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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Film Land - 10 Found Footage Horror Films You Should Watch

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So, The Blair Witch has been a major success at the box office; a revitalization for a horror classic of dubious merit that no one really expected to be a franchise.  With everyone now caught up in found footage mania, it’s the perfect time to talk about my favorite entries in the genre and the top 7 found footage horror flicks I would recommend to newcomers interested in the style.  

I get that a lot of folks are kind of allergic to found footage horror, but I think that’s mainly because the found footage names tend to be the worst examples of the genre, stuff like Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity.  For every one of those flat, paint by numbers haunted house found footage features there are at least 3 weird, high-concept horror offerings that only manage to work because of the crutch afforded them by the found footage structure, and today we honor them.

Here’s one I’m betting the horror geek in your life has probably recommended at some point or another, and with good reason.  Though not my favorite found footage flick Taking of Deborah Logan is an excellent one and might best be considered the quality version of that terrible film The Visit, from last year.  

The set-up is about a camera crew documenting events at the home of a woman whose aging mother is suffering from dementia.  In classic ghost format, the dementia affords the film a greater sense of uncertainty in that you’re not sure how much of what you’re seeing is the result of the old woman’s illness or something more sinister. 

Taking of Deborah Logan is one of the best examples of how Found Footage can thoroughly elevate more mundane protagonists.  Now personally I usually have a lot of trouble getting invested in horror movie main characters, mainly because a lot of horror films take the approach of “you’ll care because we tell you to care.”  

But in found footage, a good chunk of the movie’s run time is just spent with these people and especially in a situation with an ill parent there’s a real intimacy to the film that draws you into the characters.  You get to know these people on a deeply personal level that elevates them beyond the tragedy of their situation, making it honestly a better take on mental illness as horror than similar films like Babadook.

This one’s actually from one of the original directors of The Blair Witch Project.  Of all these found footage films this is the one I would most describe as a “scary movie” rather than a full-on horror film- full up on fun jump scares and moving at a quick pace that makes it a fun scary rather than the creeping terror on the rest of the list.  

The set-up is fairly standard horror stuff with a group of teens headed up to a cabin in the wilderness for the weekend when something sets upon them.  So, it’s the most standard plot with the most low-rent horror format, why is it on this list?  It’s because the villain for this film is none other than Big Foot!

That’s right; this is a Sasquatch horror flick and a shockingly good one at that.   Stuff like this is exactly why I love found footage as much as I do; it’s cheap budgetary needs and technical limitations make it far better suited to weirder or harder to pitch horror concepts.  Even though the movie is just a “teens vs. monster in the woods” horror flick the bizarre monster and great pace of the adventure makes this a real blast, good for a group watch or scary movie night. 

Hell yeah, there are 2 Big Foot horror movies on this list, why wouldn’t there be?  In many ways, Willow Creek and Exists are a compelling study in contrast and how much versatility and variety the found footage genre contains.  Part documentary and part horror flick, Willow Creek is about an engaged couple traveling to the famous Willow Creek because it’s the man’s birthday and he’s a huge Big Foot fan.  

The first half of the film is actually made up of real footage of the Big Foot community that’s formed in Willow Creek after the famous Big Foot footage was shot there.  It’s a fascinating glimpse into the strange culture of Sasquatch hunters and the blend of conspiracy obsessives, kitsch Americana, and backwoods hunting culture that’s formed there. 

The other half of the movie is a very stripped down, classic found footage horror feature- most in line with The Blair Witch Project given how much of it relies on being in the wilderness and not seeing the monster.  It’s all very affecting, mainly because the film is direct by Bobcat Goldthwait, who shows some incredible talent for tension and horror in the close quarters of the camp sight and the dense wild trails. 

Firstly; don’t bother with the first installment of this already forgotten anthology series- it’s a nearly unwatchable wash of half-baked, uninspired, deeply sexist horror vignettes.  Secondly, if you’re interested the third installment V/H/S: Viral, it's solid enough though it ends up feeling a little short.   V/H/S-2 is truly the stand out of the bunch, sporting four full horror films each one a brilliant exploration of horror’s vast history and many subgenres.

Anthology movies are always a tricky bet, but V/H/S-2 is the rare anthology where every segment is at least good and at best phenomenal.  What’s more, the film takes full opportunity of the anthology format to explore horror genres like paranormal haunting, zombie stories, alien urban legends, and a third entry about a cult that’s so out there it needs to be seen to be believed.  

If you’re unfamiliar with the series, V/H/S is about a creepy mythology of VHS tapes that all cover some terrifying and often paranormal encounter, with each film revolving around characters stumbling across an assembled collection of the tapes.  Speaking of, that’s the only downside to this entry, the framing story is decidedly weak, but the actual content more than makes up for that.

This one’s a bit of a cheat as it’s more of a documentary horror flick than a found footage one; however, the climactic moment of the documentary does feature some footage that is found, so I’m counting it regardless.  

Lake Mungo is probably the most unsettling horror film on the list; it thoroughly gets under your skin and touches on a lot of stuff that’s genuinely unnerving.  The framing device for the movie is a documentary about the disappearance and death of a young girl in Australia, with the documentary following her family and friends as they try to recreate their daughter’s life in the time building up to her death. 

