“Found Footage.” Are there any two words as polarizing in the horror community? Once the cutting edge of indie horror, now the simple utterance of the words is enough to turn people away at the door. To be fair, it’s not like the genre has been kind to us. For every quality film like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, there are dozens of films that can only be described as, “some dude had three friends and a camera.” Even major theatrical releases are no guarantee of quality.
Personally, I have some kind of sick obsession with found footage. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve whittled away on Amazon Prime, scrolling through the unending horde of found footage, searching for the next diamond in the rough. I have watched so many groups of friends get trapped in abandoned asylums that I could probably draw a map from memory. Seriously, I don’t even need their contrived reason to get locked in whatever building overnight anymore. I just assume their goal is to get ghosted to death.
People often ask me why I torture myself so, usually as they walk into the living room and witness a version of Ted that has become more couch than person. Maybe I am just an eternal optimist, genuinely believing that this next one might just be great. Maybe I really like the gritty, indie feel. Or maybe I just hate myself. Regardless, every once in awhile I do stumble across something that shows me just what the found footage style is capable of.
Now, I get that a lot of people are just sick of found footage. Spurned too many times and drowning in crap, many have decided to board the S.S. The Genre Is Dead To Me and sail above seas of shit looking for dry land. But wait, what’s that in the distance? It’s Ted, manning the lighthouse to safe harbor. After years of diving through the roiling waves of turd, here and there I’ve found some gems. So let me take you on a journey of the 13 Lesser Known Found Footage Films That Might Just Restore Your Faith in the Genre.
Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A priest, religious brother, and cameraman walk into a church. The ghost in the alter goes, “ooga booga.” Someone lights a sheep on fire. General spookiness ensues.
My favorite kind of movies are those that throw in a twist that makes you go, “wait, the fuck just happened?” If this were a list of most unexpected endings, Final Prayer (known as The Borderlands outside of the US) would be way closer to the top. Mixing religious skepticism with a hefty amount of spooks, Final Prayer bucks found footage trends by having characters you actually care about. There’s a bit of spotty logic (especially in the “who found this footage” department), but by the time the end rolls around you will be genuinely disturbed.
Answer quickly and honestly: would you be a vampire? Of course you would. Supernatural powers, living forever, homoerotic undertones with Tom Cruise, sounds great. If only you didn’t have to kill people to maintain your unholy existence… It’s that pesky little killing people catch that most people fail to really think about. It’s always touched upon in vampire movies, but is vastly overshadowed by the sexiness of eternal life and beauty. You just can’t really buy that the vampire is super upset about their endless bloodlust when they just look so fabulous while brooding.
Afflicted does things differently by taking this personal struggle and making it the focus of the film. Protagonist Derek Lee suffers from AVM, a malformation of the brain that can cause his death at any moment. Deciding to live life to the fullest rather than spend it in fear, Derek and his best friend Clif decide to travel the world. Documenting their trip for a series they call “Ends of the Earth,” their plans are altered dramatically when Derek comes down with a bad case of vampirism. Initially reveling in his new found strength and vitality, things take a darker turn when the bloodlust turns Derek into little more than an animal.
This is one of the rare films where the found footage style really works to enhance the film. You get an intimate sense of Derek’s personal struggle, caught in an impossible situation with no easy answer. But the story isn’t the only thing that sets Afflicted apart from other found footage films. The camerawork is smooth and clear, without any of the cheap “static” effects so common to the genre. It makes the frequent action scenes far more impressive, since you can actually see what’s going on. Even if you’re not a fan of found footage, chances are you’ll like Afflicted.
If I were to pick one reason why people are so tired of found footage, it would be that it’s predictable. Four friends investigating an asylum, you say? Perhaps you should start by establishing some pointless romantic tension that won’t enhance the plot at all. Maybe have a few false start scares involving puckish pranks and people jumping in front of the camera. Don’t forget to have a door close behind the main characters when none of them are looking! Nothing says spooky like ghosts emulating a strong breeze.
Now by all logic, Rorschach should have been a movie that did nothing special. Following a pair of paranormal investigators looking into a single mother and her daughter’s haunting, it’s the stock standard setup to a forgettable found footage movie. Hell, it’s even got a creepy doll, in case just plain ghosts wasn’t unoriginal enough. I watched the whole thing on YouTube of all places, and from minute one you can tell that these are amateurs with no budget.
