The Absolute Best Found Footage Feature Films

Chronicle - 2012
Written by Max Landis
Directed by Josh Tank

Three high school boys from Seattle discover... something the woods that gives them super powers, and then proceed to act like high school boys with super powers, documenting their discoveries and activities with cell phones and other cameras.  I had very little idea of what to expect from Chronicle, and many times when I did think I knew what was going to happen, it went and did something more realistic.  The light story premise left lots of room for actual character development based on human behavior.  Each of the boys developed their super skills along their own paths depending on their own individual natures, and their natures developed differently with the introduction of so much power.  An apt metaphor for adolescence if ever there was one.  The shaky camera stuff gets to be a bit much at times, but as someone who has lived in Seattle, there's definitely something to be said for the verisimilitude of seeing a place that I know presented in a naturalistic fashion.  Chronicle is a just plain good movie in any category applicable.

The Bay - 2012
Written by Michael Wallach
Directed by Barry Levinson

I have to admit, when I saw that Barry Levinson had done a found footage horror film, I felt a momentary sadness over greatness brought low.  This is, after all, the same Barry Levinson that gave us Diner, Rain Man, Bugsy and The Natural.  Well I needn't have worried.  The Bay is not only one of the most effective found footage films I've seen, but one of the most affecting horror movies as well.  Believability is always a goal when a filmmaker frames their narrative in the realistic conceit of gathering up video records from the scene of an event.  That's part of what makes them so appealing to the makers of horror, which relies on believability to deliver authentic scares.  The Bay frames its tale with recent real-life news stories about mass die-offs of fish and birds around America, and then simply nudges the idea a bit further, making the threat seem much bigger and closer than the movie screen.  Set in Levinson's beloved Maryland, a small town celebrating July 4th on Chesapeake Bay experiences a sudden -- and disgusting -- outbreak of a skin-blistering illness, which goes from bad to OH MY GOD SO BAD in the space of hours.  I believe that the low budget involved granted Levinson a little more leeway to express some rage at the government and industries that show little interest in the well-being of average Americans.  It's a real threat that we already feel inside us, and The Bay unleashes that like something eating its way out of us.

Troll Hunter - 2010
Written & Directed by Andre Overdal

Think of it like a "storm hunter" documentary that you'd see on cable, only instead of chasing storms across the American plains, they're chasing the trolls of Scandinavian folklore across the northern reaches of Norway, albeit with some actual hunting involved.  It's pretty formulaic for a found footage horror film with long periods building tension (particularly between bickering characters) punctuated with increasingly large monster encounters.  What makes Troll Hunter so effective is the strangeness of this insight into realistically presented foreign cryptids in their native setting (this wouldn't work as well set in America -- you hear me Hollywood?) and the deft way that they're inserted into real environments.  The trolls work better here than did the giants in Jack the Giant Slayer, for example.  I guess Norwegians loved it too, but I find that my distance from the material made it more plausible within its context.  The only ones who'll complain are the younger generation that grew up on CGI and complaining about everything on the internet.

Cloverfield- 2008
Written by Drew Goddard
Directed by Matt Reeves

Cloverfield felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch when it first came out.  It had been pimped as something of a neo-Godzilla movie, but when it came out it was... less epic of scale, shall we say.  Well, the fault was largely in our expectations, and in the promotion of the film, but not in the filmmakers themselves.  What Cloverfield IS is a survival horror movie set against the backdrop of a sci-fi monster epic.  We rarely see the monster, since our camera-holders are trying to get away from it, and I'm of the opinion that this is more-or-less for the best as it's a really unappealingly designed monster.  So rather than focusing on the creature, it follows a group of 20-somethings from a party interrupted by a monster attack on New York, through the dangers (big monster, little monsters, broken buildings, the military) of a city under siege, to their eventual rescue or demise.  It, as much if not more than any other city-trashing film of recent years, serves as a metaphor for 9/11 (or, I suppose, the invasion of Baghdad from the perspective of a Baghdadi), albeit abstracted from such complicated real-world concerns.  Once you set aside expectations, the biggest real problem with Cloverfield is that the characters are not as likeable as we'd like and some of their demises are all too welcome.

