Fright Club: Best Found Footage Horror Movies

It is the most tired and tiresome of all horror film gimmicks, but are there worthwhile found footage movies to be celebrated? Or are they all simply the result of an inexpensive narrative device that allows for sloppy filmmaking and weak production values? Well, we did the research and found that there are many worthwhile offerings in this field. Yes, the bad outnumber the good 10 – 1, but there are good ones. Here are our five (OK – 6!) favorites.

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6. Trollhunter (2010)

All ancient cultures generated fairy tales. They passed on stories that wrapped the virtues most respected at the time inside common dangers to tell tales of heroism and humor. Norway’s fairy tales all involve trolls. Indeed, their entire national culture seems weirdly identified with trolls. Why is that? Well, writer/director Andre Ovredal’s Trollhunter suggests that maybe it’s because trolls are a real problem up there.

Ovredal’s approach is wry and silly – adjectives that rarely hang out together, but maybe we haven’t seen enough of Norway’s cinematic output. The FX are sometimes wonderful, and especially effective given the otherwise verite, documentary style. Ovredal makes droll use of both approaches.

Trollhunter is definitely more comedy than horror, as at no time does the film actually seek to scare you. It’s a wild ride into a foreign culture, though, and it makes you think twice about the Norway section of Epcot, I’ll tell you what.

5. Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal Activity, or The Little Ghost Story That Could, opened on a handful of screens in just a few cities around the country for midnight weekend shows only. All screenings promptly sold out. Powerful word-of-mouth and an aggressive marketing campaign propelled the modest flick into multiplexes worldwide. Why the hubbub? Well, for those patient enough to let it seep in – for those who do not require a jump, a slash, or a violent act in every fifth frame – Paranormal Activity is an effective, creepy little production.

A classic ghost story, the film evolves Blair Witch-style, as a couple pestered by something spectral begin cataloguing incidents with a night vision camera. The entire film consists solely of the video footage, tracking about three weeks’ worth of rising tension, most of it captured in the couple’s bedroom while they sleep.

The couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) is annoyingly believable in their pensions for doing the wrong thing simply to cater to each other’s insecurities. This, and the simplicity in the filmmaking – limited effects, incredibly limited cast and sets, minimal backstory – create an unnerving air of authenticity. The cam-corder timestamp rolls quickly forward, providing shorthand imaging of the couple sleeping, then slows to real time tracking just as something is about to happen. This repetitive gimmick proves so succinct and effective that dread begins to build while still fast forwarding. By the time the clock slows, half the audience is holding its breath.

4. The Last Horror Movie (2003)

A clever concept handled very craftily, The Last Horror Movie is found footage in that we, the audience, have found it recorded over the VHS tape we are apparently watching. What serial killer Max (a top notch Kevin Howarth) has done, you see, is made a documentary of his ghastly habits and shared them with an audience that’s shown, by virtue of the movie it intended to rent just now, its predeliction for someting grisly.

There’s a lot of “yes, I’m a bad person, but aren’t you, too” posturing going on, and while it is an idea to chew on, it nearly outlives its welcome by the time Max applies his theory to concrete action. It’s an idea explored masterfully by Michael Haneke in 1997 (and again, ten years later) with Funny Games, and by comparison, The Last Horror Movie feels a bit superficial. (Not a huge criticism – few could withstand a comparison to Michael Haneke.)

But director Julian Richards deserves immense credit for subverting expectations throughout the film. Just when we assume we’re seeing a predator anticipating the pounce – just when we’re perhaps feeling eager to see someone victimized – the film makes a hard right turn. In doing this, Richards not only manages to keep the entire film feeling fresh and unpredictable, but he enlightens us to the ugliness of our own horror movie fascinations.

3. Man Bites Dog (1992)

Oh, Belgium. How we do love your horror output. In a bit of meta-filmmaking, Man Bites Dog is a pseudo-documentary made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. It is about a documentary being made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. The subject of the documentary is the charismatic Ben – serial killer, narcissist, poet, racist, architecture enthusiast, misogynist, bird lover.

