5 found-footage films that are actually good
As Blair Witch hits cinemas, we look at the best 'found footage' films, from other horrors (The Last Exorcism) to sci-fi (Chronicle) and action (End of Watch)
Somewhere peaceful and nondescript – a suburban semi-detached, a woodland clearing, a twilit cornfield – you come across an abandoned camcorder with a full memory card. Watching the recorded footage (footage the exact length and pacing of a feature film, conveniently), it becomes creepingly apparent that something terrible has happened to the absent filmmakers; in fact, it looks as though they met a grisly end pretty much exactly where you're standing.
The cornfield whispers. The attic creaks. The hairs on the back of your neck almost lift you off the ground.
Despite being shown at Sundance, and so fooling precisely zero non-idiots into thinking it had actually happened, hair-raising is what The Blair Witch Project achieved in 1999. In doing so, it inspired a generation of young filmmakers to make forgettable low-budget jump-scare pseudo-spooky rubbish (Paranormal Activity begetting Paranormal Entity, and so on); this is a shame, because the 'found footage' genre has a lot of potential. But few films exploit that potential like The Blair Witch Project did.
There are a handful of genuinely good ones, though, which we've listed below. Interestingly, most of them aren't horror films. What they share with The Blair Witch Projects isn't a preoccupation with ghouls, but a clever use of a simple technique to create tension, audience immersion, and the goosebump-inducing thrill of almost believing what you're seeing is real.
84 Charlie MoPic (1989)
It's no secret that most found-footage movies are made for budgetary rather than artistic reasons, and once someone tells you that 84 Charlie MoPic was filmed in Southern California it becomes quite hard to believe that what you're seeing is the Vietnamese Jungle. So we won't tell you.
But director Patrick Sheane Duncan fought in the Vietnam War as a soldier, and his experiences give the film the sense of time and place that SoCal couldn't. 84 Charlie MoPic is a slow-burn war film that uses the 'found footage' form to do justice to both the sudden terror and anxious boredom of armed conflict.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
You probably think In Bruges is a dark comedy, don't you? You probably think Fargo and American Psycho are as pitch-black as laughter gets. You probably feel sophisticated and jaded for laughing at the nuclear-apocalypse despair of Dr Strangelove. Bless.
Man Bites Dog (originally C'est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous) is a Belgian mockumentary so oppressively dark it'll turn your eyeballs inside out. It's also genuinely funny - right up until you choke on your own chuckles. Benoît Poelvoorde plays Ben, a witty and debonaire serial killer whose murderous vocation is dutifully documented by a sweetly earnest film crew. If you can withstand the breathtaking nihilism, there's a smart savage film here about the complicity of the media in documenting violence.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
The Last Exorcism is worth mentioning because, unless you've seen it, you'll struggle to tell it apart from the Blair Witch rip-offs. Even worse, it looks outwardly like it's also copying The Exorcist. And it's certainly not going to win any prizes for originality. But The Last Exorcism succeeds by making good use of what its competitors conspicuously lack: a sly script and solid characterisation.
Louisiana Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) uses a bag of tricks (smoke machines, recorded noises) to perform fake exorcisms for a living; he's an imposter and he knows it, and his straight-up cynicism is very winning, especially when most characters in this genre wear permanent OH MY GOD WHAT WAS THAT faces. Naturally he ends up encountering a real case of demonic possession, and the ending is all kinds of OTT bonkers, but this wry film is the best horror found-footage since The Blair Witch Project.
Let's get this straight: Peter Parker is a bullied and lonely high-schooler with no parents, and when he becomes Spiderman he uses his new-found super-powers for all the right reasons? That seems very much like wishful thinking.
The makers of Chronicle seem to agree. When its three adolescent protagonists attain telekinetic abilities from proximity to a mysterious meteorite, they spend the first half of the movie doing the kinds of amusing, doltish things that you'd actually expect – before one of them, with a home life that's all kinds of unhappy, decides to take his anger out on the world with supernatural viciousness.
Starring Dane DeHaan (Leonardo DiCaprio's evil-looking elf-twin), Chronicle's dramatic climax is seen from the perspective of a satellite ring of levitating cameraphones. We can't decide if that's ingenious or cheating.
End of Watch (2012)
Director David Ayer most recently made the superhero film Suicide Squad, a film that we didn't think was particularly good and that clearly didn't know what it needed to be. Well, it probably needed to be End of Watch, Ayer's criminally enjoyable found-footage action film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. It needed to have the same flair for bullet-splintered set-pieces and combat-forged camaraderie.
End of Watch is largely filmed with hand-held cameras, but its footage isn't exactly 'found' in the traditional sense. So sue us. There aren't that many good found-footage films. Would you rather watch Trollhunter? It's as good as it sounds. Trust us.