Ranked | Top 10 Contemporary Found-Footage Films

February 2, 2018
Alix Turner 6
Features, Film, Ranked
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Top 10 Contemporary Found-Footage Films

According to Wikipedia, “Found footage is a fictional film subgenre in which all or a substantial part of the work is presented as if it were discovered film or video recordings. The events on screen are typically seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, often accompanied by their real-time, off-camera commentary…”

Contrary to what many people assume, these aren’t just horror films (though the technique does lend itself well to that genre). There are science fiction (e.g. Cloverfield, Europa Report) and crime (e.g. Man Bites Dog, Alone with Her) found footage films, for example. But yes, they’re mostly horror. And I enjoy them – I guess because of how easily suspension of disbelief takes place if the film is done well – and I keep finding more! So when Ready, Steady, Cut asked for a ranked article, I offered to write about found footage films straight away.

Thing is… If I were to tell you about the best found footage films, well there are so many to choose from, but it will probably be a list made up of famous films you’ve seen (or at least heard of) already. You know, stuff like The Blair Witch Project, [REC], and Paranormal Activity. So I decided to give you my favourites from the last ten years: this will be a list of films that stand on their own (no sequels or remakes) that will be a great introduction to the genre; high quality, and a fairly broad range of styles and content.

So here goes…

10       Found Footage 3D

Found Footage 3D posterWritten and directed by Steven DeGennaro, 2016

This is the first of two films in which the footage found is of a film being made; so we see actors being actors and also being their characters (if you see what I mean). Occasionally that distinction is a little blurry (very blurry in the other film), but that works for both the story and the tension.

Anyway, in Found Footage 3D, the film being made is a found footage horror film (yes, in 3D), called Spectre of Death; so the entertainment is very meta-style. Indeed, the director has said his intention was to do for found footage films what Scream did for slasher films. And yes, I think he did that, but Scream had a much more cohesive plot. There is a lot that is either unexplained or unnecessary in this film. I’d like to say that is because it’s written to demonstrate that not everything can be explained in found footage films (because that would be too neat to be realistic), but I don’t think so.

Found Footage 3D houseSo Found Footage 3D is a flawed film, but I’ve included it here because of the way it showcases the genre, and it’s kind of neat that it opens my list because it expresses some rules about its genre:

“In every found footage film, we have to answer two questions; the first of which is why are we filming? What excuse do we have for having a camera document everything? That’s usually answered pretty early in the movie, usually the first scene (which we’re about to do right now).

 “The second question is exactly the same as the first question, but for the third act. It’s usually why the f**k haven’t you put the camera down and run the Hell away? If you answer that one wrong, the whole third act completely falls apart.”

Found Footage 3D main castAvailable to watch on Shudder in both 3D and 2D; I’ve not seen it in 3D, and it may well be that it will make all the difference to the effectiveness of the film. To me, this one didn’t come across as realistic, and therefore not as believable as found footage films should be; but give it a watch. It will lay the ground (and set the rules) for the rest.

(If you’re wondering, my main problem with the film was the spooky scary thing. The story could have been virtually the same with a more realistic – i.e. non-supernatural – scary thing. It just didn’t have to be that particular scary thing. For me, it nearly spoiled the film. But never mind.)

9          Europa Report

Written by Philip Gelatt and directed by Sebastián Cordero, 2013

Europa Report posterThis is a science fiction fake documentary which follows a group of astronauts on a mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, ostensibly to search for proof of life. The mission is being recorded constantly, via onboard cameras, helmet cameras, and personal logs; and the film is presented as footage compiled upon the discovery of the ship long after its mission came to an end.

I’ve included Europa Report here because of how damn realistic it feels. Turns out – now that I’ve looked into it – there’s a good reason for that: they used actual footage from the International Space Station for some of the film, and other parts were filmed in a true model.

Europa ReportOh, another reason I liked it such a lot (and you’ll see this in many of my positive reviews): There are some truly beautiful shots, both of real space and speculative Europa. And because of the realism, once you move into the speculative area, it’s very difficult to see the join.

Oh, and unlike many of the other films I’ve listed, you’ll recognise some faces: Sharlton Copley and Daniel Wu, for example.

8          The Houses October Built

Houses October Built posterWritten by Bobby Roe and Zack Andrews, directed by Bobby Roe, 2014

Five friends on a hunt across the USA for the scariest haunted house experience in the days leading up to Halloween. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, and there isn’t a great deal to the plot, but the downright creepiness of what they encounter really sneaks up on the viewer.