The Tunnel- 2011
Written by Enzo Tedeschi & Julian Harvey
Directed by Carlo Ledesma

The Tunnel, in retrospect, reminds me The Bay in several ways.  For one, there is a real-world framework; a network of tunnels and reservoirs beneath Sydney, Australia.  The tunnels have a long history of use and disuse for subways, war bunkers and eventually a retreat for the homeless.  This much, evidently, is true.  The film puts this in the context of a government plan to use the tunnels for new water storage which is unceremoniously scrapped, leaving one ambitious news team wondering just what is going on down there.  The Tunnel is assembled like a documentary, interviewing the members of the news team and cutting in their captured footage as they evade security to access the tunnels and then attempt to escape the... whatever ...that they find down there.  The whatever is a stealthy sumbitch, making for many creepy and harrowing moments.

Apartment 143 - 2011
Written by Rodrigo Cortes
Directed by Carles Torrens

Commonly dismissed as a Paranormal Activity knock-off, Apartment 143 beats it in all the ways that matter.  Most importantly, there's more of an actual story going on here, with better acting, more interesting camera placements, and a more sensible escalation of threat.  Rather than a tedious pastiche of home movie/security cam footage, the film starts with the arrival of a team of paranormal investigators.  They create a MUCH stronger narrative than any PA, and indeed a stronger narrative than most found footage films.  A single father and his son & daughter are haunted by more than the memories of their recently departed wife & mother.  It's up to the team of experts to figure out exactly what it is invading their home, and why.  The biggest flaw is the completely unnecessary "BOO!" in the last 2 seconds of the film.  By then you're already reflecting on what a good haunting tale you just watched anyway.

As Above, So Below - 2014
Written by Drew & John Erick Dowdle
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
with Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman & Edwin Hodge

Think "Lara Croft and the Gates of Hell."  A young English scholar is determined to finish her father's quest for the Philosopher's Stone.  In the opening, we see her raiding an underground chamber in Iran for a codex that leads her back to the gravestone of Nicholas Flammel in Paris.  The information she finally gains suggests a chamber buried deep below Paris, through ancient catacombs (AKA tombs), far beyond the bounds of the usual tourist sites.  She enlists a camera man, a fellow scholar with whom she shares a history, and a team of Parisian urban explorers to find the chamber.

Things go from weird to spooky to creepy to SOOPER CREEPY to "RUN, DAMMIT, WHY AREN'T YOU FASTER?"  The creepy elements are really well done and I definitely caught a few distinct chills.  It doesn't over explain or go too big.  Where a lot of found footage horror involves a bunch of assholes wandering around the [woods, factory, asylum, mansion, carnival, etc.] just bitching at each other in generic locales of low-budget decay, the Dowdle brothers plotted this much more conscientiously, moving from creepy set piece to creepy set piece, deepening the mystery and mixing it up with claustrophobia, fear and panic.

It's not exactly an all original take on found footage, but it does what it does rather well, and it avoids a lot of the common pitfalls.  Most importantly, the characters are interesting enough that I cared what happened to them, and it creates a palpable sensation of fear.

Honorable Mentions:
These are flawed or less impressive films that nevertheless offer something unique and/or satisfying.

Paranormal Activity - 2007
Written & Directed by Oren Peli

The film that launched not just one mega horror franchise, but two!  In addition to the premise-milking American films, it has its own Japanese franchise as well, plus numerous copies and spoofs.  There's 2 reasons for this.  1) They soo-ooper cheap to make, and 2) they make filthy lucre, largely because they're effective.  The first film creates the basic chemistry for those to follow.  A couple starts to hear things in their new house and set up a bunch of cameras to see if they can find evidence of whatever is going on.  Along the way they bicker incessantly, consult a psychic, make bad decisions, and never ever seem to go to work.  Visual effects are used sparingly and much of the tension comes from the slowly intensifying sounds and attacks that come at night.  The anticipation remains much more frightening than the overt moments, and it's the homeowners' terror that becomes most infectious.  I suppose it you're non-responsive to the emotions of others, you might not find it scary, but for human beings, it can get pretty chilling.  There is a possession element to the film, which doesn't really work for me as I disbelieve in possession whereas ghosts remain squarely within the realm of unknown possibility, but it's a twist earned within the context of the story, so I can't really count it as a negative.