There’s more than what appears on the surface of this cynical, black comedy. The film crew starts out as dispassionate observers of Ben’s crimes – which is certainly morally questionable to begin with. Eventually their commitment to the project, fear of retaliation, bloodlust, or sense of camaraderie pushes them toward aiding Ben, and then finally, to committing heinous crimes themselves.

It’s a bitter view of their chosen industry, and – much like The Last Horror Movie – a bit of a condemnation of the viewer as well. The fact that much of the decidedly grisly content is played for laughter makes it that much more unsettling.

2. [REC] (2007)

[Rec] shares one cameraman’s footage of the night he and a reporter tagged along with a local fire department. The small news crew and two firefighters respond to a call from an urban apartment building. An elderly woman, locked inside her flat, has been screaming. Two officers are already on the scene. Bad, bad things will happen.

Just about the time the first responders realize they’re screwed, the building is completely sealed off from the outside by government forces. Power to the building is cut, leaving everyone without cell reception, cable, and finally, light. Suddenly we’re trapped inside the building with about fifteen people, some of them ill, some of them bleeding, some of them biting.

Filmmakers Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza make excellent use of their found footage approach, first by way of the news report, then because of the need to use the camera to see once power’s been cut. They play the claustrophobic nature of the quarantine to excellent effect, creating a kind of funhouse of horror that refuses to let you relax. The American reboot Quarantine is another excellent choice, but our vote has to go with the original.

1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

BW is, of course, the now famous instigator of the found footage movement. Yes, Cannibal Holocaust was the first film to use the found footage conceit, but a) it sucked, and b) it didn’t show the audience this footage exclusively. Cannibal Holocaust built a narrative around the film canisters, and then looked at them. One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that the filmmakers made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people.

Between the novelty of the found footage approach and the also novel use of viral marketing, the film drew a huge audience of people who believed they were seeing a snuff film. Nice.

And those two cutting edge techniques buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors, and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon primal fears.

Fright Club: Best Spanish Language Horror

!Dios mio! There are so many exceptional Spanish language horror films, it was hard to choose just 5 – so we didn’t! Whether it’s a Mexican director working in Spain, a Cuban zombiepocalypse, or ghosts, zombies, mad doctors or madder clowns, we have you covered with our fuzzy math salute to el cine de los muertos.

6. Juan of the Dead (2011)

By 2011, finding a zombie film with something new to say was pretty difficult, but writer/director/Cuban Alejandro Bruges managed to do just that with his bloody political satire Juan of the Dead.

First, what a kick ass title. Honestly, that’s a lot to live up to, begging the comparison of Dawn’s scathing social commentary and Shaun’s ingenious wit. Juan more than survives this comparison.

Breathtakingly and unapologetically Cuban, the film shadows Juan and his pals as they reconfigure their longtime survival instincts to make the most of Cuba’s zombie infestation. It’s a whole new approach to the zombiepocalypse and it’s entirely entertaining.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZrKJvX7mjg

5. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone unravels a spectral mystery during Spain’s civil war. The son of a fallen comrade finds himself in an isolated orphanage that has its own troubles to deal with, now that the war is coming to a close and the facility’s staff sympathized with the wrong side. That leaves few resources to help him with a bully, a sadistic handyman, or the ghost of a little boy he keeps seeing.

Backbone is a slow burn as interested in atmosphere and character development as it is in the tragedy of a generation of war orphans. This is ripe ground for a haunted tale, and del Toro’s achievement is both contextually beautiful – war, ghost stories, religion and communism being equally incomprehensible to a pack of lonely boys – and elegantly filmed.

Touching, political, brutal, savvy, and deeply spooky, Backbone separated del Toro from the pack of horror filmmakers and predicted his potential as a director of substance.

4. The Skin I Live In (2011)

In 2011, the great Pedro Almodovar created something like a cross between Eyes Without a Face and Lucky McGee’s The Woman, with all the breathtaking visual imagery and homosexual overtones you can expect from an Almodovar project.

The film begs for the least amount of summarization because every slow reveal is placed so perfectly within the film, and to share it in advance is to rob you of the joy of watching. Antonio Banderas gives a lovely, restrained performance as Dr. Robert Ledgard, and Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes are spectacular.

