In scream-filled music to a scare fan’s ears, the new terrifying looking found footage horror movie The Woods was revealed at Comic Con as actually being a long-awaited sequel to the The Blair Witch Project. While the original Blair Witch wasn’t the start of the discovered videotape genre - the oeuvre stretches all the way back to Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 - it’s been the cornerstone for every shaky camera experience since. Blair Witch has a lot to answer for when it comes to motion sick cinema goers.
There’s an immediacy to found footage movies you just can’t get anywhere else. The ‘Oh God this really happened’ element is even easier in the 21st century as we record everything with GoPros and phones so of course we’d Instagram the gory apocalypse. What else are we going to do? The best horror films lead us into the darkness by the bloody hand but found footage hacks down another wall of safety, letting us peer further into the gloom. Just don’t be too surprised when something looks back. Without further ado, here’s the best found footage to catch up on before you head back into the woods. If I don’t make it, share this with the world. To quote Cloverfield’s Hud, people are going to want to know how it all went down.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The 1999 classic was made all the more tantalising at the time by the viral marketing that circled the movie. Thanks to the delights of the then new-fangled internet and some very convincing missing posters, there was a lot of genuine concern as to whether Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams were actually still alive. The fact that the trio used their real names further blurred the lines of fiction and reality as they traipsed into the woods and made horror cinema history. Tapping into the most primal human fears of the dark and unknown, The Blair Witch Project is an exercise in terror. Every night the trio spend in their tent in the cold woods, their resolve unpicks itself and as you strain your own ears for the noises that seem just out of reach but are still very much there, you’ll be entirely sucked along for the ride. As an aside, if you don’t find the ending scary then you might just be fundamentally broken.
2. Rec (2007)
Rec is, quite simply, terrifying. It’s a tense, seat/other human gripping rollercoaster into infected hell. Ignore the sub-standard American remake, pass Go, collect 200 popcorn kernels and settle down to 78 minutes of relentless Spanish horror to probably not eat said kernels. A TV host is trailing a group of firefighters for the night but when a call drags the team out to a building because of strange noises coming from one of the apartments, Angela and her cameraman end up seeing far more than they bargained for. Draw the curtains and crank up the sound. Yes, of course there’s a night vision section. No really, you’re welcome.
3. Paranormal Activity (2007)
No scoffing allowed. The original and best, this is another perfect example of the everyday becoming utterly terrifying. A lot like Blair Witch, this again blurs the fiction reality line as Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat start to experience strange goings on at night in their home. Posing a camera at the foot of the bed is of course the natural next step and what ensues is a tense descent into a haunted hell. Director Oran Peli’s repetition of the same shot every night will make you physically dread the sun going down. Perfect pacing means we scrutinise every single part of the screen for movement, meaning that when something does happen, it’s almost unbearable. Given that we all have to sleep at some point, you’ll be leaving the lights on for a long time.
4. Troll Hunter (2010)
What do you mean you haven’t seen a Norwegian found footage movie about hunting for actual trolls in the forest? Playing equally for laughs and genuine terror, Troll Hunter follows an unsuspecting - and refreshingly likeable - group of university students who are trying to make a documentary about an alleged bear poacher. As you might expect, what they find in the beautiful Norwegian wilds is very, very different. The less said the better but this is a found footage experience you shouldn’t miss and definitely see it before the remake arrives. Even if the new version is being directed by The Descent’s Neil Marshall, there’s something about this dark Norwegian fairy tale that makes it almost dangerously believable. Just don’t look under the bridge.
5. The Sacrament (2013)
This is what happens when the brilliant House of the Devil director Ti West goes mainstream. Following a (thankfully) fictitious documentary team from Vice as they hunt for a journalist’s missing sister, the Sacrament is a dangerous and disturbing eyeball to the hole in the wall of cults. Those familiar with the tragic Jonestown Massacre will quickly realise how this all goes down but some uncomfortable performances and a serious dollop of dread make this unpleasant but compulsive viewing. It’s riveting but perhaps schedule some cartoons afterwards. Here be human monsters and it's miserable.
6. As Above, So Below (2014)
The Catacombs of Paris are scary. Underground? Check? Ancient? Check? Entire corridors made up of the remains of six million dead bodies? Check. It actually takes quite a lot of work to make them less than absolutely terrifying - see Catacombs for a perfect example of how not to do it. While As Above, So Below shouldn’t give you too many nightmares, Devil director John Erick Dowdle manages to keep a handle on the horrific claustrophobia of the caverns as a scholar hunts down a mythical object known as the Philosopher’s Stone. Yes, that one, Harry Potter fans. It turns into a bit of a ridiculous romp in the third act as the GoPro switching amps up but until it descends into complete madness, there’s enough successful shocks to make it worth the subterranean trip. It’s even more impressive when you know it was shot in the catacombs themselves.
7. Unfriended (2014)
Don’t let the millennials, or the fact that this is all set on Skype put you off. No, come back! Yes this is the ultimate in 21st century found footage as it all takes place on one screen, but it’s machete sharp and there’s something horribly compelling about watching the action unfold in a place so familiar to us all. This is Creepypasta in action as a set of teenagers in a group chat encounter an interloper in their online midst but the set up is pitch perfect and there’s a genuine sense of dread. This is our world, with the soundtrack of bleeps to match. Keep your lights on? Nah, this might just be a movie that’ll make you change your notification settings.
8. Cloverfield (2008)
On the surface, Matt Reeves’ monster mash is a by-the-book creature feature as an enormous beast destroys Manhattan but its post 9/11 release makes it a far more political statement. Shaky found footage combined with tumbling skyscrapers and clouds of rubble just hadn’t been done in film since 2001. A perfect example of horror reflecting and reacting to the real world in the only way it knows how. It was a bold move from Reeves but he pulls it off effortlessly and despite the vacuousness of most of his characters, this is a relentless tour de force of big budget found footage that keeps your heart in your mouth for its trim 85 minute runtime. Much like Blair Witch, the viral marketing to go alongside Cloverfield was cranked into overdrive with no title being revealed and only shots of the Statue Of Liberty’s head being cannonballed into the street.
9. V/H/S (2012)
Anthology horrors can be wildly inconsistent but there’s something beautifully grungy and brilliant about V/H/S that elevates it above the dross. It’s the most meta of found footage movies. A criminal gang break into a house to steal a videotape that they’ve been offered money to retrieve but they find a dead man sitting in front of TV sets amidst a sea of blank videotapes. Low and behold, they start watching the tapes which are the other found footage shorts that make up the movie. The shorts are of varying degrees of shocking but The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger is brilliant and Adam Wingard’s meta narrative that wraps around the shorts is shlockily inventive. Grab some friends and popcorn and you won’t be disappointed.
Image credits: Magnet, Artisan, Paramount, Universal, Filmax, Blumhouse, SF Norge