Frankenstein's Army - 2013
Written by Miguel Tejada-Flores & Chris W. Mitchell
Directed by Richard Raaphorst

Toward the end of WWII, a small Russian unit is sent into Nazi territory on a search and rescue mission.  Little do they know that their real mission is to uncover a secret science lab where the heir to Victor von Frankenstein has been continuing his work.  The film suffers from a few breakdowns in logic, the performances aren't all so good, and the conceit of lugging around a giant camera (with sound and color, no less) wears thinner in places here than it does in many other found footage narratives, but much of that is cancelled out by BRUTAL NAZI MECHA-ZOMBIES!  Imagining the fun that the monster designers had is infectious fun itself.

Europa Report - 2013
Written by Philip Gelatt
Directed by Sebastian Cordero

Based in the latest information that Jupiter's moon Europa contains water under a thick crust of ice, Europa Report speculates on a near-future international mission to learn more about it.  We know from the start that what we're viewing is ostensibly the recovered mission footage of the ill-fated investigation.  Because so much of the film takes place in transit, the pacing suffers from a lot of "too slow" and a sudden burst of "too much too fast."  Nevertheless, it's an interesting approach to a genuine near-future possibility, and while the characters aren't necessarily engaging, neither are they off-putting.  It's hardly Gravity, but it definitely gives it a run for its money on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

Grave Encounters - 2011
Written & Directed by The Vicious Brothers

The crew of a "Ghost Hunters" type show locks themselves into an allegedly haunted old mental asylum, and finds that the "allegedly" is completely unnecessary.  The former residents, and even the building itself plot against them, driving them to a sense of panic, and savoring their fear before picking them off.  It is, perhaps, over-reliant on jump scares, Halloween make-up, low-rent CGI and bad, bad character choices, but jump scares are still scares, and the sense of fear permeates.

V/H/S - 2012
see link for writing & directing credits

A group of punk-ass hoodlums commits various punk-ass crimes and video records everything for sale to an unknown benefactor.  When hired to steal a video tape from an old man's house (which they, of course, record), they discover a huge collection of bizarre video tapes, thus setting up the anthological format for V/H/S.  Each tape is a short film from a different team of writers and directors, depicting various scenarios which inevitably end in gruesome death.  It's in no way suspicious to the hoodlums with cameras that the videos feature people with cameras getting killed.  The films vary quite a bit, which is to be expected, given the format.  There are some curiosities of logic, like who would put digital cell phone videos onto VHS tapes.  The build-up to each video spends an excess of time focusing on the banalities of "selfie" videos, and the conceit does get strained again here when we find ourselves wondering why the hell people are still fussing around with cameras when they're running for their lives.  Also, some of the acting and effects are... not so much, but despite all the negatives, it still ends up being an interesting and entertaining little fake found footage film festival with scenarios that probably play better as shorts than they would in longer form, so for that, V/H/S has something to offer.

A lot of people prefer V/H/S 2.  I don't.  Out of the whole series thus far, the third, Viral, is actually my favorite.  The makers of Viral demonstrate that they are aware of our awareness of found footage films and nudge the approach forward, putting more thought into how they develop their narratives.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes - 2009
Written & Directed by John Erick Dowdle

Presented as a documentary, The Poughkeepsie Tapes reveals the story of a sadistic and very likely brilliant serial murderer who videotaped much of his bloody avocation.  This one was pretty morbid, possessing the "snuffiest" quality of any of these.  I realize, however, that that's also its appeal, as it leaves the viewer feeling dirty and threatened.  The biggest horror of the film is not his murders, but the one he kept alive.  It's not necessarily in character for one with his psychological profile, but it gives the movie its greatest impact.

Lake Mungo - 2008
Written & Directed by Joel Anderson

Another pseudo-documentary, this one is perhaps the most successful at presenting itself as a believable documentary, and it tells an uncommonly good story fairly well, but it's ultimately not really scary and indeed leaves one wondering what all the trouble was for.  Following the drowning death of Australian teen Alice Palmer, she may or may not still be appearing to loved ones and others, raising questions about whether of not she's dead.... or otherwise.  The film is propelled by an intriguing story with several twists, but in the end it's more sad than spooky.

This list is subject to update pending future viewing.

UPDATE: Added As Above, So Below and comments about V/H/S Viral - 12/3/2014

1 comment:

  1. TRoll Hunter is pure win. Have to see some of these other ones.