Found footage is a cinematic technique that presents a movie as if it were a real, direct document of events, usually shot by the participants themselves on amateur video equipment. This can heighten the realism, making it especially effective with horrors. This style has been around in literature for centuries, but the first found footage movie is generally considered to be 1961’s The Connection, directed by Shirley Clarke.
Italian horror movie Cannibal Holocaust experimented further with the style, followed by Man Bites Dog and Peter Jackson‘s Forgotten Silver. These movies set the stage for the considerable mainstream success of found footage in the 21st century. 2012 was an especially big year, seeing the release of a full four of the highest-grossing found footage films of all time.
10 ‘The Devil Inside’ (2012)
This horror movie, directed by William Brent Bell revolves around a woman named Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), who travels to Italy to investigate her mother’s involvement in a series of exorcisms gone wrong. Along with a documentary filmmaker (Ionut Grama), they visit a mental institution to meet with Isabella’s mother (Suzan Crowley).
However, things take a sinister turn when they witness Maria’s possession, and they turn to two rogue exorcists, Ben and David, played by Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth, for help. Although not the most original in terms of plot, The Devil Inside delivers spine-tingling suspense and an eerie atmosphere.
9 ‘Project X’ (2012)
Perhaps the 2010s’ most iconic party movie, Project X, follows three high school friends, Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), as they throw a wild party to gain popularity and impress their classmates. The party quickly spirals out of control and becomes a sensation on social media, and the boys struggle to contain the mayhem.
There are also decent supporting performances from Kirby Bliss Blanton, Alexis Knapp, and Miles Teller (as himself). With hilarious antics and over-the-top party scenes, Project X taps into the spirit of youthful rebellion. Although adults might find it all a little overblown, the film’s target teenage audience lapped it up.
8 ‘Chronicle’ (2012)
Chronicle shook things up by combining the fount footage format with the superhero genre. Itcenters onthree high school friends, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), who gain telekinetic powers after discovering a mysterious object in a cave. However, as their powers escalate, their friendships are tested, and the consequences of their actions become more severe.
Chronicle uses its unique found footage style to explore the dark side of power and the consequences of playing god. The young cast rises to the occasion, particularly DeHaan as the troubled and unstable Andrew. Overall, Chronicle is a must-watch for fans of sci-fi like Heroes and Attack the Block
7 ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ (2012)
The fourth entry in the smash-hit franchise follows a new family, the Nelsons, as they experience strange occurrences in their suburban home. Kathryn Newton stars as Alex, the teenage daughter of the Nelson family, who documents the events that are happening around her using her laptop and webcams. As the supernatural activity intensifies, Alex turns to her boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively), and their friend, Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), for help.
Although the premise is wearing thin by the fourth go-around, the film is saved by the solid performances, particularly Newton. There are also jump scares aplenty that are sure to startle even the most hardened horror veterans.
6 ‘Into the Storm’ (2014)
Into the Storm is a disaster movie about a group of storm chasers led by Pete (Matt Walsh), who is tracking a massive tornado outbreak in the small town of Silverton. As the storm intensifies, a team of high school students, led by Donnie (Max Deacon) and his brother Trey (Nathan Kress), become trapped in the middle of it. Along with the town’s meteorologist, Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), the group must brave the elements and rescue the survivors.
It’s an adrenaline-fueled ride with impressive visual effects and intense action sequences. The story and a few of the performances leave something to be desired, but overall it’s a decent take on found footage tropes.
5 ‘Cloverfield’ (2008)
Cloverfield is a sci-fi horror movie directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams. It follows a group of friends, led by Rob (Michael Stahl-David), as they navigate the streets of New York City during a monster attack. As the friends fight for survival, they must confront their struggles and relationships.
Cloverfield represented a major step forward for found footage films. It innovated within the constraints of the format and proved that such movies could reach the heights of big-budget creature features like Godzilla. It spawned two spiritual sequels in 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Cloverfield Paradox, with a third currently in development.
4 ‘Paranormal Activity 2’ (2010)
The second installment in the series rehashes the basics of the plot from the first. As the supernatural disturbances grow worse, the family investigates and discovers a dark secret that threatens their lives. Katie Featherston reprises her role from the first film, joined by Sprague Grayden as her sister Kristi.
Paranormal Activity 2 will satisfy fans of the first one but doesn’t add anything particularly new. The movie’s best part is how it digs deeper into the eerie mythology introduced in the first one. Featherston and Grayden also bring depth and authenticity to their roles as the two sisters caught in the middle of a terrifying paranormal ordeal.
3 ‘Paranormal Activity’ (2007)
Although the sequels would keep rehashing the same old ideas, the original Paranormal Activity was a breath of fresh air and a major innovation for found footage films. It’s a lean, mean horror, made on an impressively low original budget of just $15.000 (although Paramount Pictures would later spend $200,000 on a new ending.)
The film was a runaway success, becoming one of the most profitable movies ever made, and for good reason. Director Oren Peli shot the whole thing on a home video camera, and the dialogue is all unscripted, which helps to make it feel authentic. It reignited the found footage trend in horror, paving the way for movies like The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside, and V/H/S.
2 ‘Paranormal Activity 3’ (2011)
Paranormal Activity 3 serves as a prequel to the first two. It follows the childhood of sisters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and their encounter with a malevolent entity. It was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who had a $5 budget at their disposal – a big step up from the franchise’s beginnings.
The movie mostly sticks to its predecessors’ tried and true formula, but thankfully has some solid frights. It was a big hit with audiences, setting a record for the best opening day for a horror movie in the US with $26 million.
1 ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999)
The Blair Witch Project is the most influential found-footage horror movie and the biggest box office heavyweight. It centers on three film students, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, who venture into the woods to make a documentary about the legendary figure that is said to haunt the area. Delving deeper into the forest, they become lost and increasingly terrorized by an unseen force.
Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez draw on the earlier horror Cannibal Holocaust but improve on it in every way. They conjure up a terrifying atmosphere with just some shaky camera work, natural lighting, and improvised dialogue. At a time when other horror movies were turning to splashy visual effects for their appeal, Blair Witch instead focuses on what we don’t see. The scariest moments are noises from things unseen, a flash of shadow across the screen, or the creepy landscape itself. All this is accentuated by the fuzzy, low-quality visuals. It proved a potent mixture and inspired pretty much every found footage horror since.
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