Found footage is one of the most infamous of all the horror subgenres. It’s become so packed with cheap, stupid, and just downright bad pictures that it has become offputting to viewers to even attempt to source a diamond amongst the excessive rough. However, believe me, there are gems there. Found footage has been my favorite subgenre in all of cinema for many years now, and I have done the research. But finding good examples isn’t the only difficult task. If you’re new to the genre, how do you know which ones to ease yourself in with? Which movies are for the viewers with a little more experience? And what are the ones that are sure to terrify even the most seasoned horror fans? Here, I’ve drawn up a guide, giving you the perfect choice and a few honorable mentions for a beginner, an intermediate, and an expert in the found footage game. So, grab the popcorn, turn on the TV, and make sure there’s no hidden video camera!
Now, you may get annoyed at me because the franchise I’m going to offer the beginners is probably one that you have already seen; well, at least one of them. The Paranormal Activity franchise hit play back in 2007, introducing us to the lives of Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), a young couple living in California who document their experience with the, you guessed it, paranormal. The movie is told completely through home videos, whether the camera is being handheld or perched on a tripod facing the couple’s bed. Each night is dated and time-stamped, letting the audience know that we’re building up to something. The paranormal events become more and more noticeable, with Katie being dragged out of bed and her family history being a possible reason for these sinister ongoings.
Paranormal Activity and its six (and counting) sequels may seem now like that first horror movie you saw in the cinema or the cheap thrill that was only scary the first time you saw it. It doesn’t matter whether you found it scary or not, that’s not the point. Paranormal Activity repopularized the found footage film and spawned the renaissance of it after a decade-long lag since The Blair Witch Project. The franchise, particularly the first three movies, is one of the most accessible for horror fans and skeptics alike. It does a decent job of continuing the lore of the characters, with the first sequel serving as a prequel and then the third as an even older prequel – I swear it’s not as convoluted as it seems. With fleshed-out characters, a very authentic atmosphere, and some genuine scares lying within, the Paranormal Activity movies are an easy way to introduce yourself to the world of found footage.
Some honorable mentions would include the movie that a lot of people think is the first ever found footage ever made, The Blair Witch Project. It’s not, that title belongs to Cannibal Holocaust (a film this writer has not seen but can say with confidence that it lies on a level well beyond expert), but The Blair Witch Project opened found footage movies to mainstream audiences and is an absolute must-see for any horror fan. I also have to recommend Unfriended, which ditches the home movie and instead uses a computer screen to tell its haunting story of online bullying and revenge from beyond the grave. It’s one of my absolute favorites and feels fresh every time you watch it.
So, you’ve watched the basics, you know a little background, and you’re ready to move on to some darker fare. Congratulations! You’ve made it to intermediate. The movie I have for you comes from a director that needs no introduction to any horror lover: Ti West. Before West was making stars of Mia Goth’s Maxine and Pearl in X and Pearl this year, he dabbled in the found footage genre with his 2013 eerily realistic The Sacrament. The film follows three co-workers at VICE, the real-life popular online media group that is known for its unconventional documentaries. The three men, Sam (AJ Bowen), Patrick (Kentucker Audley), and Jake (Joe Swanberg), all decide to document their visit to Eden Parish, a mysterious and secluded community where Patrick’s sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) now lives after battling a drug addiction.
Ti West, who wrote the screenplay as well, establishes a dark tension from the very beginning of the movie. He does not waste time trying to establish some sort of normalcy to then make the act of ripping it apart all the more shocking. We know there’s going to be a grim end from the opening shot, but West’s masterful pacing builds on the tension throughout, making each moment more frightening than the last. What sets The Sacrament apart from other found footage movies is that it doesn’t rely on ghouls or monsters as the villain. This is one of the few found footage horrors where the source of violence and terror is human nature. The final twenty minutes are not for the faint of heart, but it encapsulates exactly what found footage movies are made for: to make you think that you are watching a real-life documentary.
