It took a surprisingly long time for it to happen, but with this weekend’s Earth to Echo, found footage comes home to roost in the family film genre — and in honor of this adorably Amblinesque blend of 1980s all-ages fun and 21st-century technique, we decided to take a look at some of the more well-reviewed examples of a filmmaking style that’s definitely taken its share of critical lumps over the years. Naturally, there’s plenty of horror in here, but just like a group of kids heading off into the woods to debunk an urban legend, you might find a few surprises too. Power up that handheld camera, because it’s time for Total Recall!
A found footage horror movie from the guy who gave us Rain Man and The Natural? It sounds like a disaster, but in Barry Levinson’s The Bay, the only disaster is what we’re doing to our water supply — specifically in Chesapeake Bay, where the refusal of one town’s mayor to heed researchers’ warnings of lethal toxicity lead to a horrific outbreak of a mutant breed of tongue-eating louse. Freaky stuff, and well-handled by Levinson, who rebounded from a string of wretched stinkers like Envy and Man of the Year by using the inherent raw immediacy implied by found footage in pursuit of a timely (and obviously deeply felt) message. “Levinson’s film proves something pretty unequivocally,” argued Jason Gorber for Twitch. “Any conceit, any style, be it found footage or shakycam or haunted house or whatever, can be great in the hands of a good filmmaker.”
No surprises here — The Blair Witch Project spawned the current found-footage craze, and there’s no way we were leaving it off this list, even if it has become a sort of whipping boy for the many inferior knockoffs inspired by its runaway success. And although, looking back, it really only has a few truly potent scares, it strings them out so patiently — and uses its then-novel narrative gimmick so well — that it’s easy to understand how Blair Witch scared the dickens out of so many filmgoers, particularly during the days of its early release, when it was still rumored to be culled from actual footage left behind by the Witch’s real-life victims. “The Blair Witch Project is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen,” decreed Lloyd Rose for the Washington Post. “Not the goriest, the grossest, the weirdest, the eeriest, the sickest, the creepiest or the slimiest… Just flat out the scariest.”
Before 2012, the superhero and found-footage genres might not have seemed like the most natural of companions — but as Chronicle demonstrated, under the right circumstances, they can go together as deliciously as peanut butter and chocolate. Following the adventures of troubled teen Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and their school acquaintance Steve (Michael B. Jordan) after they discover an unknown object that leaves them with telekinetic powers, the Josh Trank-directed drama imagines the giddy thrill that might come from developing adolescent superhuman abilities — as well as the struggle to come to terms with the responsibility all those cool new gifts entail. Of course, that’s a struggle familiar to anyone who’s ever read early Spider-Man, but Max Landis’ screenplay delves a bit deeper into the darkness — and the cast imbues his characters with easily relatable anguish. “It’s a testament to Trank’s capable direction that the movie feels so grounded in reality,” wrote USA Today’s Claudia Puig. “There is no sense of the magical in the goings-on, even though what the boys are doing defies logic and gravity.”
Hyped with a fairly brilliant “viral” ad campaign that made it seem like producer J.J. Abrams was brewing up some truly next-level cinema, Cloverfield couldn’t help but disappoint a little when it stomped into theaters in 2008 and filmgoers realized it was really just a monster movie with a(n occasionally nauseating) found-footage twist. Still, taken on its own terms, this is a better-than-average entry in this week’s subgenre, boasting some energetic work from director Matt Reeves and a solid script from Drew Goddard. Basically, if you’re going to watch one movie about a monster running amok in New York City while handicam-toting twentysomethings try to make sense of the destruction, this is the one to choose. “There’s nothing to Cloverfield, really, but stripped-down chaos shot in a faux-verite Blair Witch Project fashion,” shrugged the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who then admitted, “But I have to say, I was with it.”
