A lot of horror cinema is very gimmick-centric. While the goal of every film is ultimately to get enough butts in enough seats to turn a profit on the production, it seems that horror in particular has taken that goal as a challenge. Going back to the 1950s and 60s with the films of William Castle, who was the king of the theater gimmick, horror has always strived to embrace new technology and styles of filmmaking in an ever-increasing demand for public interest.
It was horror that first embraced things like 3D and interactive theater experiences. Castle himself installed mild shock and vibration devices in theater seats for his film The Tingler, and resorted to other bizarre and whimsical tactics to attract an audience for his films. Alfred Hitchcock famously instituted a “No Late Admittance” policy for Psycho, and audiences for the 1970 film Mark of the Devil were given free vomit bags with every ticket. In short, horror has been trying whatever it can to stir up buzz and encourage ticket sales for decades now.
In the modern age, these gimmicks have been somewhat toned down and relegated to mostly on-screen filmmaking selling points. These are mostly gimmicks involving the specific filming process used to either make or frame the film (although bizarrely 3D briefly made a comeback in the mid-2010s following the success of James Cameron’s Avatar). From the Skype/Zoom-call style of films like Unfriended to the faux documentary feeling of The Fourth Kind and The Poughkeepsie Tapes, these gimmicks tailor less to the in-theater experience itself and more to the internal presentation of the film within its own universe.
Of these gimmicks, there’s one that’s perhaps been used more than any other, much to the delight and chagrin of audiences based entirely on who you ask about it: The Found Footage film. Popularized by The Blair Witch Project in 1999 (but present long before that in films like Cannibal Holocaust), found-footage films present themselves as “recovered” footage from supposedly real-life victims of various horror scenarios. The gimmick comes into play with the style of filming used in these movies, typically done with consumer-grade, low-quality handheld cameras. The allure of these films for filmmakers is the low cost, allowing aspiring filmmakers with limited budgets to crank out major motion pictures without bankrupting themselves in the process. Paranormal Activity was famously made for a budget of less than $15,000, and ended grossing nearly $200 million worldwide, spawning a billion-dollar franchise in the process.
And from the audience’s perspective, the found-footage style allows for a truly immersive, POV style that feels far more intimate and borderline-voyeuristic than a traditionally-shot narrative. It puts you, as the viewer, in the events of the film, which can greatly elevate the emotional impact of the experience. More importantly, it also greatly increases the intensity of the scares as well, making it the perfect breeding ground for inventive, highly effective horror.
Frankly, it’s one of my favorite subgenres of horror, hands-down.
Today, let’s take a look at some of the best found footage horror films out there, films that really embrace the gimmick in go all-in for an immersive, genuinely frightening, uncomfortably personal ride through terror:
Probably the most grounded film on this list, The Sacrament is also one of the most unnerving and difficult to watch. Not because it’s particularly scary or violent, but because of how familiar and realistic the premise is. Presented under the guise of a Vice exposé, the film follows a documentary crew as they investigate a growing cult-like commune, which has set itself up as a haven for the lost and the broken, under the leadership of a charismatic and seemingly well-meaning religious zealot. Remember the confused old man who ran the gas station in No Country for Old Men? The coin toss guy? Well, get ready to be completely terrified by him. The film takes obvious inspiration from the notorious Jonestown Massacre of the late 1970s, showing in sickeningly-authentic detail what would happen in a similar event in the modern day. Again, the scariest thing about this film is the fact that none of its villains are overtly mythical. They are all modeled after very real flesh-and-blood human beings, not exaggerated archetypes. People, groups like this exist in the real world, and have very much the same influence as those depicted in the film, which make this likely the most gut-wrenching and poignant installment on this list. And in a post COVID, post MAGA world, it’s all the more terrifying.
I know a lot of people are tired of the whole “found footage” gimmick as a whole nowadays, which is a totally understandable sentiment. Ever since The Blair Witch Project popularized the approach, every two-bit indie horror director has decided to take a crack at it, to varying degrees of success. The result is a fairly oversaturated market with predictable, low-effort films that don’t deliver much outside of just capitalizing on the filming gimmick. And worst of all, most just aren’t scary. But I promise you, REC is, hands-down, the most effective user of this particular shooting style in recent years in terms of sheer scares. A Spanish-language film, REC follows a news crew as they’re stationed overnight doing a puff-piece on a local fire station. What starts off as a relatively uneventful night is immediately thrown into chaos when the crew tags along on a visit to an apartment complex where strange, violent occurrences are reported to be happening in the upper levels. What follows is a harrowing, claustrophobic thrill-ride inside the multi-story building, as the firefighters and the news crew find themselves quarantined inside, trapped with whatever horrific affliction has begun to affect the complex’s residents. The third act of this movie is one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had with a film, keeping my heart pounding and my hands poised to cover my eyes for the entire duration. If you’re looking for genuine scares, this is the film for you. Stay away, though, from Quarantine, the American remake. It’s basically the same film, just heavily watered-down, and not nearly as visceral.
Hell House, LLC
Hell House LLC really doesn’t have anything super original or inventive up its sleeve. But honestly, that’s okay. It’s a classic haunted-house movie, filtered through the lens of an amateur documentary film crew as they attempt to convert an old, allegedly cursed hotel into a Halloween attraction. It’s about as by-the-numbers as it gets, but there’s just something oddly charming and sincere about the silm that just brings a fresh layer of realism to the whole affair. The characters seem genuine and authentic, and the scares are well-paced and effective. By the end, I found myself oddly gripped by the experience, and almost began to buy into the notion that perhaps what I was watching was, in fact, a true story. Again, the handheld camera gimmick may bother some, but I think it really works here, bringing an air of intimacy and strange voyeurism to the account of these strangers’ ultimately fateful venture. It’s a solid, no-nonsense, old-school story about some dumb teenagers and a house full of demons. You get what you pay for here, and it delivers exactly that. And try to see the director’s cut if you can. When the third act hits, and hits hard, you’ll see a lot more craziness than the budget of the original cut could afford.