Honorable mentions for the intermediate viewer include M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit. Yes, the master of twists has had a lot of flops in recent years, let’s not even talk about the beach that makes you Old. But the director’s one and only dalliance into found footage is a reminder of how Shyamalan can sometimes produce a great horror picture. When teenage siblings Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) go to visit their mother’s (Kathryn Hahn) estranged parents for the first time ever, they get more than the reunion and cookies they came for. Told through Becca’s student documentary film, showing such horrific acts through the eyes of young teenagers makes the movie all the more shocking to viewers of all ages. I also recommend Shudder’s Host for a Covid-era zoom call straight from hell and undoubtedly Patrick Brice’s Creep and Creep II for personifications of your parent’s warnings to not meet up with strangers from the internet.
Are you sure you’re ready? The expert level does not mean that these movies are necessarily the most terrifying; after all, what people find scary is completely subjective. It more so means that these are darker stories that tend to be more graphic and may require some warming up with lighter horror fare before watching. My choice for this level is one of the most famous and beloved found footage movies of all time: [Rec]. No, I do not mean the American remake, Quarantine. I’m talking about the original 2007 Spanish film. Released the same year as the first Paranormal Activity movie, these two films are worlds apart. Where Paranormal Activity takes the “What you don’t see is what terrifies you” approach, [Rec] says “We are pulling no punches here.”
TV reporter Ángela (Ángela Vidal), who is joined by Pablo (Pablo Rosso) behind the camera, are interviewing Barcelona firemen one night when they are called to an incident in an apartment building. When they arrive at the scene, an older resident of the building appears to be infected by some vicious disease who then attacks and bites the police officer. They all become trapped inside the building by the authorities so as not to spread the unknown disease.. And, you guessed it, all hell breaks loose. The disease spreds and before you know it, there are more infected, murderous humans-turned-creatures than there are uninfected. The 78-minute runtime is found footage in its purest state: high energy, shaky, non-stop chaos. We follow Ángela as she tries to document the story of a lifetime through all the gore and mania, her being the only source of stability to guide the audience. [Rec] embraces all that found footage is known for and uses it to its advantage, having no shame in indulging in the tropes that some people have come to see as faults in the genre.
Authenticity is at the forefront of [Rec], with Vidal being an actual television presenter in real life. Many of the other actors were mainly unknown before the film, and all of the cast together create a palpable sense of frantic energy, drawing the audience right into the chaos even if you don’t want to be. It’s undoubtedly one of the crowning jewels of found footage cinema, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for everyone. The final reveal is pretty horrifying, and there are guts and gore at every turn. But the excessive use of blood doesn’t take away from the fact that [Rec] is a masterfully-crafted film with superb pacing and natural acting.
An expert honorable mention would have to go to The Poughkeepsie Tapes. This film utterly terrified this writer and I would go as far as to say it is the scariest movie I have ever seen. It’s told through a true-crime documentary format, woven together with interviews with detectives and victims. The subject of this “documentary” is a serial killer operating in the Poughkeepsie area. What puts this film beyond the normal level of scary are the titular tapes straight from the killer’s camera. We watch as he plucks out his prey, breaks into their homes and visits the grieving families of those whose lives he has gruesomely taken. There are some scenes with his “favorite” victim Cheryl (Stacy Chbosky) that go into torture porn territory that I wasn’t a huge fan of. Again, this movie is not for everyone, it’s made to disturb the audience, and while it’s not as nuanced or well-crafted as the other movies I have mentioned, it definitely stays well on the expert level for its graphic content and terrifying footage. It does use the documentary tropes in interesting ways, making some interesting observations on America’s justice system and police departments and using them to apply a somewhat real-world sense of horror. If you glide through these two titles, then maybe Cannibal Holocaust is for you. Proceed with caution, though.
So, just in time for Halloween, you have your leveled guide to the found footage genre. I hope this will let more people know that there are some truly great found footage movies out there that deserve to be watched, analyzed, and celebrated. There’s a found footage film for everyone, and if all of these movies just sound too dark or horrific for you, then I recommend Searching for all of the found footage thrill but none of the gore or horror. Either way, watching movies through the eyes of someone caught up in the chaos is an exhilarating experience that calls for directors to conjure up some pretty creative, unique, and challenging ideas, only adding to the fact that this genre is just as rich as any other horror subgenre.