13 Deathly Terrifying Found-Footage Horror Films Lost Under The Radar
Due to its ubiquity, found-footage films are often disinclined as a proper subgenre. Studios left and right are churning new found-footage movies all the time largely because they’re very cheap to make. And that bloat of films can’t come without derisive schlocker-trash from which the subgenre’s bad reputation sadly stems.
Sure, there are great exceptions, but they are rare and ever-elusive. It’s hard to come by one that gives a fresher take on the genre’s form (or lack thereof), the way films like “[REC]”, “Paranormal Activity”, and the original “The Blair Witch Project” have.
In time for the release of “Searching”, a new crime thriller from director Aneesh Chaganty, I’ve listed thirteen effective, deathly terrifying found-footage films you’ve completely missed—erm, “lost”, if you will.
In this Aussie fright flick, two journalists set out to investigate a small commune of women led by a male elder who, as male elders in communes do, speak ominously of a fatal and irrevocable event. Pulsating in the same vein as Robin Hardy’s masterpiece, “The Wicker Man”, the film charts the protagonists’ immersion as they get too comfortable too quickly with the members of the commune, taking little notice to the events that unfold around them. The film, directed by Glenn Triggs, offers legitimate spooks (read: really fucking terrifying stuff of nightmare), something that’s quite uncommon in many movies of its kind.
The journalism-gone-awry trope is a template plot for found-footage films, and that’s due in large part of the influence of the 1999 modern classic, “The Blair Witch Project”. That shows right through “Willow Creek”, a movie about an amateur journalist and his reluctant wife making an investigative documentary on the Sasquatch legend. The movie, while certainly creepy, also gets a kick out of poking fun at the notions of mysticism, the urban legend it’s built around in, and more importantly, the film itself. Shot like a mockumentary, the effect filmmaker Bobcat Goldwaith yields is much more effective than mere fright.
Say this, if anything, about Patrick Brice’s thriller, “Creep”: The found-footage equivalent to Alfred Hithcock’s “Psycho”, the film’s simple concept is potent enough to shred the last sliver of idealism you have in your body. Like Marion Crane, Aaron (Brice), a down-on-his-luck freelance videographer, is strapped for cash. He’s decided to chase cash in the deep but sketchy bucket of odd jobs on Craigslist. An ad listing takes him filming the last days of an odd cancer patient, played by Mark Duplass, who supplies the film all the creepiness it takes to make its title apt. Of course, things take a turn for the worst when Aaron finds out who his subject really is.
Set in a sleepy Maryland town, Barry Levinson’s shrewd eco-thriller, “The Bay”, challenges the already established storytelling machinations found-footage films are able to produce. The faux-documentary approach captures the chaos and hysteria of a town put under a strange, flesh-eating virus that wipes out a good sample of its townsfolk. The scariest aspect, apart from the already gut-wrenching deaths that happen while the town’s festivities unfurl—there’s a crab-eating contest, what irony!—is what the film’s unflinchingly cynical denouement reveals about the uglier side of our humanity.
There are few films that are better viewed outside the venue of a theater, and “Ratter” is one of them. The best place to watch it is in the dark of your room, as though you’re a hacker. That’s because the film uses footage that feels suffocatingly close. Its events unfold as though we’re seeing it through the lens(es) of the eponymous hacker. And that feeling of unease is indescribable; we don’t know if we should feel helpless or simply relish the unique access to the protagonist’s most intimately private moments. I’ve come out of “Ratter” thinking it’s one of the most heart-pounding found-footage experiences I’ve had in a while.
The Borderlands (a.k.a. Final Prayer)
In a secluded, recently reopened church, a priest, a commissioned surveiller, a non-believing tech bloke set up cameras to investigate a paranormal entity. That set up isn’t hard to pin down—surely you’ve watched an occult horror with a faithless character before—but what’s great about Eliot Gardner’s “The Borderlands” is the masterful manner in which it posits ambiguity in the found-footage frame. The title is a conscious choice: it speaks less of the film’s creepy town and more of the crest that sits between religion and nonbelief.
For a good while, Ti West’s name had meant a tack-sharp retro aesthetic rooted from the spick and span love of a horror purist. 2014’s “The Sacrament”, a co-production between West and genre honcho Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever”, “The Green Inferno”), is a far but welcome departure from the filmmaker’s crest of old-school horror props. Luckily, his temperance and craftsmanship is not lost in this Vice-style faux-doc which all but reimagines the infamous 1978 Jonestown Massacre. The spot-on mumblecore ad libs across its glorious cast—Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, and Kentucker Audley—is something to behold; almost as great as Gene Jones, who electrifies as a cult leader known only as Father.
