November 16, 2015

Five great found footage movies

The most recent episode of Doctor Who utilised a 'found footage' technique: that is, the episode was shot entirely from a subjective point of view using helmet-mounted and surveillance cameras. As I noted when reviewing the episode, the found footage style was pretty much invented with the 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust and has been a predominantly horror-based form of cinema ever since. There have been some notable exceptions, of course, with comedies, thrillers and science fiction films also using the technique.

I've always liked found footage. It gives films an immediacy and a wonderful sense of tension. You can only see and hear what the characters see and hear. It places you firmly at the centre of the action and removes the opportunity for filmmakers to expand the world view or show what characters are doing in other places. With this form of cinema in mind, I had a think about the most effective movies with found footage are. Here's a list of five that I particularly enjoy - not necessarily the best ever made, but simply personal favourites I'd recommend to anybody interested in trying found footage movies out.

The Blair Witch Project
Directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. Starring Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard.
This 1999 horror film was an unexpected breakout hit, and remains one of the world's most profitable films. Director Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick basically threw their three cast members into the woods armed with a handycam and then spent several days scaring the bejesus out of them. What's particularly impressive about Blair Witch is just how much effective horror they managed to generate out of basically running around in the dark making howling noises at some increasingly manic actors. A sequel followed in 2000, but with a different director and a much more conventional narrative style. Despite some good elements, it was a pretty awful follow-up.

Directed by Josh Trank. Starring Dane De Haan, Michael K. Jordan and Alex Russell.
This 2012 science fiction film basically blends the found footage technique with the increasingly popular superhero genre. Three friends find a strange cave in the middle of nowhere. Something in that cave affects each of them, and they begin to exhibit psychic powers. The film boasts much more extensive production values and special effects than you'd normally see in this kind of film, and its climax owes quite a lot to Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira in terms of how it looks. A lengthier review of Chronicle is here.

Directed by Matt Reeves. Starring Lizzy Kaplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David and Odette Yustman.
If Chronicle stands out due to its innovative visual effects, then Cloverfield stands out for its sheer scale and production values. This is the biggest-budgeted found footage movie ever made, telling the story of a Godzilla-style giant monster rampage through New York from the point of view of four terrified twenty-somethings with a video camera. It's beautifully shot with some brilliant jump-out-of-your-seat scares. It also sneaks in some genuinely clever bits of back story in right where half the audience might miss them.

Interview with the Assassin
Directed by Neil Burger. Starring Raymond J. Barry and Dylan Haggerty.
This 2002 thriller came and went with little fanfare or attention, which is a shame: it's one of the best found footage movies I've ever seen. An unemployed TV news cameraman is looking for some way to get back into the business when an unexpectedly opportunity appears to drop in his lap. His next door neighbour, a cantankerous and paranoid old man, suddenly admits that he's the man from 'the grassy knoll' who assassinated President Kennedy. As the film progresses, the hapless cameraman begins to fear that he may have entered into something much more dangerous than he had first assumed. Neil Burger went on to direct bigger films like The Illusionist and Divergent, but I think this is still his best film.

Directed by Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg and Radio Silence.
Arguably the best value of the film films, V/H/S presents five short horror films all united by their use of the found footage technique, and all combined together by a sixth over-arching film. Pretty much all of the films work exceptionally well, and cross a range of horror sub-genres. The film also works as a pretty effective sampler of 21st century American horror cinema, since its directors - notably Adam Wingard and Ti West - have by-and-large continued onto bigger and better things. The film was followed by two sequels that attempted to copy the formula, with pretty mixed results. A more extensive review of V/H/S is here.


  1. Ahh, but what are your favourite 'found footage' themed episodes of long-running shows?

    Personally I've always had a soft spot for the Dawson's Creek tribute to Blair Witch, and that one Babylon 5 episode. There's a very odd late season Xena episode that plays with the form, though I don't remember it well enough to comment, would have to go back and re-examine. Supernatural had two really excellent takes on the technique. I think one of my favourite things about this particular 'themed episode' type is the way that the usual hierarchy of main characters vs. guest stars is shaken up, giving us a new perspective on our heroes - and I do think that's something that this Doctor Who episode didn't do especially well. The Doctor and Clara are always the centre of the story, which is true to the show, but not to how found footage theme episodes generally work. (Heh though Love and Monsters which is truer to the technique is hated on by so many Doctor Who fans... interesting, no?) On the other hand, I did really like the 'where the fuck are the cameras' question and how that was resolved in Sleep No More. My biggest problem with the episode was my own expectation - I assumed it was another two parter and thus didn't feel ripped off by the ending until about 12 hours later.

    1. Oh I just remembered The West Wing episode Access. Also Community's "Pillows and Blankets" which is more mockumentary than found footage, but nevertheless pretty great.

    2. The best mockumentary episode of a TV drama ever is "Ambush", the Season 4 premiere of ER that was performed live to air - once for the east coast and once for the west.

    3. In terms of first-person perspective drama, there's "Point of View" from M*A*S*H's seventh season. The whole episode plays out from the POV of a wounded soldier in post-op.


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