So how come it’s on this list? Despite the clear lack of experience and budget (or perhaps even enhanced by it), Rorschach manages to feel incredibly real. The haunting is subtle, with small things like scratching at the walls and sweaters falling off of chairs. Shit never goes full crazy, and even during the film’s climax the most the ghost does is slam some doors. Hell, no one even dies in the movie, which must be a found footage first. If you’re looking for a slower burn that actually manages to use the found footage style to feel real and believable, Rorschach might just surprise you.
A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I wrote a glowing review for They’re Watching in conflict with another Dread Central critic. It’s pretty rare that I’d outwardly go against another contributor like this, as even I must admit I’m frequently wrong about shit. Hell, I think I even gave The Gallows a 4/5 at some embarrassing point in the past. But in the case of They’re Watching, I just couldn’t keep quiet. This film is simply glorious.
I’ll have to curtail this a bit by saying that I don’t think anyone will be actually scared during They’re Watching. It’s pretty damning to say that a horror movie isn’t scary, but They’re Watching definitely leans to the comedy side of the horror/comedy marriage. From Moldovan Nathan Fillion to the bitchy producer Kate, the exaggerated characters give the movie far more life than your typical found footage fare. There’s a ton of little things they do to spice up the world, even inventing their own fake chocolate bar that you’d have no idea was fake if you didn’t google it.
But the real reason this movie is here is the ending. Oh sweet Jesus, the ending. It goes from a pretty subdued but believable comedy to 11/10 schlock in a split second. The glorious final 15 minutes are a cavalcade of gore and debauchery worthy of a Cenobite orgy. The first time I saw it, I literally hurt myself laughing. A dude gets turned into a pile of frogs for Christ’s sake. It’s the closest man will ever come to filmmaking perfection.
When Slender Man first graced the Something Awful message boards back in 2009, no one could have predicted it would eventually lead to two girls stabbing someone in the woods. In the years since its creation, Slender Man has gone from obscure meme to full blown cultural icon. He’s got his own video game, several indie films, and billions of amateur knockoff stories. Chances are you’re already sick of Slender Man, and he hasn’t even gotten his major motion picture debut yet.
Chances are you have no idea about the long and complicated history of Slender Man. While not technically in the public domain, the character has been shaped by the modern internet zeitgeist. He’s more of a campfire story than a character, growing and changing with each new telling. And no Slender Man tale has been more influential than “Marble Hornets.”
Now I will warn you, don’t try to get into “Marble Hornets” unless you are willing to dive in head first. The series is 92 episodes long, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous side channels, interwoven plots, and full blown theory boards that you’ll have to check out if you want to get the whole pictures. An entire alternate world has been set up around the events of the series, and the world is vast. This really is way more than just a series of YouTube videos.
As for the series itself, it’s undeniably rough. The acting is very stiff, and camerawork amateur. Camera malfunctions are now cliché, but “Marble Hornets” takes them to the max. Expect grating audio distortion and nauseating visual cuts in every single episode. But it’s part of what gives the series its charm. There’s so much going on, so vaguely explained and hinting at something much larger, that it practically begs you to comb through every episode looking for every detail. You’ll scan the screen, looking for something out of place in every scene. There’s really nothing else like this out there, something that you can really get lost in.
I really struggled with putting this movie on the list. I’ve watched The Poughkeepsie Tapes twice, and doubt I ever will again. It’s not that the movie is bad. It’s just far too effective. The Poughkeepsie Tapes legitimately disturbs me.
Following the exploits of a serial killer that comes to be known as “The Water Street Butcher,” the footage they find is all filmed by the killer. We get to see first hand the killer’s sadistic exploits, and all too intimately. Without ever showing his face or explaining his motivations, we still get a sense of exactly who this man is. He’s pure evil.
