Found footage movies have steadily grown in popularity over the past twenty five years or so. It’s not an easy genre to do well, as it requires a clever reason to explain why the characters are filming in the first place, there could easily be a disconnection between the main character (or whoever’s filming) and the audience, and it even creates nausea in some filmgoers if filmed too turbulently.
The Blair Witch Project is often acclaimed as the best and first of these types of movies, but I’m here to proclaim that it was not all that great; it’s just remembered for being the first really famous one and being very innovative, especially with its amazing budget to earnings ratio. It often tops list of this kind, but I was unimpressed with how slowly it moved and how small the final payoff was. Some argue that this all builds tension like only psychological horrors do, but that ignores the fact that there is just very little plot and no other film genres would be allowed to get away with this. I understand why we are never allowed to see the threat, but when the majority of what happens is just noises and rocks appearing it loses its impact somewhat; this film somehow made eighty minutes seem like two and a half hours.
So, ignoring the one that people usually include, here are my top five found footage movies; if there are any others you’d include, feel free to let me know in the comments.
Not to everyone’s tastes, but I say that purely because I know many people moan when there are subtitles involved and this is Spanish: put that together with shaky camera movements and there may be more gripes than usual around. Angela and Pablo are a documentary camera crew shadowing a team of firefighters, and they end up quarantined in a building with a highly contagious and violent virus. The film is hugely successful at what it does as the claustrophobic feel of the building adds a whole new dimension to the terror and where the film can go, and the demonic possession idea adds a more creepy aspect still. The end also gives a lot more payoff than The Blair Witch Project, enabling viewers to find out what all this stemmed from, although of course it still uses the dropped camera effect to finish.
Clearly Hollywood appreciated REC, as they created a remake in the form of Quarantine; while not bad as far as remakes go, the very fact that they changed the root cause from demonic possession to rabies makes the creepiness level drop tenfold, so the Spaniards won that challenge.
Cloverfield is on the largest scale of all the films on this list, as it takes down basically the whole of Manhattan. For this, the filmmakers must be congratulated because they manage to maintain the small scale desperation of one group of friends amidst this panic and destruction, and the camera surely helps this. However, it’s less obvious than in others why the group keep the camera on throughout all the running around; Hud was using it to film testimonials at the opening party, and obviously that soon becomes irrelevant.
Ignoring that slight quibble, Cloverfield is suspenseful, action-packed and actually features emphatic characters. It manages to use the handheld camera in ways that exacerbate the frenzy of New York on that night, which is the best possible result from its use. This is definitely one that others should take lessons from.
3. End Of Watch
The only one of its kind, End Of Watch is unusually not horror and not even sci-fi, but still has a solid found footage premise in that police officers usually have at least one camera on them or in the car, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Brian Taylor is also recording for a film project.
End Of Watch is gritty, heartbreaking and never gimmicky; this is a feat that is more unusual than it should be! Through its very real medium, the film manages to create a hugely close relationship between Brian and Miguel Zavala, the two police officers, which makes the climax have even more impact. The final scene is strangely out of order, returning to a happier time to remind us what was lost; this is clever both as a framing device and to show how material from these video cameras can be manipulated.
In terms of emotional reward, End Of Watch definitely wins.
2. Paranormal Activity
We have to ignore all the sequels for this: they became horror clichés whose existence was purely to replicate the first film’s success. However, the first Paranormal Activity was a solid jump-fest that constructed a solid horror concept: Katie and Micah are a couple who, upon experiencing strange happenings in their home, set up video cameras in an attempt to find out what’s going on. This camera setup means that there is once again a slightly claustrophobic feel, as we must stay inside the house, whilst still encompassing the rooms and creating a solid scare factor, as anything could be shown to be happening on a camera at any time.
For me, the concept of Parnormal Activity was one of the worst to sleep after viewing since it’s set in a house and that makes it feel more realistic and scary. The film gave the genre a new life (excluding its own sequels, of course) and its final jump scare is one not to be forgotten in a hurry.
The film that inspired this list, Chronicle not only allows us to see what three young men might do if they suddenly gained superpowers, but also how one of them can shy away from social situations by using a camera as a barrier. The camera gives Andrew something to hide behind but is also the thing that brings him closer to the other two guys in the first place, as they want him to get their exploration of a cool hole in the ground on tape.
Unfortunately, superpowers affect people differently, especially when their backgrounds are almost polar opposites, and so Andrew can’t deal with their new found abilities and soon starts to go bad. When this happens and he no longer needs to or can use the camera, we see everything from a news and police point of view, as well as from Matt’s new girlfriend who videos a lot for her blog. In this way, the film manages to explore how different types of person may want or need to use cameras for various reasons, whilst simultaneously dealing with the darker themes of bullying (both at school and familial) and how to handle a scary and logic-defying amount of power.