These friends are used to scares. They can shrug off virtually anything, which is why they are determined to find the infamous “Blue Skeleton” haunt; but they’re not sure how, as rumour has it you only get there by invitation. So they visit myriad haunted house attractions in the middle of nowhere, hoping they are following the right path.

houses 1There is an air of tension, but – in my opinion – one that wouldn’t work quite so well if it wasn’t for the snippets of news and (fake) journalistic clips added here and there, especially at the start. They suggest the viewer should consider Halloween attractions to be pretty much riddled with risk, and that the characters in the film were essentially asking for trouble. Personally, I wasn’t convinced by the realism of The Houses of October, but I did find it good creepy fun, to the extent that I’ll happily watch the sequel (released last year).

houses 2

7          Hell House LLC

Hell House LLC posterWritten and directed by Steve Cognetti, 2015

About a haunted house attraction and what took place there during the period leading up to its opening. Apparently, all but one of the crew was found dead when police arrived on opening night; and the last crew member turned up five years later, bringing pre-opening videos to a team of documentary filmmakers. The documentary team interviewed her and assembled a combination of original footage, YouTube film, interviews with other parties and their own visit to the house. Here’s where it gets a bit muddled, though. Who added their video to the mix; another documentary maker?

Hell House LLC clownsAnyway, regardless of the point of view, this is an incredibly scary film (if I were ranking these films according to what was most scary, this would be right near the top) and this is achieved just by realistic characters and simple devices such as creepy clowns and mannequins which move unexpectedly, screaming crowds and unexplained piano playing. Very, very effective writing and directing, and impressively, it was Cognetti’s first feature film. This film is available on Amazon Prime, though I understand the director’s cut on DVD is also worth tracking down, as there are some extra scenes that explain some more about what happened, and a sequel should be on its way next year.

Hell House LLC stairs

6          The Bay

Written by Michael Wallach, Barry Levinson and others, directed by Barry Levinson, 2012

The bay psoterOK, now we’re starting to get serious.

And yes, that was Barry Levinson’s name you just read; he of Rain Man and Wag the Dog fame.

The Bay is a horror film in serious documentary style, with an environmental subject. It is about a pathogen outbreak in the Chesapeake Bay and is presented as a piece of journalism compiled by a novice reporter who was there at the time and who now has enough material to blow the whistle on an apparent cover-up. Some of it is really bloody gruesome; but the horror is medical/biological, rather than violent, which makes it quite an unusual horror. And it comes across as extremely realistic, partly because of the near perfect acting, but also the way the (slightly exaggerated) scientific content is presented with such respect. Indeed it’s difficult to know how much to believe: clearly, pollution is an issue, and infections may result… but to what degree?

the bay 1

It has been reported that the scientific basis for the story is sound. Levinson apparently wrote a “proper” documentary about the impact of water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay but found that it wasn’t going to have much of a market, and so decided upon a somewhat sensationalized, fictionalised version (which resulted in The Bay). Conspiracy theorists might call that misinformation. I think I can tell where the line between fact and fiction is in this film (though it is extremely realistically done), but I wonder if films like this can make some people mistrust real documentaries.

the bay 2Whatever. It’s a chilling film, a great example of a “serious” found footage horror, made by a very experienced director, currently available on Shudder. The only film out of the ten which made me feel nauseous.

5          Nightmare Code

Written and directed by Mark Netter, 2014

nightmare code posterApparently, this is the first found footage film from the point of view of an artificial intelligence. Don’t know how I came across this film (on Amazon Prime, currently), but it’s an absolute gem.

Nightmare Code is set in a small software company which is working on a behaviour recognition programme called Roper, for a huge and demanding client. The story opens when a new lead developer (Brett, played by Andrew J. West) joins the project to finish off the code. His predecessor had been “overworked, snapped and gone postal” some weeks before. Brett has to get to grips with where the work was up to, and pull the team together behind him as well while trying to figure out the strange glitches the team has been experiencing, and whether there was any discernible cause behind the other developer’s sudden change. You can tell very soon that what happened is very closely related to the behaviour recognition application itself, not least because the application is strangely self-aware.

