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Just keep filming: 16 worthwhile found-footage horror movies since The Blair Witch Project

Unfriended (Photo: Universal), Cloverfield (Photo: Paramount), and Trollhunter (SF Norge)
Unfriended (Photo: Universal), Cloverfield (Photo: Paramount), and Trollhunter (SF Norge)
Graphic: Allison Corr
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The Blair Witch Project, which turns 20 this week, wasn’t the first thriller to present itself as the raw video recordings of a doomed camera crew. The infamous Cannibal Holocaust got there almost 20 years before it, and nearly a decade before that, The Legend Of Boggy Creek blurred the line between documentary and horror. But Blair Witch was such a phenomenon—and in its ratio of shoestring cost to enormous earnings, so profitable—that it essentially transformed a cost-efficient gimmick into a genre onto itself. In the two decades since, they’ve just kept making these terror-tilted faux-home movies, endlessly subjecting a new gaggle of camera-carrying “regular people” to the aliens, ghosts, and monsters barreling headfirst into their viewfinders.

Of course, not too many of the found-footage flicks from this century are very good. Most of them are, in fact, lousy, the amateur-filmmaker scenario providing convenient cover for uneventful and artless schlock—for movies that look bad and go nowhere on purpose. But while none have come within zooming range of Blair Witch’s unholy, snuff-film power, there are a few worthwhile mock-doc chillers made in its wake. Below, we’ve gone to the tapes, reviewed the footage, and uncovered the best this craze has offered in the two decades since audiences came out in droves to see a trio of nobodies pantomime panic in the woods, blubbering directly into the shaky handheld camera.

1. Paranormal Activity (2007)
2. Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Ten years after Blair Witch sparked a boom in mock-doc horror, along came a spiritual successor to reenergize the trend: another suggestive, low-budget sensation starring unknown actors pretending to be scared out of their wits. Oren Peli’s original Paranormal Activity, released to massive box-office a full two years after its fest premiere, did more than relocate the mayhem from the pitch-black forest to a “safe” California suburb, where a young couple begins filming its nocturnal ordeal. It also worked in the ingeniously simple gimmick of a fixed, stationary camera, enhancing the “realism” of the lo-fi scares by offering a static angle on the strange supernatural forces (a.k.a. inventive practical effects) besieging the sleeping characters each night. The inevitable sequels would build upon Peli’s strategy of repetition and escalation, with mostly diminishing returns. The exception is part three, directed by the Catfish guys, which adds the ingenious analog wrinkle of a camera affixed to an oscillating fan; panning back and forth in a nerve-shredding game of peekaboo, it exemplifies the guiding principle of Blair Witch and the Paranormal franchise: What you can’t see is often way scarier than what you can. [A.A. Dowd]

3. [REC] (2007)
4. Quarantine (2008)

Increasingly claustrophobic and gory, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC] helped breathe new life into the found-footage subgenre a year before Cloverfield was released. Tensions escalate when an overnight TV news crew, initially covering the kind of human-interest story that barely counts as news, finds itself trapped in a Barcelona apartment building at the start of, essentially, a zombie outbreak. Combining the unnerving yet all-too-realistic threat of Contagion with the paranoia of an urban thriller, Balagueró and Plaza generate much chaos in the tight corridors, turning people’s homes—their refuge—into a bloody, gnashing nightmare. The [REC] franchise sees a steep decline in quality over the course of its four entries, but the original is taut and often as funny as it is vicious. John Erick Dowdle’s Quarantine, released almost simultaneously in the States, is a faithful remake, though Dowdle is much more liberal in his use of, well, everything: jump scares, close-ups of sobbing soon-to-be-dead people, wild swings in tone, etc. [Danette Chavez]

5. Cloverfield (2008)

One trope of the found-footage genre is the assertion by the character “carrying the camera” that whatever they’re witnessing simply must be documented. It’s a cheap way to wave away any concerns about why this person keeps filming even while scary stuff is happening all around them. At least Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield lends that familiar line of reasoning some weight, presenting the footage supposedly shot by T.J. Miller’s camera bro as “evidence” recovered by the Department Of Defense after the events of the movie, foreshadowing that some bad stuff is going to happen long before “Clover” makes landfall. Narrative justification aside, this more expensive addition to the subgenre aptly tells a big story in a small way, showing how scary and disorienting it would be on the ground during a giant monster attack. Cloverfield also wisely mimicked Blair Witch’s viral marketing strategy, with producer and “mystery box” aficionado J.J. Abrams turning a lot of its backstory into treasures that had be uncovered through fake websites and ARGs. [Sam Barsanti]

