Recently, a friend and I were talking about how found footage movie trailers are pretty much all the same. For example, he thought that the trailer for Project Almanac was the trailer for Chronicle before the title came up. And he had seen Chronicle. It was just so samey that he couldn’t tell it wasn’t a movie he had already seen.
I’m a little less critical of found footage because I genuinely like it. I think, when it’s done correctly, it’s one of the most effective storytelling techniques there is. At least as far as horror goes, anyway. I’ve yet to see it done well for any other genre (sorry, I didn’t dig Chronicle), but I suppose it’s possible. I once imagined a political thriller where a news crew was trapped in a building where a group of terrorists was trying to assassinate some politician. That’s a freebie if anyone thinks they can make it not suck. Just put my name on it somewhere.
Here are some found footage movies that are actually worth a crap. Maybe they’ll change your mind if you think the genre is useless. Or you can tell me about the ones you like in the comments.
5. Cannibal Holocaust
Cannibal Holocaust is the original found-footage horror movie. Released in 1980, this Italian exploitation film features a documentary film crew lost in the South American jungle, where they kind of act like shitty college students and piss off a bunch of natives, who don’t take kindly to their crap.
Honestly, it’s hard to watch. The filmmakers did some pretty insane stuff, like actually killing several animals on film. As in, for-realsies. Obviously, that’s not going to sit well with, well, pretty much anyone. But if you can power through it, it’s actually a really interesting film because you can see it laying the blueprints that got dusted off twenty years later and brought us to where we are now (fifteen years after that). And beyond that, it’s dark and depressing and nihilistic as hell. Always a good combo.
4. The August Underground trilogy
Speaking of hard to watch and dark, depressing, and nihilistic as hell, there’s August Underground. I feel like a giant asshole for even recommending these films because the vast majority of people will probably completely hate them/be unable to finish them. But the reason I bring them up is that it’s one of the only found footage movies where it makes sense that someone is filming the whole thing.
The August Underground trilogy is about a serial killer named Peter and his various accomplices, and they like to film the things they do. Peter is prone to screaming fits and intense violence, which is also presented starkly and realistically on film. No one is likable in these movies. There’s no hero and nothing gets resolved. There’s not even a plot. Between murders, Peter and his cohorts just kinda… hang out. It feels like a real home movie and it’s crazy disturbing.
You probably won’t like them. I don’t even actually like them. But I think they’re underrated for how weird and anxiety-inducing they are.
3. V/H/S 1 & 2
One of the greatest traditions in the horror genre is the anthology. One movie, several stories. And the V/H/S movies apply that to found footage to pretty great results. Some segments are better than others, and the first movie is better than the second (save for the amazing “Safe Haven”, which is easily the best segment of the whole series, if not one of the best short horror films of the decade), but overall they’re both really excellent and use the directors (including Ti West and Adam Wingard, among others) to great effect.
Stay away from V/H/S Viral, though. It has fewer segments and was pretty heavily rushed compared to the other two. The quality really suffers for it. It also drops the great frame story from the first two films in favor of another one that… just isn’t good.
2. Grave Encounters
You know those ultra-cheesy ghost hunting shows on cable? Grave Encounters is that, but not as ridiculous. Okay, it is still pretty cheesy, but it’s a lot of fun, too. I caught it after work on Netflix one day and was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. It works because it’s overwrought and silly. The segments the characters film for their show are so overly dramatic that they’re kind of funny. When they’re not “on-camera”, it’s a totally different story.
The plot isn’t half bad, the effects and creature designs are pretty impressive for such a low budget, and the set (a real psychiatric hospital called Riverview Hospital in British Columbia) is suitably creepy. Beware, though: The sequel is fairly shaky, starting with the confusing conceit that the first film was both a theatrically released film and actually real, but there are worse ways to waste 90 minutes.
1. Noroi: The Curse
Let’s combine two of the biggest horror fads of the first decade of this century: J-horror and found footage! Except let’s make it actually good, and one of the best movies in both of those genres of said decade. Noroi, like Grave Encounters, is based on television ghost shows. Japanese ghost shows, however, are a bit different from American ones, taking more of an investigative journalism approach.
Noroi is purportedly the last documentary made by famous paranormal investigator Masafumi Kobayashi, who disappeared during its creation. Kobayashi investigates a young girl who exhibits psychic powers, which later, through a series of seemingly unrelated things, leads to a weird demon-summoning ritual from a small village that disappeared decades before. It’s a little confusing, but so blissfully weird.
It’s also sadly difficult to find over here. No official translation of the film exists and it’s never been released in the U.S. There are fan translations out there, and if you can get your hands on it, it’s worth a watch. And then probably another watch, because it’s seriously super complicated.