The actual tapes themselves are sufficiently disturbing, but it’s only part of the picture. The crime documentary style interviews giving some context to his methodology paints an even larger pictures of a man who is not only sick, but incredibly intelligent. He does everything he can to avoid detection, tricking investigators at every turn. The extents that he goes to in services of his killing spree are truly fucked up. This is a game to him, and every move leaves a trail of bodies.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes created a villian that genuinely upset me. He isn’t some force of nature like Jason Voorhees or simple maniac like Leatherface. He’s methodical, calculating, and infinitely sadistic. He is the worst mankind has to offer, and his tapes give us shots into his depraved world. The scene towards the end with Cheryl sickened me. I don’t like The Poughkeepsie Tapes, but I respect the hell out of it.
When you think “found footage,” you think shaky camcorder footage of a forest/abandoned asylum/whichever actor’s apartment had the least amount of empty pizza boxes. Savageland does things a bit different, with the footage in this case being from a camera, and not the moving picture kind. Styled like a crime documentary, the pictures tell the story of a horrifying attack by unknown forces on a small Arizona border town. The official story is that the sole survivor, an illegal immigrant and amateur photographer named Francisco Salazar, went on a killing spree and murdered the whole town. The story that his pictures tell is quite different.
You might think that telling a story through a series of photographs is counterintuitive, but the constraints give Savageland a unique feel. You never really get a clear picture (no pun intended) of what exactly is going on, instead piecing together the general story through individual moments. Salazar is dead by the time the cameras start rolling, so the various experts and theorists can only speculate as to what actually went down. It keeps you engaged, and lets the plot evolve past the simple monsters/zombies/demons/whatever they are. Fair warning, this does get fairly political, intersecting the struggle of an illegal immigrant in the US justice system with the monster story. It grounds Savageland in some reality, making it feel more like a true story than your typical horror movie.
I discovered the works of Kōji Shiraishi back when I was on a J-horror kick in college (read as trying to hook up with edgy anime chicks). Not widely known to western audiences, Shiraishi has made a number of found footage films that are all worth checking out. There are actually quite a lot of Japanese found footage films you’ve probably never heard of, including a direct sequel to Paranormal Activity called Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Nights. But when it comes to which one to recommend the most, Noroi was an easy pick.
Noroi sets itself apart by avoiding pretty much every single cliché you’ve come to expect from found footage. Practically devoid of jump scares, this slow burn relies on atmosphere and storytelling to slowly fill you with uneasy dread. You aren’t going to jump out of you seat (maybe at the end), but it will make you squirm. There’s an inescapable tension that permeates the film, like something terrible is lurking just behind a curtain. While most found footage movies would rip the blinds aside and have a screaming ghost jump at the screen, Noroi is content to just let you stare and try to make out its figure while the real monster slowly sneaks up behind you.
This might be the most “found footage” found footage movie of all time. Rather than being comprised of some shit the cops found in the woods and then inexplicably edited together to make a movie, WNUF Halloween Special is designed to emulate a home VHS recording of a local news broadcast. No need to explain away the editing or wonder why they are still filming. Someone just popped in the VHS, hit record, then stuck the final product in a shoe box.
This is another that falls more on the comedy side of the horror/comedy scale, but I doubt you’ll mind. The stellar performances and spot-on tone perfectly emulates a small town local news broadcast from the 80’s. It takes you back to another era, complete with hokey commercial breaks for local businesses and segments where it fast forwards. Sure, it’s not very scary, but it’s endlessly enjoyable. Even having seen it a few times, it still manages to slap a smile on my face.
I have yet to meet a single other person that has seen “Dark Secrets.” It was on Netflix a while back, hidden in some non-category away from mortal eyes. I honestly don’t even remember how I stumbled on it, but I’m glad I did.
“Dark Secrets” is a 10 episode, single season show that mixes SCP, “Unsolved Mysteries,” and “The Twilight Zone.” Now if that sounds awesome to you, it should. I seriously have no idea why this isn’t more well known. The premise is that during a demolition of an abandoned industrial building, a locked door is found in the basement. Inside is an archive of all sorts of strange paranormal events, collected by an unknown individual known only as The Teller. Building on these files, the show interviews various witnesses and experts to try to get the whole story.
