Hickman is the first child conceived and raised by a sentient television and an anthropomorphic video store. He is a true Texan, in the sense that it is true that he lives in Texas. He spends his days making the Internet work and his nights surviving on the sustenance that only flickering lights and moving pictures can bring. There were no survivors.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 George Hickman October 26, 2010 at 6:30 pm

I didn’t get a chance to see the Asian films “Noroi” or “The Butcher” (which is on Netflix instant) before writing this list.

If “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” ever gets a proper release it’d probably be worth a shot, even if it met with a hostile reaction at the 2007 Butt-Numb-A-Thon. I’m interested in seeing what the brothers behind “Quarantine” and “Devil” did with it.

With one very questionable inclusion in “Look,” I couldn’t convince myself to also include “Zero Day” as a horror film. It’s basically a found footage retelling of a Columbine-like school shooting. I did like the film and thought it was really well done.

Were there any other films that should have been included or considered?


2 Greg October 28, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I still think Man Bites Dog is the standard, although I have to confess I haven’t seen either Paranormal Activity.


3 Mikhel November 4, 2010 at 7:24 am

I also liked “The Last Broadcast”, altough not many people know of it (“The Blair Witch Project” filmmakers basically took the idea and filmed it with better cameras and more money, lots of more money).


4 Wiley November 4, 2010 at 3:09 pm

How about Cannibal Holocaust? One of the first of it’s kind in that genre that I can remember and was quintessentially shown as found documentarian footage coupled with the new footage being filmed which would eventually also be found footage. For Halloween this year we constructed a dummy and impaled it anus through mouth much like the iconic picture from the movie. My neighbors don’t like me.


5 George Hickman November 17, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Wiley: I actually mentioned Cannibal Holocaust in my intro. I remember seeing most of it when I was younger but I rewatched it for this list.

It has its moments, but I found it a chore to get through. It’s definitely important enough to mention, though it didn’t otherwise make my list.

Mikhel: I don’t buy that the “Blair Witch” filmmakers ripped that film off. I don’t believe anyone proved the filmmakers saw or even heard about “The Last Broadcast.” Even if they had, it doesn’t make it a rip-off any more than “Friday the 13th” is a ripoff of “Halloween.”

And also quibbling about the meager dollars the “Blair Witch” filmmakers spent and describing it as “lots more money” is laughable. The only real money spent on it were spent long after it wrapped, and that was only spent on its promotion and distribution.

I actually did mean to mention “The Last Broadcast” as one I was considering watching. A friend who knows my tastes pretty well said it wasn’t worth watching. I feel bad that the filmmakers’ were apparently so close to a winning formula, but I also believe it’s likely they got more mileage out of the slightly disingenuous “the film Blair Witch ripped off” whisper campaign than out of any of their film’s actual merits. Had “Blair Witch” not happened we probably would have never heard of it.


6 cole December 31, 2010 at 9:48 am

lake mungo is HANDS DOWN the best film of the genre. and it’s on netflix instant!


7 Tim February 5, 2011 at 11:44 am
8 Abby March 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I finally got to see Troll Hunter! I dunno if I’d call it a horror movie–it’s got some elements, but it hardly feels scary. However, it is a ton of fun.


9 Yakuha April 1, 2011 at 10:19 pm

That Last Exorcism is indeed scary but not to the point where you’ll be so much scarred by the terror. No, it does a good job at doing ordinary “found-footage” possessed-thing, but in the end… well, the end.. it’s a bit too “Hollywoody” where there’s this cult members trying to extract some sort of devil out of the womb. The end is a bit too “filmy”.

About to watch PA & PA2 also with REC & REC 2 this night tho


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