“The code he created was touched by genius. But whatever could make a man do what he did?”

nightmare code 1

So the story is gripping and interesting, but the way the footage is captured and presented makes the film incredibly clever too. The display is usually a four-part split screen, all of it footage captured by Roper. Not going to give too much away here but you will need to pay careful attention to catch all the nuances on display: and that’s what gives Nightmare Code a downright sinister edge (which compensates for the speculative – rather than realistic – nature of the plot). On top of the realistic characters, intelligent writing and natural acting, that sinister tone helps to put the film near the top of my favourites.

4          Savageland

Written and directed by Phil Guidry and Simon Herbert (and others), 2015

savagelandThis film may not have come to my attention if it wasn’t for Adam Nevill (the author of The Ritual, etc.) recommending it and Hell House LLC on Facebook, perhaps about a year ago. I figured he knows his stuff, so gave it a look: and it is superb.

Like The BaySavageland is another journalistic-style documentary; this time, the presenter/narrator is giving us an apparent miscarriage of justice, like many “true crime” documentaries, rather than a cover-up as such. And where The Bay may have viewers on edge about government, Savageland touches a nerve about everyday bigots. Let me expand…

The scenario is a massacre that wiped out a small Arizona town, apparently overnight. Francisco Salazar, a local handyman and illegal immigrant survived, and was subsequently convicted for multiple murders. But he always maintained his innocence and referred to pictures he took of the town’s residents during this dreadful incident, as their fate deserved to be recorded. Salazar’s pictures were not taken seriously by his lawyer, but they fell into the hands of the journalist who put the story together (so yes, not quite found footage but found photos), assembling them with a range of interviews, including with nearby officials and Salazar’s relatives.

Savageland is very polished, as (fake) documentaries go, especially in comparison with The Bay; and I would say each style is appropriate for the film in question. I’ve included it in my list because the reportage aspect is so believable (the filming, the journalist’s rationale of what happened and the structure of the narrative), and also the opinions expressed against the survivor are so shocking as to be eye-opening. I don’t live in Arizona, and it would be kind of presumptuous of me to say people think like that there, but a good deal of what features in the film is familiar from what I’ve come across in real US news reports.

Not the actual incident, mind you… that’s fiction.

This is one of the best quality horror films currently available on Amazon Prime UK. And I’m glad there aren’t many publicity shots to be found: the photos in the film deserve to be fresh when you watch it.

 

3          Be My Cat: A Film for Anne

Written and directed by Adrian Tofei, 2015

cat posterWow.

Wow.

I heard about this film first a couple of years ago, as it had been appearing at many, many festivals and winning many, many awards. But honestly, the title put me off! I thought it was about a person who wanted someone to behave like a pet cat, and I just didn’t get how that could be a horror film, let alone a decent one. But I saw more and more, “you might also like” type of recommendations which pointed me towards Be My Cat, and so when I had the chance to watch it over Christmas I thought “what the Hell”…

This is the first found footage horror film from Romania, and the writer/director/star’s first feature film, too. Like the first film on my list, Found Footage 3D, this is another film about the making of a film. Be My Cat: A Film for Anne is about a young filmmaker who is obsessed with the real actor Anne Hathaway, and has decided to put together a piece to showcase his writing and directing talents to send to her, to persuade her to come to Romania and collaborate with him. He records the making of this film (to be called Be My Cat), as a kind of diary-cum-cover-note that he can send her with the film itself. He auditions three actors, who demonstrate the part written for Hathaway, and he insists it is all done in English, to show her how serious he is; and he goes on to demonstrate his directing skills in unique and unexpected ways.

cat 1.jpgJust like in The Blair Witch Project, the cast all play characters with the same names, to add to the realism. But a good deal of what is clever (not to mention f*****g creepy) about this film is that the viewer cannot tell a lot of the time whether they are watching Adrian the actor, Adrian the director he is playing, or Adrian the actor the director he is playing is directing… Even on the internet in recent months, Tofei has come across a bit – shall we say – morally dubious: he started a petition/crowd-funding site to send the film to Anne Hathaway itself. It fell short of the target by 28 supporters.

cat 2.jpgAnd the female cast at times can’t tell how seriously to take him either. I’ve read that one of them called the police for real during filming (because she was following direction precisely, or because she was scared?) and the police took some convincing that they were making a feature film.

cat 3.jpgBe My Cat: A Film for Anne is not perfect by any means. But it is strikingly original and memorable and tense. And I want to watch it again now.

