Found footage is the perfect way for filmmakers to terrorize audiences without terrorizing their own wallets. These films combine raw performances with tense, first-person filmmaking to deliver their chills, all shot on a shoestring budget. Many surprised viewers with their fear-factor despite the slim resources available.
Part of why these films are successful? Viewers already know the ending. Those in the found footage are either dead or missing. The real interest is in discovering just how that happened. The technique has spanned genres too, reaching into the realms of fantasy and science fiction.
So dim the lights, pop a Dramamine, and settle in for a night of bone-chilling terror. Here are 11 of the best found footage flicks that horror has to offer.
1. The Blair Witch Project
Is there any other way to kick off this list? Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick delivered one of the scariest films of the 90s with TBWP and quickly became the flag-bearer for the found footage subgenre. It trails three film students as they venture into the woods hunting the legendary Blair Witch. The original script, completed in 1993, left actors the ability to improvise much of the film. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was an immediate hit. What’s more, the director’s $11,000 project terrorized enough people to churn out $248.6 million at the box office, making it one of the most successful independent films of the time. The mysterious and long-awaited Blair Witch reboot hit theaters in 2016.
2. Cannibal Holocaust
Even though the previous entry is credited with launching the found footage phenomenon, it’s Ruggero Deodato’s brutal Cannibal Holocaust that actually gave birth to the subgenre. Released in 1980, the film follows a professor as he searches for his film crew protégés who’ve gone missing. He doesn’t find them–alive–but what he does find is their footage, with scenes of human brutality you’ll wish had never been caught on tape. The film was inspired by Italian media reporting of Red Brigade terrorism and gained its fame thanks to its controversial use of incredibly graphic imagery and violence. In fact, after its premiere in Italy, the film was confiscated by a local magistrate, and Deodato was arrested for obscenity.
3. Lovely Molly
We bet you can’t make it through the night without shuddering after watching this chiller, which follows an unstable newlywed and her four-legged demon suitor. The young couple has just moved into Molly’s childhood home when her treacherous past begins to emerge. It’s another found footage flick from TBWP’s Eduardo Sánchez, and its sole purpose is to leave you disoriented and terrified. Much like the titular Molly, you will be. While the reception upon release was mixed, viewers can agree Molly’s torment is something to haunt your dreams.
A massive monster pummels the Big Apple into oblivion in this J.J. Abrams creature feature from 2008. The action follows a group of Manhattanites as they look for their friend who was lost among the carnage, and it all unfolds via a handheld and snippets of previously recorded footage. This monster, lovingly named “Clover” by the production team, was conceived after Abrams and his son visited a toy store with figurines of Godzilla and King Kong. He decided the states needed their own monster, not something “cute” like King Kong, and so Clover was born. The creature has been compared to a rampaging elephant—as director Matt Reeves said, “there is nothing scarier than something huge that’s spooked.”
This Spanish-language adrenaline rush claimed, a la The Blair Witch Project, to be actual real-life footage. A news reporter’s mundane human-interest story morphs into a hellish nightmare starring a population of flesh-eaters. It employs a shaky footage technique to great effect. The American remake, Quarantine, starring an under appreciated Jennifer Carpenter, is actually worth seeing as well. [REC] has been listed among the top 100 horror movies by many critics, including TimeOut, and comes in with an 88% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There are four installments, and each are guaranteed to make you shiver.
6. The Bay
Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson set out to make a documentary about the ecological nightmares of the Chesapeake Bay. He ended up crafting a finely tuned Fourth of July horror flick. The movie tells us that the footage was initially confiscated by the U.S. government and remained hidden until someone leaked it to the public. On July 9, 2009, two researchers found massive amounts of toxicity in the water. Despite warning the mayor, the toxic elements are left alone, and a deadly plague is unleashed, complete with waterborne crustaceans that eat their prey from the inside out.
7. Paranormal Activity
When theater employees are asking you if you’re sure you want to see this movie, you know you’re in for something good. Paranormal Activity was acquired by Paramount Pictures in 2007, thinking that the ending would be edited and the film would only receive a limited release. Little did they know that it would expand to a franchise spanning four films. Sure, it’s easy to hate on Paranormal Activity now, but at the time, Oren Peli’s ghost story introduced audiences to some very freaky things. This movie was intense enough to make us want to spend the night with Freddy Krueger over the invisible force haunting Katie and Micah.
8. Lake Mungo
You probably missed Joel Anderson’s Australian grief horror when it released in 2010. And that’s OK: You can find it pretty easily online now. Told in dramatic mockumentary style reminiscent of something you’d see on Syfy, Lake Mungo tells the story of Alice Palmer, a 16-year-old whose mysterious death is the catalyst for the spooky supernatural events that plague her family shortly after. The film treats the victim’s family as interviewees of a documentary. Anderson called it an “exploration of grief.” After several revisions of the script due to limited funding, he was finally granted permission to create this visual and emotional masterpiece.
9. The Taking of Deborah Logan
Given its straight-to-DVD/VOD release, we understand why one may have passed on The Taking of Deborah Logan. However, you’d be wrong to do so. Deborah’s daughter, with a group of documentary filmmakers, uncover Deborah Logan’s dark and deadly history. Even the people you know the best could actually be complete strangers. Adam Robitel’s mockumentary tracks a senior woman’s odyssey through Alzheimer’s – no, wait, that’s definitely demonic possession — and is genre gold. It’s one of the most effective entries in the found footage subgenre.
Though incredibly simple in conception, Creep is a seriously complex and twisted film. Mark Duplass and copilot Patrick Brice have created a bare-bones movie about a struggling videographer who answers a mysterious Craigslist ad posted by a seriously unhinged client. Duplass and Brice originally began working on the film under the title “Peachfuzz”—after the name the employer calls himself when wearing a wolf mask and traipsing around the forest. Strange? Yeah, we agree, and this is just the beginning. Duplass explained how he and Brice were interested in understanding people who may seem unquestionably bizarre, and how those relationships can form. It will haunt your dreams.
OK, so this Norwegian folklore fantasy, about a bunch of film students trolling Norway’s foggy fjords hunting giant mythical creatures, isn’t horror per se. But there is enough suspense interspersed between dry wit and Scandinavian hilarity to satisfy genre fans. The production team, directors and cast kept the project largely secret until its release—including the film’s title and cast. They dropped tiny, mysterious hints to keep potential viewers on the edge of their seat. When the film debuted, it did not disappoint.
Featured still from "The Blair Witch Project" via Haxan Films