Found Footage, Lost Originality? – Top 10 ‘found footage’ films (and 1 computer game)

To celebrate (or perhaps mourn) the arrival of another bunch of ‘found footage’ films, Troll Hunter and Apollo 18, we here at TQS thought it would be a good time to share our picks for the most interesting pieces of ‘found footage’. As the title can attest this writer could be forgiven for being a little jaded when it comes to the genre (although this could be due to the amount of ‘found footage’ he’s gone through this week), but it is hard to deny that it has had a significant amount of success.

A typically financially beneficial for the studios, as in essence they are quite cheap to make (notable exception being Cloverfield)  the style of ‘found footage’ filmmaking lends itself to the horror genre and the Friday night popcorn crowd well. However, we can all probably by now trace the plot of anyone found footage film and there doesn’t seem to be any surprises within the genre anymore, but hasn’t slowed the genre down with a whopping 14 films and a TV show (called The River, which surprisingly has Steven Spielberg on board as executive producer) being released this year alone. So, in honour of this popular genre here is our top 10.

10. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Arguably the first film in the genre this Italian produced film is not for the faint of heart. Director Ruggero Deodato brings us a gruesome tale of a documentary film crew that has disappeared in the Amazon whilst researching the local tribes. Anthropologist Harold Munroe finds the footage and with him the audience uncover their grizzly fate. It is actually quite upsetting to be honest as the footage becomes more and more disturbing as the film goes on, with it’s depiction of extreme violence and even the live slaughter of seven animals.

Not surprisingly the film was banned in many countries (The UK included) and the director was arrested on obscenity charges, he was even accused of making a snuff film due to rumours that some of the actors were actually killed, but he was later cleared. However disturbing the film is, it can’t be denied a place on the list and looking at the film as not just a blood bath it could illuminate a social commentary of how the western world perceives these indigenous tribes as the film compares the civilised with the uncivilised.

9. Lost Tapes (2009)

This is just a great idea for a TV show. Animal Planet in their infinite wisdom has created a mockumentary anthology series which focuses on found footage of people having traumatic encounters with cryptozoological, supernatural and exterterrestrial creatures. Yes, week-by-week we get a show that presents members of the public being attacked by the likes of Bigfoot, Vampires, hellhounds and even a Kraken!

Although the show is often ridiculous and once it begins showing the creatures fully in the later seasons (3 so far) the effects work is shoddy, you can’t help but be entertained. The actors keep straight faces and when it first began airing it was akin to Strange but True? It’s unique gem on Animal Planet‘s otherwise familiar programming schedule.

8. Paranormal Activity (2007)

To be honest this film is probably mostly to blame for the continued production of ‘found footage’ films in recent years. Surprisingly, the film earnt far beyond most people’s expectations and brought in enough money to guarantee a franchise (and a hefty cash cow for the studio). However, you can’t blame the film, as it is actually a well-made piece of horror that has people jumping on cue like well-trained dogs.

By now, most people will be familiar with its plot, involving a young couple who are being terrorized by a demon who has it’s eyes set on the woman of the house. Although the ending is a great jump out of your chair moment, it is in the build up that the film excels. Director Oren Peli sets up his film well and the creepiest moments of the film are hidden in moving shadows and bedding. Although the original film is being diluted by its sequels it’s hard not to acknowledge it’s impact on the genre.

7. Michigan: Report From Hell (2005)

Proving again it isn’t just the films that create interesting fiction within the genre, Michigan: Report From Hell is a Playstation 2 game that puts you directly into the action. You are the cameraman of the ‘found footage’ and with the help of your trusty sound guy and reporter sidekicks you try to find the source of a mysterious mist that descends over Chicago and seems to centre on Lake Michigan (hence the name). In a convoluted plot about biological weapons, government conspiracies and whatever else they could plagiarise from the Resident Evil franchise you try and survive the monstrous slug/human hybrids (created by the mist) while uncovering the truth.

Basically, the gameplay centres around the cameraman ‘tagging’ things and the reporter interacting, which is used to hilarious effect when in combat as the report heroically goes in to save the day and you and the sound guy just stand there. It is a little problematic to control but the videogame presents an interesting twist on the survival-horror genre and is an interesting interactive perspective on the ‘found footage’ genre and so deserves it’s place on this list.

6. Cloverfield (2008)

Viral campaigning at its greatest. The Matt Reeves (a la J.J Abrams) directed film brought out a satisfyingly intriguing teaser trailer before the film went into full production. The online hype was frantic with people guessing that the film would be another Godzilla remake, something Lovecraftian or even a spin off from Lost. However, when the film arrived it was clear that it fell into the Godzilla mode but from the perspective of the people on the ground and not the military or scientists combating the beast.

Generally the film was positively received and it works for the most part, keeping the monster hidden in flashes of action, but there are some stretches of the imagination and the main character’s obsession with finding his ex girlfriend, which don’t sit right with the rest of the film. In fact, the ex is the main reason the film loses some of its believability, which sounds ridiculous when discussing a film about a giant monster but the film actually presents a realistic depiction of how people would react and the ex girlfriend just tips the balance. Basically because no one would be able to survive that much blood loss from being impaled by an iron bar, let alone run away from a helicopter crash (ahem! Sorry for the rant). That being said, the film does succeed in its execution and is a thrilling addition to the genre, not to mention shows what a bigger budget can produce.