Most critics — and more than a few filmgoers — would agree that the found-footage gimmick has been more than played out since rising to prominence with The Blair Witch Project in the late 1990s. Still, it’s a powerful tool when used in the right way, as demonstrated by writer/director David Ayer’s End of Watch, which follows a cop/film student (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his partner (Michael Pena) on patrol in the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. While Ayer’s use of the found footage technique proved divisive among critics, End of Watch earned a healthy $51 million at the box office, picked up a pair of Independent Spirit Award nominations, and enjoyed the respect of scribes such as Amy Biancolli of the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote, “The best scenes are filmed inside the cruiser, dashboard shots that face inward instead of out, catching Gyllenhaal and Peña in moments so playful and true they make all other buddy cops look bogus by comparison.”
Having apparently never seen the end of 2010: The Year We Make Contact, a group of astronauts (played by Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Sharlto Copley and Michael Nyqvist) board a deep space flight to Jupiter’s moon Europa, intent on probing the surface to try and find forms of life. The result is director Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report, sort of a more intelligent cousin to the disastrous Apollo 18; rather than cheap scares and ill-conceived characters, Report tries to wring real human drama out of a dangerous situation that slowly goes from hopeful to horrifying — and, to many critics’ immense satisfaction, also grounds its story in intelligent dialogue that at least sounds like the kind of stuff scientists might say. “Finally,” crowed Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News. “A found-footage thriller that merits, and expands on, this irrationally popular format.”
An eminently creepy low-budget ghost story barbed with scary videotapes, cell phone footage, and mockumentary interviews, Lake Mungo took the spirit of unsettling real-life documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans and used it as the chilling springboard for a grueling question: how do families carry on after the death of a loved one? In most cases, one hopes the answer includes fewer moments of blood-curdling horror than Mungo, but that undercurrent of real-world sadness helps anchor the fear with genuine poignancy. Calling it “a sophisticated, adult tale that blends complex, compelling emotions with reflexive commentary on film as a ‘medium’ of memory, manipulation and magic,” Little White Lies’ Anton Bitel deemed it “a classic supernatural enigma, once seen never forgotten.”
For a lot of found footage horror movies, the device is used largely as a narrative and/or editing gimmick in order to obfuscate details and amp up jump scares. But with 2009’s Paranormal Activity, director Oren Peli rocked it Blair Witch style, using the characters’ handheld cameras to slowly ratchet up an overall feeling of dread that finally yields to a payoff rendered all the more haunting by its refusal to rely on gore or over-the-top special effects. Your mileage may vary with the growing list of Paranormal spinoffs and sequels, but the original is as simple as it is effective. “It illustrates one of my favorite points, that silence and waiting can be more entertaining than frantic fast-cutting and berserk f/x,” wrote an appreciative Roger Ebert. “For extended periods here, nothing at all is happening, and believe me, you won’t be bored.”
You’ve no doubt noticed that quite a few of the movies on our list have fallen under the horror umbrella, but precious few are as lethally effective as [Rec], the 2007 sensation helmed by Spanish writer-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. Plunging viewers into the nightmarish hellscape of an apartment complex that might be ground zero for a quickly spreading virus that turns its hosts into homicidal savages, it proved that no matter how played out found footage might have seemed even then, it could still be used as an effective delivery mechanism for sparse, economic horror. The inevitable sequels fell victim to the laws of diminishing returns, but the original remains a classic of the genre; as Jason Morgan put it for Filmcritic.com, “Not since John Carpenter’s one-shot intro to Halloween has POV horror been this good.”
Found footage is so pervasive these days that it’s spread all the way to Norway, where director André Øvredal used it for his international cult hit Trollhunter. One of those movies whose plot is rather brilliantly summed up in its title, it follows the occasionally scary, often hilarious adventures of a group of college students whose pursuit of a suspected bear poacher takes a surprising turn when they discover that he’s actually after a much, much bigger quarry. With uniformly strong performances and more of a cinematic aesthetic than your average found-footage film, Trollhunter elicited applause from the majority of critics, including the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, who called it “An enjoyably off-kilter hybrid of The Blair Witch Project and Where the Wild Things Are.” There’s a presumably bigger-budget Hollywood remake in the works, but you don’t need to wait for that; the original is streaming via Netflix right now.