The most recent (and topical) film on this list, Host is a wholly unique horror movie altogether. Technically speaking, this is considered to be a “computer screen” film, in the vein of Searching and Unfriended, rather than a true found footage film, but the subgenres are so innately similar that I feel perfectly fine counting them as one and the same. Host was written, shot, and edited in just 12 weeks during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but don’t let that impressive lead time fool you: This is one of the most well-crafted and effective horror films I’ve ever seen. Coming in at just under an hour, Host centers on a group of British friends deciding to conduct a seance over a Zoom call while under lockdown. It’s an exceedingly simple premise, and its that simplicity and economy of time that makes it so unflinchingly scary. It’s not laughably cheesy like Unfriended, stemming from the fact that the cast and crew are all real-life friends, giving them genuine chemistry and believability. This is the rare film that’s perhaps best seen on your laptop to best accentuate its unique gimmick. Just make sure your computer is sitting on a safe, level surface: Trust me, you’re going to jump a couple times.
Another technical departure from what would normally be considered “found footage,” Lake Mungo instead styles itself after a cold-case, Unsolved Murders-documentary. The film centers on an Australian family who’s teenage daughter tragically drowns while on holiday. What starts as a fairly typical news story quickly descends into a profound, melancholy terror as more and more sordid details about girl’s private life begin to surface. On top of that, strange supernatural occurrences begin happening in the family’s home, causing them to question whether or not their daughter’s death was truly an accident, or something far more sinister. Lake Mungo is similar to Ari Aster’s Hereditary, in that it simultaneously juggles genuine horror movie scares with uncomfortably authentic family trauma and pain that makes this one of the most emotionally exhausting horror films out there. All that, coupled with the raw, matter-of-fact documentary style in which the film is shot, makes for some truly memorable moments, including one that still gives me the chills just thinking about it. If you hate slow-burns, maybe sit this one out. But if you enjoy a methodical, atmospheric build-up, this is definitely the movie for you.
As Above, So Below
Certainly the most large-scale and ambitious film on this list, while somehow being the most claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing, As Above So Below is a found-footage horror film set entirely with Paris’s underground catacombs. Part Blair Witch Project and part National Treasure, the film follows a young archeologist and her ex boyfriend as the venture deep into the skull-lined system of caves under the City of Love as they search for the fames Philosopher’s Stone. It’s a fast-paced, smothering film, shot in the actual catacombs of Paris to supremely impressive effect, one that makes you desperate for sunlight after watching it. While not the best written of the films on this list (the plot begins to feel like a bad Tomb Raider game at points), the strength of As Above, So Below lies in its ability to create a genuinely restrictive atmosphere and sense of visual hopelessness, thanks to its remarkable usage of its on-location sets and overall design aesthetic. This one won’t be winning any awards, but is still a bone-chilling good time, especially if you hate enclosed spaces as much as I do.
This is… an odd one. Directed by Patrick Brice and starring its co-writer Mark Duplass, Creep is essentially an 80-minute-long PSA on why Craigslist is a death trap. Responding to an add posted in an online marketplace forum, a broke videographer travels to your typical creepy cabin in the woods to meet with Josef, a grade-A weirdo and walking red flag factory. Josef claims he’s dying, and wants this poor, unsuspecting soul to record his final days as a sort of post-mortem video dairy for his unborn son. Throughout the day, Josef’s behavior becomes more and more erratic, involving some unpleasantly awkward performances with a wolf mask and some shady implications that this seemingly harmless, friendly lunatic might be more than he seems. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable film that pulls quite a bit from similar plots like Misery, where a hapless stranger suddenly finds themselves at the mercy of a socially-repressed psycho. Duplass himself is such a phenomenal performer in his role that your opinion of the character changes so often from scene to scene that you genuinely don’t know what to think of him until the end. And the in-your-face, handheld style of shooting makes the film a frighteningly intimate experience, one that’ll make you question making that Facebook Marketplace posting once it’s finished. You never know who’ll answer your ad…
Found Footage 3D
The last film on this list is a bit of a gag inclusion, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. Found Footage 3D is essentially a snarky parody of found footage horror movies, following a small skeleton crew of filmmakers as they race to create the first 3D horror movie shot with hand-held cameras, despite the fact that, from a storytelling perspective, that makes absolutely no sense. The entire point of a found footage film is the realism. Why on earth would a person be filming in 3D? Well, to make this exact film, as it so happens. It’s a wonderfully meta and self-aware, lampshading all of the usual tropes and clichés that go hand-in-hand with the particular style of filmmaking, to often hilarious effect. But the best part of Found Footage 3D is that, like all of the best works of parody and satire, it itself works as an excellent example of exactly what it’s spoofing. The film eventually moves beyond its comedic premise and becomes a found-footage horror movie, making it an Inception-like, Russian nesting doll of a film that never sacrifices its scares for jokes and vice-versa. It’s a tragically underrated movie that it seems like no one has seen, so please track it down on the streaming site of your choice and give it ago. If you like smart, genre-savvy films like Scream or Cabin in the Woods, this one’s for you.
These are just a few of the excellent options out there for found footage horror. I intentionally left out the obvious choices like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, but make no mistake, those are fantastic choices as well. Other honorable mentions include Grave Encounters, a decent Ghost Hunters homage that quickly turns crazy as all hell, and Willow Creek, a rare Bigfoot-centric horror film that I’ll be talking more in-depth about later this month.
And as always, if you have your own favorites, let me know! I’d love to hear what you think!