In this article:
- In 1999, The Blair Witch Project spawned a decades-long love affair with found footage movies.
- Though it wasn’t the first of its kind, it established many of the cinematography style’s conventions: shaky cameras, grainy footage, and fresh actors new enough to the screen that audiences wouldn’t easily recognize them as actors.
- What makes found footage movies so unique is the way these conventions blur the line between fact and fiction so that audiences can forget they’re watching a movie and feel like they’ve stumbled on raw footage of real people.
- While the technique is most often used in horror, it’s also been successfully adapted to science fiction, comedy, action, and many other genres.
Though they did not know it at the time, film fans witnessed the rise of the found footage film sub-genre with the 1999 release of The Blair Witch Project. It was not the first of its kind but the supernatural horror inspired dozens of other feature films to employ this now popular technique.
For two decades and counting, we’ve been suspending our disbelief to enjoy the realism of the latest found footage film.
The concept behind the cinematography style is relatively simple. The footage is typically shot by the characters themselves and eventually “discovered” and edited together for the audience to view.
The assumption is that the people you’re about the watch on-screen are never seen or heard from again. The footage they left behind are clues to what happened and where, as well as bread crumbs that may lead to their whereabouts.
Movies belonging to the genre are also often marketed as real, like The Blair Witch Project, or at least not explicitly stated as fictional.
That’s why instead of the video quality we get from the average feature film, we get shaky camcorder action. Real people won’t have an entire film crew following their adventures in the woods, but they could have access to basic videography equipment.
The actors are not usually household names, either. Imagine even a Hollywood B-lister doing a found footage film. Recognizing the actors takes away from the realism the genre tries to deliver.
The ambiguity ultimately adds to the movie’s shock value. Are you about to witness the last moments of a real person’s life? It banks on the audience’s fascination with watching tragedies, including videos with snuff-like characteristics, unfold.
If the goal is to keep the viewer glued to their seat, with the hair on the back of their neck standing up, a well-made found footage film can be an effective way to tell a story.
Some titles are obviously more successful than others. Those that relied on the technique as its main pull rather than its cinematic tool rarely stand the test of time. There has to be an engaging narrative behind the gimmick.
For instance, The Blair Witch Project, which told the cautionary tale of three young filmmakers who disappeared while chasing an urban legend, played on the hype of campfire tales of the 90s.
It included firsthand accounts and interviews that look non-scripted and candid. What’s scarier than three young people going on a witch hunt, with their handheld cameras in tow?
The first of the Paranormal Activity franchise was also able to deliver a fresh take on found footage films. Instead of blurry camcorder shots, it utilized the CCTV footage that was becoming more common for home security in the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
Instead of home intruders, though, the Paranormal Activity footage caught flickering lights and spine-chilling sounds on tape.
Because of the assumption that the discovered tapes are from people who went missing, the found footage film sub-genre naturally found its place in horror movies. However, other genres dabbled in the technique even before The Blair Witch Project was made.
If you have the stomach for it, for example, see Cannibal Holocaust, which was so realistic that the director was arrested for murder. But be warned: it is a gorefest!
If you were looking to expand your watchlist, here are five found footage films to stream.
Found Footage Films You Can Stream Right Now
If you like monster horror flicks, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield is a worthy addition to your list. With The Batman’s Reeves as director and Star Wars’ J.J. Abrams as producer, the 2008 found footage film is packed with intense, at times chaotic, action and special effects.
Though the production value in Cloverfield is higher than most found footage films, the first person perspectives and news clips add realistic touches.
The discovered tapes piece together the story of a destructive attack on New York City by a gigantic reptilian creature. We follow a group of Manhattanites who start the night with a party, only to find themselves scrambling for their lives in a blackout and hiding from a monster that they only catch glimpses of.
“If you’re watching this, then you know more about than I do,” one of the characters says to a handheld camera. It’s typical of found footage films to have characters speaking to the viewer since their goal is to document events from their perspective.