6. Trollhunter (2010)

Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna once posited that the difference between fantasy and horror is mostly in the lighting. It’s a theory that rings especially true when considering future Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark director André Øvredal’s 2010 international breakthrough, the found-footage fantasy-horror hybrid Trollhunter. From the film’s shaky first-person viewpoint, seeing filthy, feral trolls from the Grimm Brothers’ worst nightmares wandering Norway’s northern wilderness feels as fearsome as if you were seeing them before your own eyes. The limited perspective of the found-footage trope also allows Øvredal to play with scale—and, yes, with lighting—to further instill a sense of awestruck terror in the audience, as they realize along with the film’s main characters that not only are trolls real (and very ugly), they’re also extremely dangerous. [Katie Rife]

7. Grave Encounters (2011)

Found-footage horror movies are supposed to feel, above all, real. With that in mind, if a few actors get the crap scared out of them shooting one of these movies, isn’t that just smart filmmaking? It certainly works for Grave Encounters, a found-footage horror movie whose effectiveness rests on two pillars: A clever satirical concept, and a visceral sense of immediate-yet-unknown terror. The concept is very of the film’s early-2010s time, revolving around a cynical team of cable-TV ghost hunters confronted with undeniable evidence of a haunting that bends time and space at an abandoned psychiatric hospital. The fear, meanwhile, is primal—and in some cases legitimate, as directors The Vicious Brothers surprised the cast with devilish scares throughout the intense low-budget shoot. Say what you will about the methodology, but you can’t argue with the terrifying results. [Katie Rife]

8. Crowsnest (2012)

At first, there’s very little to distinguish Crowsnest from any other wannabe Blair Witch. Following the usual “what you’re about to see is footage recovered by police” disclaimer, several twentysomething friends head out into the woods on a road trip, never to be seen again. During the initial drive, we witness the odious guys and slightly-less-odious women cover familiar beats for the narrative, including that old chestnut of encountering oddball locals who warn them to get back on the beaten path. But the scares here are of the refreshingly plausible variety—no supernatural curses or ghosts to pop out at any possible moment, no zombie viruses to make people superhuman, just a bunch of dumb kids (à la Texas Chain Saw Massacre) who make an impetuous decision and end up paying for it with their lives. It’s a found-footage movie that rises above the norm by keeping its universe wholly normal. [Alex McLevy]

9. The Bay (2012)

Some rolled their eyes when Barry Levinson, acclaimed director of Diner and Rain Man, revealed he was making a found-footage horror film. Others were curious to see what a little prestige could do for the subgenre. The Bay, an immersive portrait of an East Coast resort town plagued by a flesh-eating virus, isn’t a masterpiece. But it does feel different, veering away from the claustrophobic, single-camera approach of its predecessors in an effort to push the limits of the era’s technology. Levinson and writer Michael Wallach piece together footage from iPhones, laptops, security cameras, and TV reports for a narrative that divides its focus among a number of well-drawn characters who represent the various scientific, societal, and governmental factors responsible for the disaster. Levinson’s more concerned with message than scares—The Bay began as a documentary about environmental damage in the Chesapeake Bay. But if Chernobyl’s taught us anything, it’s that there’s plenty of horror to be mined from an apocalypse of complacency. [Randall Colburn]

10. V/H/S/2 (2013)

Given the massive impact The Blair Witch Project made, it’s perhaps surprising that its directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, didn’t go on to more significant careers. They’ve both kept busy, however, and Sánchez has dipped back several times into the subgenre he helped popularize—most effectively, perhaps, with “A Ride In The Park,” which has great fun staging a zombie outbreak through the lens of an infected biker’s helmet cam. It’s one of four kinetic segments in the found-footage horror anthology V/H/S/2. Though the first film is more eclectic and stylistically varied, the all-killer, no-filler sequel really runs with the format, each of its segments embracing the mobility, tactility, and limited vantage of lightweight cameras. Adam Wingard, who’d go on to direct an official Blair Witch sequel, orchestrates a first-person funhouse of jump scares, while Hobo With A Shotgun’s Jason Eisener pulls some ambitious tricks of perspective with his alien-invasion closer. But the highlight is “Safe Haven,” which applies the breathless intensity of co-director Gareth Evans’ The Raid to the story of a camera crew unwisely infiltrating a death cult. It’s found-footage after a shot of pure adrenaline. [A.A. Dowd]