The Last Horror Movie
Pre-YouTube Murder vlogs. Meta-nods to psycho-cinema. Serial killing for your entertainment. There are about a handful of good jokes folded in the mix of “The Last Horror Movie”—not to be confused with David Winters’ “The Last Horror Film”, released in 1982—in which a serial killer films his violent exploits. But perhaps the most obvious, is that one doesn’t need to go to Cannes to become filmmakers. True enough, Max (Kevin Howarth), shoots a series of serial killings he himself has perpetrated, in a vein that’s markedly MTV or Neistat-like. Though not spick and span perfect, it adds interesting points to cinema’s ever-enduring discussion about voyeurism and violence.
The Taking Of Deborah Logan
A searing possession horror-drama packaged in faux-doc form, “The Taking of Deborah Logan” is an often overlooked found-footage gem about an elder with Alzheimer’s disease. The film, in the whole, is an adequately spooky—and often spine-tinglingly so—but when it crawls out of the “is she really just senile or is she right about this haunted house” dialogue that cooks in its center, it hits a resonant note. Somewhere in its shock-filled denouement, we’re given a portrait of a hardened woman from whom life took much away from. The rear-most third of this movie is engrossing stuff.
“Spring” kicks off, among other things, with a cute-meet: Think how Ethan Hawke’s Jesse met the love of his life on a train ride in Paris in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) meets his too, except that Louise (Nadia Hilker), a woman whom he meets in Italy, has an unearthly secret she longs to unspool…for the right guy. It’s at this point that that metamorphoses an ostensibly serendipitous moment into an impending nightmare, expertly transformed at the hands of filmmaking partners Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. What follows is just a delightful, jab-at-the-jugular, genre-bending mind-fuckery.
Much has been said about “Lake Mungo”, an effective, haunting, and eerily lifelike introspection of grief and bereavement. The film, as is de rigueur with other found-footage films, is grounded on some form of familiarity—in this case, it’s the Dateline doc, amply intriguing stories with real people facing its consequences but are ultimately commoditized. Suffice it to say, it works. On a far deeper level as an unsuspecting viewer such as this writer would expect. Though not, in its strictest sense, a horror movie with shocks and scares, the terror of “Lake Mungo” creeps long after the credits roll.
Found-footage is ripe for commentary on sensationalism, but few have made one with so knotted a cynicism as Sherad Sanchez’s “Salvage”. The film follows an investigative news crew led by a crass young producer, Melay (Jessy Mendiola), out on a report about asuangs—vampiric creatures in Philippine folklore—dwelling in the dark of a secluded Cagayan de Oro town. In its tense-filled first half, the film prances on with the typical pursuit-of-”the truth” motivation, which puts Melay & Co. in ineffably perilous situations. But when the military gets involved by the film’s better half, things take an aural turn, with Sanchez using every aspect of digital glitch and filmmaking wizardry to paint a transcendental final act that turns the film’s seemingly commonplace plot on its head.
Man Bites Dog
This 1992 classic confronts cinematic voyeurism with nowhere near the viscerality and intimacy as the whole of its 95 minutes. Jointly directed by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde, “Man Bites Dog” has a group of documentarians tail the daily misdeeds of Ben (Poelvoorde), a gut-slashing delinquent who thinks he’s doing society a solid by selectively killing off people. The hook lies in Ben’s irrefutably charismatic demeanor; after each murder we see the filmmakers turn from detached observers to willing participators. It’s a spellbinding watch, a seminal work that’s now imprinted in the minds of our best transgressive directors, including Quentin Tarantino, who lends his screenplay for “Natural Born Killers” to this brilliant piece of found-footage.
A handful of other great found-footage horrors you’d best consider adding to your queue: “Noroi”, a lo-fi horror centered around an ancient demon in Japan; “The Visit”, M. Night Shyamalan’s bona fide spookfest about deranged grandparents; “Trollhunter”, a stirring Norwegian thriller centered around a mythical creature; “V/H/S”, a five-part short film collection that ushered the genre to the mainstream; and “Unfriended”, a techno-shocker that features a haunted Facebook account.
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Which of your favorite movies didn’t make the cut in our best found-footage horror list? Chime in the comments section, and let’s discuss.