Whether it’s film “recovered” from a crime scene/disaster site or continuous “live video” watched in real time, found footage movies are among the most terrifying titles available to horror lovers. From the collected clips of “V/H/S” to the harrowing ordeal captured in “Unfriended,” these frightening flicks feel at once like pieces of entertainment and physical proof of Hell on Earth.
The naturalistic approach to cinema doesn’t belong exclusively to the horror arena, believe it or not. Some film historians posit that the first found footage film was “The Connection”: an experimental joint by Shirley Clarke from 1961 about drug addicts (which is arguably horrific but definitely not a horror movie). And yet, the found footage technique has become so prevalent within the horror genre that it’s almost impossible to extricate the form from the fear it has inspired.
Horror filmmakers are notoriously canny creators, of course, having used whatever was available to craft all manner of scares long before technology caught up. What’s more, the famously reactive genre thrives when it feels most relevant. In the three decades since “The Blair Witch Project” changed the game, has anything become more scary and more omnipresent than devices that can record every inch of our world?
That’s the great trick of found footage: sometimes, just sometimes, if the films are really good and the people behind them are really adept at getting into the gag, they can convince audiences theirs truly is the “real world” being watching on the big screen. From an ill-fated movie that “ended” in a haunted forest to a suburban couple lost forever to dark forces, found footage is at its arguable best when toeing the line between fantasy and reality, bending it until it disappears.
In honor of Halloween season, here are the 17 best found footage movies ever made, from the standard-bearers like “Blair Witch” and “Cannibal Holocaust” to under-seen low-budget wonders like “Lake Mungo” and “Be My Cat: A Film for Anne” to bonafide blockbusters like “Paranormal Activity” and “Cloverfield.” Plus, there’s all sorts of other very, very “real” treats in between.
With editorial contributions from Tambay Obenson and Eric Kohn.
17. “Unfriended” (2014)
One of the first Screenlife horror films, “Unfriended” is a surprisingly clever found footage film that committs fully to the bit. Every action seen in the film takes place on the computer screen of teenager Blair (Shelley Hennig), whose chat with her friend group via Skype goes off the rails when an anonymous user crashes the party and gets revenge on them for a prank on their friend Laura (Heather Sossaman) that cost her her life. Director Leo Gabriadze shows aptitude for making the limits of the format work, as the movie busts out pop-up ads, Chatroulette, Spotify, and a high-stakes virtual game of Never Have I Ever to keep the audience on edge. Its plot isn’t dissimilar to “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” but “Unfriended” is a slasher that knows how to place a classic formula in a new context to create something totally original and completely fun. —WC
16. “One Cut of the Dead” (2017)
Calling “One Cut of the Dead” a scary movie is maybe a stretch, but the zombie comedy film is one of the most clever uses of the found footage format in recent memory. Japanese director Shin’ichirō Ueda’s film is presented as the raw footage of a low-budget short zombie film from hack director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), who intends to shoot it in a 30-minute single take. When a real zombie apocalypse bursts into their shooting, Higurashi insists on keeping cameras rolling. That premise alone would be a fun time, but “One Cut of the Dead” goes even deeper — bringing new layers to the narrative that keep the mystery of what exactly is going on afloat until the final section of the movie. Other films use found footage to situate the audience in the characters’ horror; “One Cut of the Dead” uses it to immerse the audience in a convoluted comedy of errors, bringing the pains and horrors of making a film to life in excruciating detail. —WC
15. “Willow Creek” (2013)
There are no shortage of creature features tucked inside the found footage arena, but Bobcat Goldthwait’s lean and mean (and, yes, of course also darkly funny) “Willow Creek” adds Bigfoot into the mix with style and smarts. Like so many of its brethren, the film spins out a simple story (couple goes looking for Bigfoot, oops, actually finds Bigfoot) into chilling ends.
Goldthwait also subtly builds in plenty of backstory and mythology, enough to power the film to go beyond other similar features. Aided by game stars Bryce Johnson (as Bigfoot obsessive Jim) and Alexie Gilmore (as the more cautious Kelly), it’s a classic two-hander that soon comes to include some very, very hairy paws. It’s funny and creepy, and it ends with one hell of an implication. —KE
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14. “Cloverfield” (2008)
One of the few big budget found footage films initially conceived of as a blockbuster, Matt Reeves’ second feature film ably utilized many of the lessons that had made smaller films so successful, from a smart marketing campaign to assembling a cast of characters to care about even in the midst of outsized circumstances. Set in New York City during apparently the last day of New York City as we know it, the film is ostensibly the work of a government agency forced to assemble a narrative about what happened when a monster came to town.
Mostly, though, it’s the story of a group of friends expected to outlast a terrible night and a stories-tall Godzilla wannabe. Tearing through the steadily ruined city, the group is forced to deal with problems large (monster) and small (smaller monsters), and the tension and terror never quite let up. Even more thrilling: Reeves doesn’t go for happy endings, true realism kicking in the teeth on a fantastical story.
