Love them or hate them, found footage horrors have cemented their spooky position in 21st century cinema, and for me they capture something of the filmic zeitgeist of my generation. While 90s’ babies might protest their connection to a tradition of cheap production costs and even cheaper scares, I for one would rather embrace a trend than ignore it. I’m not really a fashion victim (I’ve been wearing the same teeshirts since I was 15, although I did pay money for some jeans with holes in them earlier this summer), but if you want to call me a film victim, I won’t argue with you. Italian director Ruggero Deodato has been credited for revolutionising the found footage narrative in his 1980 exploitation horror film, Cannibal Holocaust, and although the style was initially slow to infiltrate the mainstream, its legacy began to take root at the turn of the second millennium.
However, despite my self-professed fandom for one of the more polarising film genres, once again us humans have proved that you certainly can have too much of a good thing. These days, studios are churning out more yawnfests than frightfests, trying to ride on the coattails of their far more creative predecessors. So before we get lost in a mountain of celluloid that people just happen to have stumbled upon, here are my personal favourite found footage films.
6./Honourable Mention. Unfriended (2014)
Stay with me here, I know Unfriended was no masterpiece, but it successfully kept my disinterest at bay, and that’s no mean feat amongst today’s found footage fails. A group of high school mates are tormented by technology as an embarrassing video which provoked their friend’s suicide re-emerges online. The story begins promisingly, and ultimately goes rather awry, but I’ve included Unfriended on my list thanks to its bold originality. Almost the entire film is one character’s computer screen, with the friends communicating via Skype, Facebook and iMessage as they are forced deeper into a game of gruesome revenge. Unfriended makes us question the ubiquity of social media, the immediacy of our existence, and how its effects could be more insidious than ever imagined.
- Cloverfield (2008)
In Cloverfield, J.J. Abrams gives us a stylish twist on an increasingly popular genre. A farewell party for six supercool New Yorkers is interrupted by an enormous monster and as you might guess, panic and destruction ensues. Despite earning critical praise for dragging audiences on an exhilarating ride, Cloverfield also gained attention for being a little bit too nauseous. The shaky camera caused motion sickness is some cinema-goers, and I have to say, the praise I have in favour of Cloverfield is often overshadowed by the feeling of trying to keep my popcorn down. Nevertheless, Cloverfield breathes life into the genre (helped along by its $25 million budget), and the ever watchable Lizzy Caplan makes a superb horror heroine. Swap the extra large Pepsi for Pepto Bismol before you brave this one.
- Creep (2014)
In Creep, a struggling videographer responds to a Craigslist ad, and deary me, what a mistake that turns out to be. Requested by a terminally ill man to record a video for his unborn son, at first it seems like easy money, but of course things are never as they appear. Creep perfectly teeters on the line between comedy and horror, ultimately opting for the latter. The directorial debut for Patrick Brice, he also wrote and starred in the film, which was released to critical acclaim. Although it doesn’t really break any new ground, Creep is a highly engrossing found footage flick, and an uncomfortable watch for anyone who is criticised for being ‘too nice’.
I have so much love for Paranormal Activity. Any film that makes $193.4 million from a $15,000 budget deserves a bloody big pat on the back. That’s about a 1.29 million percent profit, which unsurprisingly makes Paranormal Activity (based on return on investment) the most profitable film of all time. Seeing this film in the cinema with my friends is still one of the most terrifyingly hilarious experiences of my life. I still remember the scream of bloody murder my friend Lauren emitted after the final scene, much to the amusement of the rest of the auditorium. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about Paranormal Activity – ‘couple experience weird stuff in their home so set up cameras in attempt to solve the mystery.’ If you consider jumpy-style frights as the cheapest of all horror techniques, then the ones in this film are the classiest of the cheap. If I’m going to be intellectual about this, I would argue that Paranormal Activity launched the second wave of found footage horror movies, and no matter how many sequels, knockoffs or spinoffs follow, it will never be surpassed.
Fun fact: The ending of Paranormal Activity was changed at the advice of Steven Spielberg (which unfortunately makes him at least partially responsible for the monstrosity that is Paranormal Activity 6: The Ghost Dimension).
- REC (2007)
Spanish zombie flick REC is an efficient and compact found footage winner with a climax that makes you scared to breathe. A reporter and her cameraman are documenting the nightshift in a Barcelona fire station for a documentary series called While You’re Sleeping. Called to rescue an old woman who is trapped in an apartment, the team arrive at her building, unaware that they are in the proximity of a highly contagious virus. Before long, it becomes clear that they cannot leave the building without putting the outside world at risk. One by one, characters who’ve contracted the infection are zombified, as the reporter and her cameraman flee upstairs and discover exactly what lurks in the abandoned penthouse. REC is perfectly concise in its 75 minutes, and watches like a satisfying one act-play. Strangely, it’s the only time I’ve ever thoroughly enjoyed an irritating horror heroine. Manuela Velasco plays self-absorbed and rather rude reporter flawlessly, and the tension mounts as she becomes more and more shrill with panic. When people ask me about the scariest film I’ve ever seen, I always say this one, mainly because of its terrifying conclusion. Watching its starkly inferior 2008 American remake, Quarantine, makes you realise just what a clever little horror film REC really is.
- The Blair Witch Project (1999)
How could I not put The Blair Witch Project at the top of my list of found footage horrors? The trailblazer, the game changer, the gets insider your mind-er. Never has an unfortunately snotty nose been so bloody terrifying. Quick plot summary: three film students go into the woods in search of the Blair Witch and get lost. That’s all you need to know. I remember one night when I was little, I went downstairs to see my dad because I couldn’t sleep. The credits of Blair Witch were rolling, and he looked petrified. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that he’d just watched a really scary film. I’d never seen my dad like this before, and it certainly wasn’t helping with my insomnia, so I asked him exactly what had scared him so much. He thought for a moment and said, ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ This is the key to The Blair Witch Project’s brilliance. A couple of weeks later when I successfully convinced my neighbour’s mam to rent the video for our sleepover, my reaction was similar. The only analogy I can think of is that I was haunted by the film. There aren’t any zombies, there’s no blood and guts, no gigantic monsters, not even any bedroom doors slamming on their own, but after the film is over, it stays with you. The Blair Witch Project is pure horror class, and while I doubt it will be sufficiently appreciated by future generations who are used to explicit and obvious scares, I thank directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez for paving the way for a fully fledged and fully fabulous found footage genre.