5. Zero Day (2003)

Director Ben Coccio has created a film that is both haunting and uncompromising in its depiction of two high school students who go on a killing spree at their school. Not to be confused with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant which shares a few key elements and was released first (even though Zero Day was finished first) Zero Day goes a little further than Van Sant’s artistic take on the similar events. Obviously influenced by the Columbine High School Massacre of 1999, the film starts of as a video diary of the two boys depicting the planning of their assault on the school, their motives and how they get hold of their weapons.

The film could be accused of being irresponsible for its realistic depiction of how to acquire guns, but it all adds the shocking nature of the film. The film’s final scenes, the massacre itself, is played out through CCTV footage and adds a horrible sense of realism to the film. Coccio’s choice to film in both perspectives was inspired by the basement tapes that were made by the original Columbine killers and the CCTV footage of the eponymous school’s cafeteria. The film is not an easy watch and it is a testament to the film making that it never glamorises the boys’ actions. In fact, it is a snap-shot of disaffected American youth and how the land of plenty can produce such horrendous acts of violence.

4. The Last Broadcast (1998)

The pre-cursor to The Blair Witch Project. The Last Broadcast is an independently produced film that is set up like a documentary investigating the deaths of three people out in the Pine Barrens (South of New Jersey). It sets up trying to prove once and for all that the man the authorities deemed responsible, a psychic named Jim Suerd, may in fact be innocent. The film is narrated by fictional documentary filmmaker David Leigh and is inter-cut with footage from the Pine Barrens.

The story goes that flagging internet show Fact or Fiction presenters Steven and Locus have decided to film a live broadcast in the Pine Barrens to see if the rumours of the Jersey Devil are true, with the help of sound men Rein and Suerd. The film presents itself like a TV special and it builds a lot of mystique and keeps you entertained for the majority of its running time. However, the ending of the film is a jarring change of pace and will not to be to everyone’s taste. The film’s biggest asset is in its depictions of how the media and authorities manipulate information for their own ends. It interviews the court editor who takes the found footage and crafts a disturbing picture of Suerd as a psychologically jilted man. Plus, with the case happening in a local election year there is even more reason to get a conviction quickly. The film presents its case and you will be guessing what actually happened right up until the end.

3. Lake Mungo (2008)

To be honest this is presented in exactly the same way as The Last Broadcast, however the film is just handled with more confidence and doesn’t have a disappointing ending. With positive buzz this little mockumentary from Australia tells the tale of the Palmer family after the death of their daughter Alice who start to experience strange goings on around their home. They get in touch with psychic Ray Kemney and together they discover the secrets hidden behind the bright smile of Alice Palmer.

To say this film is realistic is an understatement, at certain points it’s easy to forget you’re watching a film rather than a documentary. The actors are fantastic and really do some great believable emotional performances and the film itself has enough twists and turns to keep anyone hooked from beginning to end. It’s a film all about subtlety and doesn’t throw scare after predictable scare at you, however there is one moment which is spine chilling, and you do end up feeling for the family as the plot moves forward. The American remake is on its way but it would be a shame for people not to witness the original first hand.

2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

To not have this film on the list would be sacrilege. It was the perfect marriage of execution and marketing and in 1999 it had people being sick and fainting all over the multiplexes. We all know the story, a group of filmmakers go into the woods to investigate the Blair Witch legend and disappear.

The films production was a stroke of genius with  co-directors  Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez only giving the small cast clues on where to go and hints on how to act which added a depth of realism through improvisation. Producer Gregg Hale brought with him his experience in the military and the crew pushed the cast to move far in the day and then would harass them in the night. This intense style of production was partnered with an Internet campaign which is considered one of the first of its kind and the two forces made this film one of the most successful independent productions of all time.To its credit, the film still holds up 12 years later and is a creepy experience with a great ending that leaves you wondering what went on long after the credits roll.

1. Man Bites Dog (1992)

This Belgian fly on the wall mockumentary will stay with you for a long time. It follows a group of filmmakers as they create a documentary on a serial killer named Ben and follow him as he commits more and more crimes. Ben is a charismatic man and when the film begins he discusses his occupation openly, old people are easier to kill than young couples for example and they have benefits like cash.

The camera crew are at first merely observers. But as the film continues they start to get more involved at first becoming merely accomplices and then actually actively participating in the crimes. The film’s crimes become more and more violent and Ben’s actions more random. But in a suprising turn of events, relatives of his victims begin to take revenge and the violence is escalated until the final moments of the film that are truly haunting.

However, for all its violence the film is actually quite funny and you will end up being ashamed with how much you laugh considering the subject matter. The film is shot totally in black and white and this just adds to the atmosphere. Furthermore, the film is something of a triumph if you consider that it is essentially a student film (the four film makers were students at the time). For better or for worse this film will stay with you.

So what do you think? Missed any?

Words by Dan Cole

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