Like other found footage hits, the film inevitably spawned sequels and imitators, and while even the best followups (like “10 Cloverfield Lane”) are prone to shoehorning in bigger ideas to what worked best as its own story about one spectacularly bad night in Gotham. —KE
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13. “The Sacrament” (2013)
Horror-movie badass Ti West broke out with 2009’s stylish ‘80s throwback “The House of the Devil” and recently forayed into genre television with “Wayward Pines,” “The Exorcist,” “The Passage,” and “Chambers.” His 2013 found-footage thriller “The Sacrament,” anchored by a charismatic performance by Gene Jones as the leader of the death cult Eden Parish, is a gory, nerve-shredding, dread-infused reinvention of the Jonestown Massacre of 1978, where nearly a thousand acolytes of the Peoples Temple drank the proverbial Kool-Aid and dropped dead.
In “The Sacrament,” indie stalwarts AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg play VICE journalists who set out to investigate a hush-hush, sober-living community founded by a religious leader. Packed with other indie faves such as Amy Seimetz, Kentucker Audley, and Kate Lyne Sheil, the film devolves into a truly sickening third-act set piece where one by one, the Parish’s followers and its intruders ingest a cyanide-laced beverage and proceed to die elaborately horrible deaths. West impressively choreographs the Boschian mayhem as the VICE camera crew navigates their way to probably certain doom. —RL
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12. “V/H/S” (2012)
One of the most exciting horror anthologies in recent years managed to find a new spin on found-footage horror by giving a bunch of emerging filmmaking talent the opportunity to explore the approach in their own unique ways. “V/H/S” contains contributions from some of the more ambitious microbudget American filmmakers working today, not all of whom exclusively work in horror. The concept’s parameters were developed by Brad Miska, founder of the horror fan site Bloody Disgusting: A group of young hooligans are tasked with stealing a mysterious tape from an ominous home. When they come across a heap of unidentified tapes, the framing device begins as each cassette contains another morbid encounter.
The resulting experience is their own private horror festival, with shorts by known indie filmmakers David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and the online filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence (they eventually went on to make “Ready or Not”). Despite the chorus of indie names involved in its production, “V/H/S” maintains a surprisingly fluid structure; the lo-fi video quality and foreboding atmosphere carry over into each chapter. Most segments have a fair share of cheap scares, but they also delve into the art of the build-up, delivering a series of grim jokes with bloody punchlines.
“V/H/S” works to a large degree because it asks for original lo-fi stories from filmmakers who already excelled at doing just that, and it’s a total blast to see them all working together in ghoulish harmony. The equally delightful “V/H/S 2” proved this approach wasn’t an anomaly, but a distillation of why anthology projects work best when driven by curatorial vision above all. —EK
Stream on Amazon via AMC+, Magnolia Selects, or Monsters and Nightmares; rent or buy on Amazon.
11. “The Last Broadcast” (1998)
If you haven’t heard of “The Last Broadcast” and you enjoy found-footage horror movies…it’s time for you to watch “The Last Broadcast,” a hidden gem of ’90s indie horror that was ahead of its time. Directors Stefan Avalas and Lance Weiler adopt a documentary approach to tell the fictional story of public-access television hosts who were killed in their quest to discover the mythical Jersey Devil.
The movie takes the form of an investigative thriller as recovered footage from “Fact or Fiction,” the invented TV series from the two deceased hosts (played by the directors) reveals new evidence that the convicted murderer wasn’t the whole story.
Before you can say “Blair Witch,” look at the release date: “The Last Broadcast” was released a full year before “Blair Witch,” and over the decades has suffered from that other movie’s blockbuster shadow. But Avalas and Weiler (the latter of whom eventually became a major storyteller in the evolving transmedia space) have crafted a complex rumination on the investigative documentary aesthetic that’s equal parts media commentary and slow-burn thriller with plenty of ghastly payoff. It remains a hypnotic staple of the genre and deserves to be discovered by more diehard fans of the genre. They won’t be let down. —EK
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10. “Man Bites Dog” (1992)
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde deliver found footage brilliance in “Man Bites Dog,” a darkly comedic mockumentary about a camera crew (Belvaux, Bonzel) and a serial killer named Ben (Poelvoorde).
At first, the documentarians try a fly-on-the-wall approach with their dangerous subject, passively observing Ben’s reign of terror and body disposal system. But as the horror plods on and the crew hangs with him, Ben takes a liking to the filmmakers. They soon find themselves helping to carry out his misdeeds.