11. Willow Creek (2013)

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek, a found-footage movie about Bigfoot that often explicitly evokes Blair Witch, arrived at roughly the same time as Exists, a found footage movie about Bigfoot from Eduardo Sánchez, the co-director of Blair Witch. The two serve as fascinating contrasts, with Sánchez, one of the progenitors of modern found-footage, leaning into the worst aspects of the genre with his overly scripted thriller, while horror newcomer Goldthwait nails the disorientation and improvisation of the 1999 classic. Willow Creek burns slow, its story of a likable couple’s lighthearted search for the location of the iconic 1967 Bigfoot footage locating horror in distant, indecipherable noises and an unnerving mythology that doesn’t quite coalesce until the ending. Willow Creek will be remembered, though, for the 20-minute single take at its center, during which our heroes wordlessly huddle in their tent in the middle of the night as the woods threaten to crash down around them. [Randall Colburn]

12. The Taking Of Deborah Logan (2014)

The rare found footage film that has more to say than just “boo,” The Taking Of Deborah Logan is one of the most potent investigations of the agonies of growing old since Amour. It just happens to marry those insights to a squirm-inducing supernatural horror story. An eager grad student sets out to document the effects of advanced Alzheimer’s on a kindly old woman, and for its first hour, Deborah Logan gets a lot of mileage out of the possibility that the strange things happening are nothing more than the result of an all-too-human ailment that can affect anyone. So when the pivot happens, it feels all the more cathartic as a payoff for how much time the film has invested in its likable characters, plausible setup, and potent meditation on aging and death. More horror films, found-footage or no, should work so hard to earn their third acts. [Alex McLevy]

13. Unfriended (2014)
14. Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

If you want to get technical about it, Unfriended isn’t a found-footage horror movie; as its closing jump scare reveals, the idea is not that we’re watching recorded video of a laptop screen but rather sharing the first-person POV of its owner, a teenager girl who only looks away from the device in the final few seconds. Nonetheless, Levan Gabriadze’s madly inventive “Screen Life” horror experiment feels like the natural evolution of the subgenre, and maybe the most innovative play on it since Blair Witch. The genius of the film—and, to a lesser extent, its solid sequel, Dark Web—is in the way it turns all the digital programs and doohickeys and quirks of modern computing into instruments of horror: system freezes are mined for suspense, chat windows and message boards offer ominous exposition, etc. But it’s Unfriended’s attitude toward its own technology that really plugs it into the found-footage lineage: All the buffers of online interaction can’t save these high-school cyberbullies from a reckoning, any more than constantly filming could protect the lost Blair Witch crew from the world’s natural (and supernatural) terrors. [A.A. Dowd]

15. The Visit (2015)

Given his career-spanning love for flashy perceptual tricks, it’s surprising that M. Night Shyamalan didn’t indulge in the found-footage genre any earlier than this 2015 low-budget hit. Honestly, though, very little of The Visit’s power comes from how it deploys its handheld camera, whose presence is neatly justified by the choice to make teen siblings Becca and Tyler an aspiring documentarian and an embarrassing YouTube rapper, respectively. Instead, Shyamalan situates his horror in the very identifiable childhood discomfort of being transplanted from the familiar rhythms of home into the weird rules and routines of a distant (and often much-older) relative. It’s the sort of anxiety that horror is perfectly suited to escalate into an outright nightmare, a trick that would just well in a more traditionally filmed movie, too—although Shyamalan does grant himself at least one big show-off sequence, in the form of a game of crawlspace hide-and-seek that gets a lot more tense once “Nana” decides to get involved. [William Hughes]

16. Found Footage 3D (2016)

Too often, the dialogue in a found-footage movie is intentionally or unintentionally trite, either designed to sound off-the-cuff or just landing like an afterthought to the jump scares. But that’s not the case in Found Footage 3D, the rare horror movie of this kind that’s as funny as it is scary. The meta story, which concerns an overenthusiastic wannabe filmmaker who decides to make the world’s first 3D found-footage horror film, allows for any number of riffs on genre staples, from the remote cabin setting to the integration of the camera into the scares themselves. The film doesn’t upend conventions, but it does embrace them in a smart, sharply observed way that manages to deliver scares after the silliness; it leaves you grateful for a found-footage horror movie whose makers clearly thought seriously about the format before a single scene was shot. [Alex McLevy]