Not a frame is wasted, not a single visual is placed unconsciously. Dripping with symbolism, the film takes a pulpy and ridiculous story line and twists it into something marvelous to behold. Don’t dismiss this as a medical horror film. Pay attention – not just to catch the clues as the story unfolds, but more importantly, to catch the bigger picture Almodovar is creating.

3. [Rec] (2007)

Found footage horror at its best, [Rec] shares one cameraman’s film of the night he and a reporter tagged along with a local fire department. Bad, bad things will happen.

The squad gets a call from an urban apartment building where one elderly tenant keeps screaming. No sooner do the paramedics and news crew realize they’ve stepped into a dangerous situation than the building is sealed off and power is cut. Suddenly we’re trapped in the dark inside a building with about fifteen people, some of them ill, some of them bleeding, some of them biting.

The found footage approach never feels tired – at first, he’s documenting his story, then he’s using the only clear view in the darkened building. The point of view allows [Rec] a lean, mean funhouse experience.

2. The Last Circus (2010)

Who’s in the mood for something weird?

Unhinged Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia offers The Last Circus, a breathtakingly bizarre look at a Big Top love triangle set in Franco’s Spain.

Describing the story in much detail would risk giving away too many of the astonishing images. A boy loses his performer father to conscription in Spain’s civil war, and decades later, with Franco’s reign’s end in sight, he follows in pop’s clown-sized footsteps and joins the circus. There he falls for another clown’s woman, and stuff gets nutty.

Iglesia’s direction slides from sublime, black and white surrealist history to something else entirely. Acts 2 and 3 evolve into something gloriously grotesque – a sideshow that mixes political metaphor with carnival nightmare.

The Last Circus boasts more than brilliantly wrong-minded direction and stunningly macabre imagery – though of these things it certainly boasts. Within that bloody and perverse chaos are some of the more touching performances to be found onscreen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oM2corZvDTI

1. The Orphanage (2007)

Sometimes a throwback is the most refreshing kind of film. Spain’s The Orphanage offers just that fresh breath with a haunted house tale that manages to be familiar and surprising and, most importantly, spooky.

Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son, Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.

One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts.

A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.

Listen to the full conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.

Zombies Ho!

[Rec]4 Apocalypse

by Hope Madden

In 2007, Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero revived the already dying first-person-camera gimmick with a claustrophobic zombie flick that was imaginative, bloody, and thrilling – though you may remember their [Rec] better by its American remake title, Quarantine. In both, a news reporter and her cameraman are trapped inside an apartment building under quarantine with a rabies-like virus running rampant. No matter the language, the film was a fun and exciting ride.

The American franchise petered out with one sequel (Zombies on a Plane), but its Spanish counterpart has spawned three offspring. [Rec]2 put us right back inside the quarantined building to find that the virus had some kind of demonic origin, while the third installment saw that demon zombification take on a wedding reception. The latest in the series returns to the scene of the crime, as a new team of responders infiltrates the apartment building to set detonators – then one handsome hero hears the call of that lovely reporter, Angela (Manuela Velasco).

Those of us who have kept up on the series happen to know something about Angela that noble Guzman (Paco Manzanedo) does not. If you have not kept up, well, you and Guzman may have a surprise in store.

Balaguero helms this mission solo, placing Angela, Guzmon, the sole survivor of Part 3’s wedding, some armed goons, some sketchy doctors, and a hapless crew onboard a ship to really put some miles around this particular quarantine. Corridors, holds and lower decks give the action a heightened sense of claustrophobia, while Balaguero back peddles from both the silly wedding theme and the hokey demon-virus angle. He also uses security cameras to call back to the original first-person idea without succumbing to tired formula.

Otherwise, though, the film offers little in the way of novelty. The story and its telling are about as fresh as a poop deck. Balaguero can’t generate any tension from the medical experimentation angle and, worse still, he fails to use the sea itself as a source of isolation or claustrophobia.

On the other hand, the zombies have boils on their faces this time, plus there are infected monkeys, which are pretty mean.

[Rec]4 offers a serviceably entertaining riff on the original with much of what you enjoyed the first time around, especially if you enjoyed seeing Velasco in a bloody wife-beater. But it’s high tide and high time to lay this oft-reanimated corpse to rest.

Verdict-2-5-Stars