Now of course none of this is real, but there’s a hilarious trend on the IMDb page of people not getting that. Seriously, some of the major criticisms against this show are people saying that they think it’s a hoax. This is a show where the first episode is about a house that eats people. You have to give it credit for emulating a real “Unsolved Mysteries” type show so well that people thought a house eating people was supposed to be taken at face value.
Long before The Blair Witch Project would revolutionize film by making a generation of horror fans consistently motion sick, Ghostwatch shocked the UK. Styled to emulate a live BBC broadcast, Ghostwatch follows a group of reporters as they document the haunting of a single mother and her two daughters. Hounded by a ghost they call “Pipes,” the otherworldly assaults steadily escalate as the night continues. Unlike most other found footage films, it doesn’t just stick with the camera crew the whole time, instead switching between the studio footage and the crew at the house.
The effect is quite convincing, enough so that it caused a War of the Worlds style panic when it first aired. It’s reported that the BBC switchboards lit up with people trying to call into the “live” program, and there are actual reported cases of PTSD from children traumatized by the program. It was… a more innocent time. With decades of found footage seasoning my cynical mind, it doesn’t quite pack the same punch when watched today.
It doesn’t really matter though, since the movie is just damned scary. This is one of those films that really lives up to the promise of found footage. Things happen on screen that the characters don’t notice, and it’s up to the viewer to spot it. As recently as 2016 there have been new sightings of Pipes in the background of various shots. This is a film you can pick apart frame by frame to find all the hidden goodies. On top of that, it’s also damned scary. The haunting extends past the four walls of the family’s home, bleeding out to everyone watching. For the people that were fooled into thinking it was real, the effect must have been terrifying.
More than just a great found footage film, Lake Mungo is one of my favorite horror films, period. It’s my trump card when I need a movie I know both horror and non-horror fans will like. I’ve shown this to horror nuts, girlfriends, even my mother. All the while it still manages to be both interesting and genuinely frightening.
I don’t want to give too much of Lake Mungo away, as experiencing the twists and turns is a lot of what makes the film special. This isn’t what you expect. It’s about a haunting, but it becomes more than that. Aided by fantastic performances and a gradual pace that lets you come to know the characters naturally, the emotional core of Lake Mungo is miles above what you typically expect from horror. This movie will really get to you in ways you don’t expect.
It also doesn’t rely on cheap scares to be terrifying. A lot of build comes from simple descriptions from the main cast, making you wonder what you’re actually in store for. When the actual ghost does reveal itself, it’s slow, and without clear purpose. When you finally finish the film and it all comes together, you’ll want to go back to see what you missed the first time. This is a film that definitely benefits from repeat viewings. And if you’re like me, that won’t be a problem.
If there is a theme for this list, it’s that the best found footage movies are the ones that do things different. There’s only so much you can get from four friends running around a dark building while doors slam. What makes The Tunnel exceptional is how it takes this basic premise and polishes it to a mirror shine.
The Tunnel follows an Australian news crew as they investigate a series of abandoned railway tunnels that have been mysteriously cordoned off by the government. Switching between present day interviews with the crew and the footage of their experience in the tunnels, you quickly find that there’s something far more sinister than they expected. While a story about four people being chased by a monster in the dark is pretty much the definition of stock standard found footage, the skipping of time and differing accounts raises it above its peers. The characters feel very real, and their different perspectives on what happened (and who to blame) gives the story a lot of mileage. The monster is also scary as shit, so bonus points.
Chances are, you aren’t going to like every movie on this list. That’s okay. I’m not trying to sell you on every found footage movie. Rather, I’m just trying to show you that found footage is far from dead. It might be stale, but that’s just because people keep doing the same thing with it. Between these 13 movies, you can see a wild variety that defies being crammed into a little box.
Now as you all know, Dread Central has partnered with Epic Pictures. Epic recently released The Monster Project on Amazon Prime, which a surprising amount of people I know are giving a pass simply because it’s found footage. It’s troubling to me, since I found The Monster Project to be a hell of a lot of fun.
Hopefully, something on this list will surprise and delight you. And if it does, maybe it’ll open up your heart a little to found footage. Not all the way of course, not everyone can binge watch crap like I can. But enough to at least give new found footage movies a second glance. Then maybe check out The Monster Project. It’s got a vampire, demon, and werewolf, all at the same time!
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