The X List: Found Footage Films

Published on May 23rd, 2014 in: Found Footage, Horror, Listicles, Movies, Top Ten Lists |

By Jeffery X Martin

The Bay, 2012

On the evening of May 20, 2014, Jeffery X Martin was asked to write an article on the best ten found footage films ever made. He told his wife he was about to start work on it. After a few hours of furious typing, and a couple of stiff drinks, he went to bed to dream his little dreamy-dreams. The next morning, this list you are about to read was found on Martin’s desktop. After a furious search, Martin was discovered in his living room, eating soft-boiled eggs and watching professional wrestling matches from 1987. He sent the article in to his editor, who presents it to you now, as she received it.

I’m the first to admit: I never thought found footage films would still be around. I thought we’d get four or five of them before filmmakers went back to more traditional means of storytelling. Then again, I remember saying hip-hop was a fad, so my position as prophet of social trends is nowhere near secure. Be that as it may, here is my list, in ascending order, of my favorite found footage films.

10. Death of a Ghost Hunter (2007)—What starts off as a basic ghost hunting expedition becomes something way more creepy and a lot more meta. There’s some careful scripting here, and the story is more nuanced than you usually get in the genre. Solid performances help as well. And if it’s about ten minutes too long, it’s an indulgence easily given, because those final ending twists are unexpected and chilling.

9. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)—Already hailed as a minor classic, Behind the Mask tells the story of serial killer Leslie Vernon, who is being followed by a local news crew. We see how he finds his victims, how he builds up his own legend, and how he trains for the exhausting task of slaughtering teenagers. While the film veers away from the traditional genre towards the end, it uses the found footage tropes in a fantastic way that sets it apart from the rest of the pack.

8. REC (2007)—This Spanish language movie follows a group of firefighters through their nightly duties. Shadowed by a single reporter and a cameraman, the first responders are called to an apartment building where something strange is going on. Dark hallways, creative shot composition, and a particularly terrifying monster (it’s the big old woman in the apartment upstairs, sweet Jesus Christ, she’s horrible) make REC a must-see horror flick for any fan.

7. Cloverfield (2008)—This big-budget monsterfest made audiences sick with its shaky camera work. It is terror from a rollercoaster’s eye view, but the end result is worth the nausea. Full disclosure: I saw this movie three times during its opening weekend. There’s a sequence in a subway tunnel that is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. The comparisons to Godzilla are not without merit, but Clover is hundreds of feet tall of head-lung pissed off, a monster that deserves at least one more movie to achieve its full potential. It has its naysayers, but Cloverfield is a great monster flick, enhanced by the found footage method, instead of bound by it.

6. The Last Exorcism (2010)—Yeah, I know you’ve heard about the ending. I don’t understand the hate. This movie is a fascinating study of charlatan preachers and the lengths they will go to in the name of the Almighty Dollar. Patrick Fabian’s performance as pseudo-exorcist Cotton Marcus is a thing of wonder. Once the chills begin, they ramp up continually, and the ending. . . well, it worked for me. The sequel is an unrepentant piece of shit, but The Last Exorcism is a great movie, with tons of originality and plot twists revealed by a single camera that should send goosebumps down the spine of any recovering Christian.

5. V/H/S 2 (2013)—Superior in every way to its predecessor, V/H/S 2 uses a framing device involving private detectives who stumble upon a house with a room filled with video monitors and VHS players. They begin watching, and the tapes they watch become the stories in this anthology. From the zombie with a Go-Pro to an Indonesian death cult trying to usher in the end of the world, V/H/S 2 is a quick trip down the dark weird alley of imagination and well worth your time. (Read my original review.)

4. 8213: Gacy House (2010)—Every once in a while, even a studio known for releasing terrible films puts out a good movie. This production from The Asylum (the folks who gifted us with Sharknado) uses the usual found footage set-up. Static cameras set up in hallways all lead back to a central control video bank. The kicker this time is the paranormal investigators are hanging out in real-life killer John Wayne Gacy’s house. Summoning his spirit is not the best idea, so why not do it? It makes bad things happen, and the last 20 minutes of this movie are pure lunacy. I’m in the minority in my life for this movie, but I don’t care. I enjoyed this one a lot and have watched it multiple times. I’m not going to be surprised if you hate it, but you’re not going to hurt my feelings, either.

3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)—Wrongly considered the granddaddy of found footage movies, The Blair Witch Project still packs a serious wallop. When three amateur filmmakers wander into the woods of New England to investigate the facts behind an old murder, they get more than they bargained for. There’s madness and mucous galore, plus a respect for the audience not found in most films. If you don’t pay attention to the first 20 minutes, you’re not going to get the last five. And you need to get the last five minutes or else you’ll miss one of the best cinematic gut-punches ever filmed.

2. The Bay (2012)—Academy Award winning director Barry Levinson went the found footage route to tell this eco-horror tale about the pollution of Chesapeake Bay. The protagonists behind the camera attempt to tell the mayor of their town that the water in the Bay is toxic. He doesn’t listen, and soon the town is overrun with mutant aquatic parasites. This is horrible for tourism, as the tourists who come to town eventually learn. Not only is The Bay a throwback to the great “nature run amok” movies of the 1970s, it’s a modern cautionary tale with blood, guts, and almost unbearable suspense. As for me and my house, we’ll never eat scallops again.

1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)—This movie from 1980 is the king lord of all found footage movies. Ostensibly the film recovered from the shambles of an expedition into the Amazon, this movie features native tribes feasting on the flesh of humans. There is also real animal abuse (the killing of a giant sea turtle draws the most ire from audiences) filmed in a documentary style both exploitative and unflinching. The murder of the explorers is also captured on film so realistically that the film’s director, Ruggero Deodato, was hauled into court in Italy on obscenity charges. He had to bring the actors into the courtroom to testify that they were not dead. It’s unpleasant. It’s not entertaining. But it works so well, within the genre, that the court got involved. Surely that alone is enough to recommend this movie to those who aren’t squeamish and maybe don’t value life as much as they should. [Maybe you want to listen to the new episode of my podcast, where we talk about this movie in depth. Maybe you don’t. Options are amazing.]

The found footage film genre shows no sign of stopping or slowing down, because it’s relatively inexpensive to produce and the story ideas are practically inexhaustible. What’s next for found footage? Well, we know a 3-D movie is in the works; the future is in the future, and we’ll see it all first-hand, through the unflinching camera eye.

One Response to “The X List: Found Footage Films”

  1. Zeus:
    May 29th, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks for the list! I forgot Death of a Ghost Hunter even existed. Now I have to track it down. [Rec] is one of my personal favorites — found footage, zombie, hell, just one of my personal favorite horror films in general.

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