Unlike its predecessors in the monster horror genre, Cloverfield offered a more intimate point of view on monster attacks.
We’re not all scientists or military leaders who can take a destructive creature down with superior firepower or science. Watching found footage of ordinary people desperately trying to flee helps the story of a monster attack feel closer to home — and much scarier.
Where North American folklore has Bigfoot, Nordic mythology has trolls. As creatures, they’re said to be large and slow but extremely volatile. They live in the depths of the Scandinavian mountains and caves, but as folklore goes, there’s no conclusive proof that they exist.
That is until a crew of students accidentally captured one in the found footage fantasy Trollhunter (2010).
The group interviews a suspected bear poacher but their investigation soon lands them in the middle of a dangerous troll hunt. They discover that the mythological creatures are very real, very large, and very territorial.
What’s more: They find themselves embroiled in a vast national conspiracy to keep the existence of trolls under wraps, with their captured videos eventually blowing that cover.
Not everyone with superpowers is destined to be a superhero. This is the main premise of Chronicle (2012), a found footage movie starring Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, and Alex Russell when they were still finding their place on the silver screen.
The young actors played a group of friends who develop telekinesis after touching an unidentified glowing object in a tunnel.
Because they’re young and living in the digital age, they document their experimentations with their newfound abilities on video. At first, they can only manage to play small pranks but they soon realize that their powers continue to get stronger and more dangerous. Although the group decides to limit the use of their abilities, not everyone follows through.
Chronicle is one of the first found footage films to stray from supernatural horror into the science fiction realm.
It’s ultimately a coming-of-age story, but one in which the character grapples with his own personal trauma and the sudden gift of superpowers. And as one suspects, the two are not meant to mix.
If you want a coming-of-age tale with a lighter touch, stream Project X (2012). Although the teen comedy doesn’t exactly have stellar reviews, it’s a dumb yet endlessly entertaining guilty pleasure watch.
It’s reminiscent of raucous comedies like Superbad or Hangover and delivers the same kind of chaotic fun.
Although the group we witness onscreen also consists of teenage boys, Project X doesn’t have any supernatural elements like Chronicle, not unless you consider a bunch of geeky boys inviting 500 people over to a house party a fantasy.
As one might imagine, a rager that size in a suburban home brings all sorts of trouble. Luckily for us, the boys are able to capture everything on camera. Unluckily for them, their parents have conclusive proof of an illicit house party.
It’s hard to believe that Mark Duplass is a multi-talented actor and filmmaker when he played the titular character in Creep (2014) so convincingly. The found footage documents a struggling videographer, Aaron (played by the movie’s director Patrick Brice), who takes on an odd job documenting the life of Josef (Duplass) before succumbing to his terminal illness.
The psychological found footage thriller starts off with Aaron driving to a remote cabin where his client lives.
Any rational viewer would shout at the screen that going to an isolated area alone is never a good idea, but the protagonist is clearly desperate. It doesn’t take long before the audience realizes that Josef is not just a guy with eccentric tastes, but is actually a serial killer.
While Creep is clearly designed to be a psychological thriller, one can’t help but appreciate its dark comedic touches. The character’s behavior and interests have such a cringe factor that you can’t help but laugh.
Creep is ultimately successful in making its viewer feel uncomfortable and unsure of what they’re about to witness, but they also just can’t seem to look away.
There are many more found footage films to add to your watchlist: From The Blair Witch Project, the horror that started it all, to the popular apocalyptic series REC.
Some films even incorporate a blend of found footage and standard cinematography, like the action thriller End of Watch with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. More recent titles, like Searching and Host, demonstrated that it’s still possible to innovate on the found footage sub-genre with screen recordings.
Found footage films aren’t trying to be the next Academy Award-winning entry. But we can all agree that they are entertaining and, for a brief period, effective in blurring the line between fact and fiction. And isn’t that what movies ultimately aim to do?