2          The Last Exorcism

Written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, directed by Daniel Stamm, 2010

last exorcism posterConfession: this film is nearly my favourite found footage film because of how much I fancy Ashley Bell. But the film on the next page is better; that just can’t be helped. And The Last Exorcism is great for reasons other than her too.

This might be the most well-known film in my list; but OK, if you don’t know much about it, it’s about an evangelical preacher (played by Patrick Fabian) who includes exorcisms in his ministry, but has had enough of those: his faith is true but the exorcisms are all theatre, and he wants to come clean about that, having realised how risky they can be. So he decides to pick a random “call for help” and go and answer it, accompanied by a film crew, thereby exposing the fraudulent nature of this part of his ministry, and making it his last “exorcism”. The possessed girl he goes to help, though, is full of surprises…

last exorcism 2The Last Exorcism is probably the most “Hollywood” and least “found footage” of the films in this list; it’s polished and well structured and doesn’t come across as a piece of footage that could genuinely have been “found”. But regardless of whether it’s a great example of found footage, it’s certainly an example of it, and a terrific film. I admire it because of the clever way everything fits neatly; the fabulous exterior shots; and the growing paranoid tension. Oh and the acting! The whole cast delivers perfect roles, especially – yes – Ashley Bell (as the possessed Nell) and Caleb Landry Jones (who you may have seen more recently in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

last exorcism 1I can forgive the “greater good” ending and the mediocre-but-fun sequel: this is a modern horror classic. Currently available on Amazon Prime.

1          Creep

Written by Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass, and directed by Patrick Brice, 2014

creep posterSo I’ve come to my favourite. I don’t mind confesing I rewatched most of the films on this list in preparation for the article, to remind myself what I liked about them and to get the order established in my head. Several of them got moved about; but Creep was at number one from the start, and it stayed there, no matter how much I liked the others.

It’s about a young filmmaker (Aaron, played by Patrick Brice) who answers an advert: Josef (played by Mark Duplass) is apparently dying and wants a film of himself to pass on to his as yet unborn child. They spend a day filming and getting to know each other… and gradually layers begin to peel away from Josef, revealing that very little he has said can be trusted.

So what did I like about it so much? It’s the sense of mischief!

peach fuzzThe film is indeed creepy, and absolutely about a creep, but I definitely felt that the writers were toying with me as I watched it, just as the predator in the story toyed with the young man who came to film him. It’s neither a serious nor a funny film, though there are touches of comedy: they are really touches of weirdness that gradually strengthen the suspicion both viewer and visitor feels towards the host Josef. The gradual uncovering of his personality and his lies is clever; and sometimes it’s not so gradual, giving the viewer a shocking jolt.

creep diskI will very happily watch this film again and again; and was chuffed to find the sequel (made last year) was also available on Netflix. Creep 2 is a very similar film, but Josef has much less pretence, and so the viewer really doesn’t know what surprises or uncoverings to look for this time. And Twitter tells me a third film is on its way.

Honorable mentions

Even within the criteria I outlined at the start, it was still very difficult to stick to just ten films. Here are a few more which really deserve to be seen (including one sequel and one remake):

[REC] 2

The first [Rec] came out just before the decade I chose to examine, but [Rec] 2 was made in 2009 (just within it). I didn’t want to include sequels in my recommendations but this film works especially great if watched in a double bill with the first.

Leaving D.C.

A very unusual film. Worth a look because of the unusual main character, who clearly suffers from OCD; he records his life partly out of a compulsion but also as part of a correspondence with a peer support group.

As Above, So Below

A very claustrophobic French horror film set in the catacombs under Paris. Like The Blair Witch Project, the horror spirals because of the main characters getting lost; but there are added elements of history and physics to mess with them.

V/H/S

This isn’t a found footage film so much as a found footage film about finding footage… each one being a separate story in an anthology. The individual stories are shocking and well made; the thread that binds barely matters.

Blair Witch

Not the original film, but the underrated (in my opinion) 2016 remake; worth mentioning because of the way the writer successfully uses time to confuse and scare both the characters and the audience.

Postscript

If my top ten has whetted your appetite, let me direct you to Found Footage Critic. This website has an excellent definition, and a huge database of films, providing fascinating details such as camera type (there are nearly twenty types), budget, user rating and filming reason (such as surveillance or mockumentary).

So I’ve been careful here to avoid saying my list here is the absolute best of the last decade – turn to the Found Footage Critic if you want a qualitative rating based on votes – but rather, they are simply my favourites, and I’m a fan.

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