What’s impressive is how convincing the entire film feels.  Nothing ever strains credulity in the girl’s life or how she dies, never going overboard (pun intended) with the events and often throwing in some very believable curves that make it all seem honestly real.  

It’s most reminiscent of Twin Peaks in the way its narrative crafts a secret criminal life of the Australian teenager lurking underneath the wholesome surface and plays a lot on the idea of the things we leave behind forming the components of our ghost.  Easily the smartest found footage flick you’ll watch.

Here’s another one that I think has gotten more love in recent years but still stands up as one of my all time favorites of the subgenre.  Banshee Chapter holds a unique place in my heart as far as found footage horror goes in that it demonstrates how well found footage can adapt more mercurial elements of horror.  

See, Banshee Chapter isn’t just a found footage horror film; it’s a Lovecraftian found footage horror film.  That might sound like a lot to swallow, but it works gloriously, managing to find the same kind of mercurial horror of Lovecraft’s stories through the first person perspective of the camera. 

The set-up is a weird concoction of Lovecraftian horror cosmology with conspiracy theory Americana grounded in the supernatural southwest.  It follows a young woman whose ex goes missing after investigating a mysterious plot tied to the CIA’s MK Ultra experiments, numbers stations, and a Hunter S. Thompson stand in.  The result is damn scary and stands up as one of the best horror films of the modern era; highly recommend this one.

Here’s another example of how well found footage can address niche genres of horror, in this case, it’s insane asylum horror.  Not only is Grave Encounters the best insane asylum horror flick, but it's also one of the best found footage horror films overall as well.  It starts out with an absolutely killer hook that’s so simple I’m honestly shocked more found footage films don’t use it- following a crew filming a ghost hunter reality show that actually find real ghosts. 

It’s such a deviously perfect set-up, but it works perfectly.  A big part of that success is the slow burn nature of the film and the way things spiral completely out of control; keep that in mind if you set out to watch this flick.  It’s a much more deliberate and methodical horror flick than Exists or VHS-2 though nowhere near as minimalistic as Willow Creek; it’s strictly in the middle of the pacing scale as were a lot of found footage horror flicks around the time of its release.

I don’t want to dive too deep into summary because the crazy twists and turns this movie takes are a big part of the overall appeal.  What I will say is that if you’re looking for something spooky that gets under your skin in between the jump scares and creepy location Grave Encounters is a great watch.

There are other names on this list, but I tell you now- The Houses October Built is the best found footage horror film I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them.  It’s an incredibly visceral and creepy experience that makes the best of its premise in a way I didn’t even know I wanted.  What’s more, it’s a Halloween-themed horror flick making it probably the best Halloween movie we’ve produced since Nightmare Before Christmas.

The set-up is a bunch of friends has bought themselves an RV to travel around the US during the month of October looking for the most extreme haunted house experience.  It’s a solid enough concept that the film doubles down on in an ingenious and unexpected way.  Rather than going with the group finding a real haunted house, the film lays its cards out from the start that “extreme” in this case means deadly.  This idea essentially makes the film an “evil carnival” film with a Halloween bent.

What elevates the material so much is that the film is full to the brim with INCREDIBLE haunted house experience footage in thrilling first person that you’re always on edge over because, from the word go, we know that any one of the haunted house attendants could be a crazed killer.  It’s incredibly intense and unnerving, elevated by the intermediary scenes of the group traveling and the haunted house workers following them across the nation.  I think a lot of folks are put off by the ending but trust me on this one, it’s a standout of the genre and a high watermark for the format.

This one is decidedly unique in that it’s more a horror comedy found footage film with a bit of mockumentary thrown in for good measure.  That’s a lot to handle in one film, especially given how meta and post-modern its elements are but Behind the Mask handles its heavy load flawlessly and stands as one of the better post-modern horror deconstructions alongside Cabin in the Woods.  

The film takes place in a kind of surreal alternate reality where the events of Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th all actually happened.  The titular Leslie Vernon is an aspiring slasher villain in his right that a college documentary team are filming as he prepares to premiere himself to the world.

It’s an incredibly surreal idea with characters all shockingly okay with the fact they’re sharing the same space with a hopeful murderer, but it all hangs together if you just sort of groove with the film’s tone.  The meta-comedy stuff is all mostly contained to the first half and works remarkably well while the second half turns into an outright found footage slasher, which holds up shockingly well in its own right.  It’s a real trip to see a slasher kill set-up the various traps and tricks before they’re paid off and even be aware of his visual symbolism; also Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) is on hand to make things great.

Speaking of meta, Grave Encounters 2 may be the best example of an aware found footage sequel I’ve ever seen.  The set-up is that Grave Encounters 2 takes place in a world where the original Grave Encounters was real found footage that was later actually released as a horror film, with a quasi-cultish obsession blossoming around the movie over whether or not it's true.  Our hero is a film student who makes it his mission to find the asylum of the first film and decipher the mystery of whether or not it’s all real. 

Integrating the in-universe definition of found footage is a brilliant move that works shockingly well here, especially given how wrong it went in Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows.  This installment also clearly has a larger budget to it than the first film, and that does lead to a shift from straight horror into a blend of horror and urban fantasy, but that’s a pretty standard horror series arc.  Delving deeper into the nature of the asylum and the mechanics by which it works is a neat trick, and the film manages to preserve a sense of dread and tension about the asylum while also elaborating on it.

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