October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best found footage horror movies is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: found footage is good! It’s more than just a shaky cam and the eerie green glow of night vision. It’s an interactive, authentic, and, when done right, terrifying form of horror storytelling. After the release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, there was a boom of found footage horror, which over-saturated the market and resulted in more than a few stinkers that seemed to turn audiences off from the format entirely. But little did they know what they were missing out on.
Found footage can take so many different forms, from the typical handheld camera to Google glass to even webcams. It’s experimental, a place for filmmakers to play with the cinematic form on a shoestring budget. Mainstream horror is catching on, too, with films like The Invisible Man appropriating techniques seen in the subgenre, such as long takes of empty hallways to hike up the tension. When given the chance, found footage surprises and awes with what it’s able to accomplish in the realm of fear.
If you still need convincing about found footage horror or need some recommendations on how to get your feet wet in the subgenre, check out some of our favorites as chosen by Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Jacob Trussell, Rob Hunter, Anna Swanson, Meg Shields, and myself.
10. The McPherson Tape (1989)
I understand why people don’t like found footage. It quickly became oversaturated, primarily because the low-cost production values allowed anyone with a camera to try their hand at making the next Blair Witch. Because of this, the subgenre has been viewed skeptically as the medium for mediocrity, a crutch for a filmmaker without faith in their story to rely on ambiguity and shaky cameras to surface spookiness. But in relegating found footage to such a narrow scope, critics of the subgenre completely miss the potential for unparalleled realism that blurs the lines between reality and fiction.
This is why The McPherson Tape is so important in the history of the found footage. Not only does this ultra-low-budget shot-on-video film have the unnerving vibe of a home movie you weren’t meant to see, but its simplistic approach was also so effective that for years (and I mean years) some ufologists legitimately believed the film was real. They believed it so much that when the director confirmed that it was only a film, the true believers wouldn’t believe it. Their eyes saw in The McPherson Tape affirmation of their hopes and dreams about the world beyond the stars. The film itself is short, simple, and utterly effective; but it’s what happened after the film was released that reinforces just why this subgenre is so powerful. There may be a lot of subpar found-footage horror films out there, but when they work? They manage to be more effective than a traditional film: horror, or otherwise. (Jacob Trussell)
9. Grave Encounters (2011)
All found footage films face the same creative problem: “why are these characters filming to begin with?” Exemplary found footage films adopt scenarios that make narrative buy-in a breeze: recovered documentary B-roll, footage from a special interest news broadcast, and in this case, un-aired footage from a ghost-hunting television show. Grave Encounters is the answer to the question “why the heck hasn’t anyone made a found footage film out of a ghost-hunting show?”
The film is “comprised” of recovered footage from the un-aired sixth and final episode of a fictional paranormal reality television show. The footage (edited for our viewing pleasure) shows host Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson) and his small crew setting up for an overnight stay at the abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. While the hospital’s reputation initially fails to deliver, Preston and company soon find themselves in the middle of the supposed object of their search: a bonafide haunting. For all its of-a-time low-budget trappings (jump scares galore), Grave Encounters’ depiction of impossible spaces and lost time is truly unnerving, more than earning this little Canadian chiller a spot on this list. (Meg Shields)
8. As Above, So Below (2014)
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I watch a film, dislike it, and then discover years later I was a putz. John Erick Dowdle’s underground thrill ride is one such example. It didn’t work for me on release, but subsequent rewatches have seen me appreciate its world and execution far more.
That world is just one of its charms — spelunkers go exploring the very real catacombs beneath the streets of Paris — as it’s a setting we’re wholly unused to. Most found footage films unfold in houses or forests, places we’ve been and seen, but this one finds its life in a place we can hardly believe is even real. It only grows from there to build a mythology that’s again atypical, and it works to deliver memorable set-pieces and visuals. The logic can still be a bit wonky and some found footage sins still occur, but if you give yourself over to the journey it’s a thrilling nightmare that not everyone will wake from. (Rob Hunter)
7. Cloverfield (2008)
When Cloverfield was unleashed in 2008, it might not have reinvented the wheel of found footage, but it did effectively shift how the genre was perceived. From the start of the pre-release viral marketing up to the post-credit easter eggs, it was clear that Cloverfield was building a larger universe and a thorny mystery. While a lot of sleeper-hit found footage films relied on word-of-mouth speculation that this could be real, Cloverfield leaned in the opposite direction. Obviously, New York wasn’t destroyed by a giant monster, but with breadcrumbs dropped around the movie’s release and within the film itself, fans quickly started building a narrative of what it all means and what the clues are pointing to. Cloverfield was a truly unique mainstream sensation. And though it wasn’t the first to beguile audiences by promising a mystery that goes far beyond just the 85-minute run time, it is a major example of how well found footage horror stylings can work when used effectively. (Anna Swanson)
6. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Man Bites Dog is one of the first examples of found footage, and it is incredibly brutal. The film’s conceit is that a documentary crew are following renowned serial killer Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde) as he tortures and kills random people on the street. He waxes poetic about life, death, and violence while the camera keeps rolling, capturing his atrocities frame by frame. The longer the crew films Ben, the more involved they become in his violent dealings. At one point they even begin to participate in the violence, calling into question the responsibility of the filmmaker in the depiction of truth and their own relationships with their subjects. Not only is it an early example of the subgenre, but also an early example of how the genre calls into question the subject position of the viewer. They are made uncomfortably aware of what they are watching and their own relationship to the cruelty on screen. Man Bites Dog is nauseating, yet it is a crucial piece of horror history. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
Related Topics: 31 Days of Horror Lists