Shot in black and white on 16mm film, “Man Bites Dog” feels somehow transported from a world even crueler than our own. But its over-the-top violence and nasty stars are justified by a searing indictment of voyeurism masquerading as journalism. —AF
9. “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980)
The “Salo” of found footage horror movies, Ruggero Deodato’s grotesque provocation follows a team of anthropologists who journey to the Amazon rainforest in search of missing filmmakers. No surprise in a movie called “Cannibal Holocaust” that when their reels of footage are discovered, Deodato’s movie transforms into a grand guignol of grisly imagery, from a horrific on-camera rape to a cavalcade of animal deaths, most of which were unstaged.
To this day, the shock value of the movie often obscures its clear-cut social commentary, as Deodato uses both documentary verite and the backdrop of media sensationalism (with a framing device involving a network that considers airing the material) to explore xenophobia and colonialist desire with remarkable uncompromising terms. Unfortunately, Deodato did the depth of this project no service by embracing the movie’s grindhouse legacy, all the way through his cheeky cameo in “Hostel 2.”
But whatever side you land on, “Cannibal Holocaust” remains a remarkable deep-dive into issues of representation and morality in storytelling that remain as potent today as when it first came out, in large part because it adopts a non-fiction vernacular that only gets more timely with age. —EK
Stream on Shudder; stream on Amazon via Shudder or AMC+; rent or buy on Amazon.
8. “Trollhunter” (2010)
In one of the more exciting updates to the subgenre, Norwegian director André Øvredal (“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”) uses the found footage formula to deceptive ends: “Trollhunter” begins with a shaky-cam approach that suggests lo-fi storytelling standards before transforming the material into an astonishing creature feature as satisfying as any of the effects in “Ghostbusters.”
The movie takes the form of footage shot by Norwegian film students as they track down a series of mysterious bear killings in the countryside. Giddy young Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud) leads the charge with camerman Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) and sound girl Johanna (Johanna Mørck), tracking the movements of bearded woodsman Hans (Norwegian comedian Otto Jespersen). Hans’ motives remain elusive until the team tracks him to the wilderness and comes face to face with his foe: a gigantic beastly figure that instantly validates Norwegian lore.
With the sudden introduction of its advanced special effects (designed using 3D modeling software from sketches by renowned Norwegian illustrator Theodore Kittelsen), “Trollhunter” advances from a clever gimmick to become a full-fledged horror-fantasy, with a detailed mythology to boot. Whereas “Blair Witch” played hide-and-go-seek with the mystery of its titular threat, “Trollhunter” delves into a fascinating underworld of government conspiracies, and doesn’t skimp on putting its monsters in the spotlight as well.
Ovredal adds a satirical kick to Hans’ life as an employee of the Troll Security Service, where he’s at the mercy of a controlling wildlife bureaucrat (Hans Morten Hansen) intent on hiding the existence of trolls from the rest of the world by covering their tracks with fake bear paws. While the found footage formula can often feel like a cliché, “Trollhunter” finds ways to reinvent blockbuster energy on a grassroots level that makes it fresh again. —EK
Stream on Amazon via Magnolia Selects, Monsters and Nightmares, or Warriors & Gangsters; rent or buy on Amazon.
7. “Be My Cat: A Film for Anne” (2015)
When aspiring filmmaker Adrian puts out a call for amateur actresses who look like Anne Hathaway, he seems harmless enough. But what follows in Adrian Țofei’s sublimely meta “Be My Cat: A Film for Anne” is nothing short of a nonstop nightmare that’s actually anchored in an unhealthy obsession with the Oscar-winning Best Actress.
Set in Tofei’s hometown of Romania, the ultra-low budget hidden gem from 2015 makes marvelous use of its writer-director-star, and was shot while Tofei was partially living in character. Adrian’s unlucky cast, Sonia Teodoriu, Florentina Hartion, and Alexandra Sroe, also play fictional versions of themselves. Ill at ease and constantly on camera, the faces of these women reflect a chilling character study and a dazzling debut for Tofei. —AF
6. “Host” (2020)
The definitive found footage outing of the COVID-19 pandemic, director Rob Savage’s “Host” centers on a seance held over Zoom that was supposed to be harmless fun between friends. Perhaps you can already see where that perilous premise is heading.
In addition to a cast that consistently commits to the bit (star Haley Bishop and Jemma Moore are especially excellent), “Host” works because of its intense realism. Shot entirely on the video chatting app, the 56-minute fright fest blends the realistically creepy aspects of digital life (echoing audio, dropped video, etc.) with the potential for supernatural occurrences. It’s a bit “Paranormal Activity” and a bit “Unfriended,” but with an of-this-moment quality that sets you off balance so the scares land hard. —AF
5. “Paranormal Activity” (2007)
While “Blair Witch” spawned scads of imitators (and its own mixed-bag of a franchise), no other film captured the possibilities of found footage and the inherent terror of the “real” until a decade later when Oren Peli shot his chilling spin on a haunted house thriller in just a week. Made on a shoestring budget and with the minimum of crew (the camera is stationary much of the time), Peli’s feature follows a young couple whose lives are forever altered by the unknown lurking in their San Diego home.
