Some Found Footage Horror Movies Are Worth Seeing

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One of the problems with the horror genre (and the film industry in general) is the copycat phenomenon where everybody tries to copy the few successes. Originality goes out the window as everybody scrambles to make the next [insert title of last successful film]. I'm not sure there are many examples more divisive among horror fans than the found footage film. Some horror fans hate them, others still love them, and I suspect the majority of us are just tired of them. The Blair Witch Project (1999) was not the first found footage horror film but was wildly successful in a way none before it could imagine. Love it or hate it, it was a landmark example of how successful the found footage formula can be, especially if done on the cheap and with a brilliant marketing campaign. The downside was that we were treated to a deluge of found footage films.

For the purpose of this post, I am going to use a broad definition of "found footage" that includes all the films that are obviously found footage (i.e., the audience is told that they are watching recovered footage) plus those that might more accurately be described as "shaky cam" or POV (i.e., much of the film is from the perspective of at least one of the actors). I think this makes sense because these films are more about their characteristic visual style than the details of their plots.

I don't blame anyone for being tired of found footage films. Much like the rest of the horror genre, many of these films are awful. One must watch countless bad ones to uncover the few gems. But as far as I'm concerned, that search is a big part of what being a horror fan is all about. The contrast with the bad ones makes the good ones so much better. So are any of these found footage films good ones? Yes, I think some of them are worth watching.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

This was such a simple film. A small group of students venture into the forest with hand-held cameras to investigate reports of a local witch and finds more than they bargained for. The first time I saw The Blair Witch Project (1999), I found more terrifying than 99% of the horror films I'd seen to that point. I watched it in the middle of the day in a well-lit apartment, and it still kept me up that night. I cannot deny that it had many flaws. The actors were annoying, and the shaky cam stuff was mildly nauseating and repetitive. None of that mattered during that initial viewing because the film delivered. I wouldn't go so far as to claim this was the best or even my favorite found footage film, but I do consider it a worthy benchmark for comparing others.

REC (2007)

What initially seems to be an outbreak of a contagious disease turns out to be so much more. REC (2007) is widely praised as one of the best found footage films, and I'd have to agree. I didn't see it coming, and it blew me away as another strong example of a truly scary flick. It may not have been completely original, but it eclipsed anything similar I had seen before that point, and I think it holds up fairly well. I haven't had any interest in watching anything even remotely related to contagious illness or body horror since the COVID-19 pandemic started, but I'm sure I will revisit REC if we ever manage to get past it.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

This one is based on another simple but effective premise: Something strange is going on at home, so let's set up some cameras to see if we can capture it. Although each of the sequels was more disappointing than the last, the first Paranormal Activity (2007) flick was worth watching. The cast was far less annoying than the Blair Witch crew, and the idea of setting up cameras throughout one's house to capture alleged paranormal phenomena was effective. I think the best thing about this one was that they didn't make the mistake of overdoing anything. Showing too much often ruins films like this, and their restraint made it more effective.

Cloverfield (2008)

A large Godzilla-like monster attacks New York, and the audience is treated to a front-row seat from the perspective of those filming it. I'd put Cloverfield (2008) on the list of found footage films worth watching while acknowledging that it wasn't scary. There was something cool about bringing the shaky cam POV approach to the monster-attacking-a-major-city scenario even if it did remind audiences of 9/11 footage. Unfortunately, it is one of those films that didn't hold up for me on repeat viewings. At least it spawned a very different non-found-footage film that was even better.

Trollhunter (2010)

Everything you need to know about this one is right in the title. Trolls are real, they live in Norway, and it is time to pick up a camera and join the hunt. Trollhunter (2010) was not scary, and I think one could make a case that it is as much of an action film as a horror film, but it was so much fun that it needs to be on any list of recommended found footage/POV films. If there's one film that manages to be a blast even though it resembles the excessive CGI crap one finds on SyFy these days, it would be Trollhunter. I loved this one!

Grave Encounters (2011)

A team of ghost hunters has themselves locked into an abandoned psychiatric hospital overnight to film reported paranormal activity. Although Grave Encounters (2011) was far from original and had more than a few unintentionally funny parts, the set was effective. There have been many horror films involving the sort of ghost hunters we see on all those bad cable shows stumbling across "real" ghosts, and this is one of the best of them. My favorite thing was how they handled the cast becoming stuck inside the hospital. I liked that far better than the silly CGI effects that appeared toward the end.

As Above, So Below (2014)

A camera crew explores the catacombs beneath Paris and finds some scary stuff. I went into As Above, So Below (2014) with fairly low expectations, but it was much better than I expected. I think this had to do with how it subverted audience expectations by offering a different sort of scare than what we are used to. In doing so, it somehow seemed to be operating on a more intelligent level than most of what is out there. I found myself thinking about it the next day and could easily imagine seeing it again.

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

A couple of students show up at a family's home to document a woman's struggle with Alzheimer's disease and finds something far more sinister going on. I have mixed feelings about this one. I thought The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) was a fairly effective found footage film, one of the better ones I've seen recently. Having the main character suffer from Alzheimers disease made it feel a bit exploitative and maybe a bit too close to home. But I am willing to consider that this may have been part of why the film worked. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone caring for an aging relative.

And now for the sure-to-be-controversial part, I'll share some brief thoughts on some of the widely recommended found footage films that did not impress me enough to recommend.

  • Incident at Loch Ness (2004) is a hard film to categorize, but I have a hard time placing it in the horror genre. It was somewhat interesting and held my attention, but it wasn't scary and ended up just being another average pseudo-documentary without any compelling reason to recommend it.
  • The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) is another pseudo-documentary where we are supposed to think we are watching recordings a serial killer made of his crimes. It is one of those infamous horror flicks everybody says you have to see. It was a big disappointment, as I found it far more boring than disturbing.
  • Lake Mungo (2008) is yet another pseudo-documentary that might be one of the most recommended found footage films ever. I found it slow, boring, and not even mildly creepy. It took me three viewings to get through it because I fell asleep during the first two. As it turns out, I wasn't missing anything by sleeping.
  • Hell House LLC (2015) wasn't a terrible film, and taking the audience behind the scenes of one of the many haunted houses that is staged every year around Halloween seemed like a good idea. A few parts of it worked fairly well, but the film missed some good opportunities to deliver the scares, became somewhat repetitive, and ended up just being average.

If I've learned anything from this exercise, it would have to be that not all found footage films are bad. Some manage to be every bit as effective as any other style, even if they are uncommon. And perhaps the other lesson to is recognize the limits of reviews. Just because I see scores of people raving about how great a film is doesn't mean I'm going to like it.

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