Like “Blair Witch,” it’s a basic premise, but enlivened by the found footage angle and the unshakable sense it could be real (kudos to actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, who remain thrilling and natural even in the craziest of circumstances). Like “Blair Witch,” the film was eye-popping enough in a festival environment to garner Hollywood attention, though it was originally believed that Peli would simply remake the film for a bigger operation.
No need, the original sufficed, freaking out audiences around the world and pulling in nearly $200 million in the process. The inevitable franchise has proven a bit unwieldy, subject to both narrative retconning that diminishes the simple pleasures of its initial plot and a handful sequences worthy of such an original success. —KE
Stream on Hulu via Showtime; stream on Amazon via Showtime; rent or buy on Amazon.
4. “REC” (2007)
Before the shot-for-shot American remake “Quarantine,” this claustrophobic Spanish found-footage effort brought a fresh dose of claustrophobia and terror to the zombie genre. A TV reporter and her cameraman are conducting a routine interview at a local fire station when an emergency call comes in. Accompanying the firefighters to a nearby apartment, the news team begins recording the blood-curdling screams coming from inside an elderly woman’s unit. After authorities seal off the building to contain the threat, the news crew, firefighters and residents are stuck facing a lethal terror inside. With the camera running, survival for everyone involved seems unlikely. “REC” is quite unsettling as it moves at a restless clip, using the found footage device to inject a new kind of immediacy to the zombie concept.
The plot is simple enough, and the cast is populated by stock characters, but the film overcomes the shackles of its tropes with pure energy and execution, including the absence of any music on the soundtrack until the end; it often really does feel like you’re watching a horrific document (one that continues with the same breathless momentum in the sequel). And as the unpredictability of the scares ratchets up from one act to the next, it’s impossible not to watch the movie with the lights on. —TO
Stream on Amazon via AMC+; rent or buy on Amazon.
3. “Creep” (2014)
What if Mark Duplass was a serial killer? It’s a good enough idea for any kind of low-budget indie outing, but Patrick Brice’s “Creep” utilizes it to wild new ends. Amusingly spinning off dramatic outings like “My Life” (no, really), Duplass stars as the off-kilter Josef, who hires a videographer to record special moments for his unborn son as cancer-riddled Josef won’t be there to raise him. Aaron (played by Brice) is on deck for the job, and while early hints that something is not quite right bother him, he’s a nice enough guy (and, hell, Josef is dying, right?) that he overlooks them.
Until it’s way, way too late. Despite the small scale of the film, Brice and Duplass steadily build both dread (and a few hearty laughs) and a world around Josef and Aaron, forced to record what will unwittingly become his own eulogy. The film ends in tantalizing fashion, with both a definite conclusion for one character and a whole new wealth of options for another. It’s so far bred one sequel, the slightly funnier and notably less scary “Creep 2,” but even that pair of films shows the depth of the subgenre. —KE
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2. “Lake Mungo” (2008)
A little-seen Aussie found footage feature that deserves closer examination and deeper respect, Joel Anderson’s first (and still only) film combines classic horror tropes (a haunted house!) with some wrenching family drama (what if it was your dead sister haunting said house?) and adds in a generous dollop of understandable pessimism to the entire affair.
The facts: teenager Alice Palmer has drowned, leaving her family shattered, and compelling her brother Mathew to set up cameras around the house to capture her ghost (maybe?). What follows from there is both smart in terms of medium (Anderson finds many clever ways to incorporate new footage from other sources) and mystery (this thing has twists you’ll never see coming). The ending is both a product of knowing horror filmmaking and a deep understanding of how the human heart can keep breaking (and beating) long after a seeming end. —KE
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1. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999)
While Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s breakthrough hit is not the first found footage film — it might not even be the first horror found footage film — it is the one that changed everything. Bolstered by an ingenious marketing campaign that unfolded during the early days of the widely-available internet, no other found footage film has played up the “no, no, this is real” angle quite like “Blair Witch,” and with such horrifying results. Not just a found footage film, but a “recovered footage” film (sure, sure), the stars of the film just so happen to be student filmmakers with the same names as their characters, further intertwining fiction and reality.
The basic plot is notably slim, born from a 35-page screenplay with plenty of room for improvisation, and essentially hinges on a trio of plucky college kids running off into the woods to look for a local legend and then finding, well, what exactly when they get there? By playing on its audience’s fears and obscuring things that didn’t even exist (what do we even see in that horrible basement?), the film turned its plot into something much more substantial and unique. The shaky-cam medium of the film and the internet campaign to make it all seem real might be gimmicks, but they worked. —KE
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