“I see why you like this video camera so much…It’s not quite reality. It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is…” - Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project
We live in times fascinated by manufactured “reality”, with the past decade of television dominated by fly-on-the-wall visual accounts of a day in the life of your average bum-scratching working peasant. You can probably blame that stupid old bag Maureen and her endless “hilarious” inept driving lessons. Meanwhile folks with nothing better to do record their every thought and action as You Tube videos or Facebook status updates. (eg. Carrie Snodlington is baking a cake ; Father Simon Levins just molested your son ; etc). Any charisma-free prize tool can be a “celebrity” in the slimmest sense of the term if he or she happens to be caught on camera doing something deemed by someone, somewhere to be entertaining. And consequently most contemporary television has the enduring charm and genuine fun factor of having an angry hornet glued to your ball sack. Which, come to think of it, is exactly the kind of shenanigan you can expect to see in some of the lewder variations on the form.
The horror genre, gawd bless it, has keenly reflected this trend, having predicted its rise to prominence in earlier movies aimed at ambulance chasers like Faces of Death and genuinely intelligent films with something to say like Cannibal Holocaust. As far back as 1992, Stephen Volk’s long-gestating script for Ghost watch anticipated the subsequent popularity of phoney televised haunted-house explorations starring human vacuum Anthea Turner, while predicting a wave of genre movies keen to question exactly how much fiction the average audience will accept as “truth” if presented as such.
The Blair Witch Project was far from the first horror picture to pertain to representing real terror, though it was certainly the first to write its own box office via a canny internet campaign. It spawned a sub-genre of movies duplicating its shaki-cam first-person perspective, barely visible depictions of terror and downbeat ending in which our protagonists fail to survive the ordeal that has immortalised them in film. Probably the earliest to jump on the bandwagon, The St Francisville Experiment (1999) was a prime example of how low the sub-genre could sink : the fact that it boasts no credited director suggests more a sense of shame than a keenness to maintain the illusion. It utilises a lot of its illustrious predecessor’s techniques but, in depicting the supernatural horrors facing a quartet of young ghost-hunters, finds only lame frights involving falling chandeliers, cats jumping out of cupboards and characters eating bug-infested sandwiches. Unusually, and depressingly, all four of the central losers survive to the credits. There are T’Pau music videos from 1987 with more of a sense of sustained menace.
Prior to Blair Witch, modest cult movies from around the globe predicted the future direction of horror. Admired in many quarters, Belgium’s Man Bites Dog (1992) was a kind of sicko variation on This Is Spinal Tap, with co-director/star Benot Poelvoorde as a casually violent serial killer (“I usually start the month with a postman…”) followed around by a camera crew (played by his co-directors) who record his day to day life and end up participating in the murders and rapes he revels in. Its heavy violence brought notoriety back in the dry horror period of the early 90’s, though, in its short home-video family-murder sequence, John McNaugton’s Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer said a lot more about our desensitised generation than this feature length indulgence. The Last Broadcast (1997) is the most oft-mentioned precursor to the Blair Witch bandwagon - an eerie first-person account of how a cable access attempt to document The Jersey Devil ended in murder. Like Blair Witch the movie is ambiguous about where it stands with the supernatural - suggesting human madness - and, unlike most of these movies, it breaks the subjective first person viewpoint at the very end.
Other movies have had varying degrees of success with the format. Marc Evans sinister My Little Eye (2002) very effectively joined a rash of movies at the time about the Dark Side of the internet, unfolding entirely strategically placed web cams documenting the five volunteers for a Big Brother-like competition, all bidding for $1million prize money. The nihilism awaiting the viewer at the end is typical of the sub-genre, as is the unsubtle critique of exploitation television.
Web cam horrors started turning up in everything from the worst Halloween movie to the underrated, creepy The Collingswood Story, while faux-reality genre filmmaking became a tool to breathe fresh life into well-trodden horror territory such as the city-levelling monster movie (Clover field), the post-Columbine wasted-youth movie (Meadowoods), the Bad House film (Noroi), the hostile alien abduction picture (The Fourth Kind), the possession pic (this year’s excellent The Last Exorcism) and the grungy sleazy faux-snuff movie (the feeble Resurrecting The Street Walker). Even the Right Honourable Sir George of Romero joined a trend-within-the-trend for mockumentary zombie movies with the sporadically effective Diary of the Dead, a technophobic You Tube-era reworking of his familiar themes that loses its way with weak acting and fails to achieve the chills of the more modest, less socially conscious Brit effort The Zombie Diaries.
What follows are ten stand-out horror movies from the past four decades. Each of them pretends to be real in one way or another, much like that 16 year old Hannah Montana-lookalike you chat to every Sunday afternoon when no one else is around. Three of them are very obvious choices that thoroughly deserve their place, while the others are a combination of unfairly overlooked gems and small-scale riffs on the theme. The trend shows no signs of fading out : Paranormal Activity 2 just made $40 million in its opening weekend alone…
10 .The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) Still largely unreleased - Dowdle has since moved into the genre mainstream as director of Quarantine and Devil - this “found-footage” take on the evergreen serial killer theme is often creepy as hell. It’s set in the early 90’s, presumably because grainy, rubbish-quality video footage feels more “real” than the kind of pin-sharp imagery your average 21st century nut-job could capture on his HD handycam these days. Serial killer statistics lure us into the story - told via a combination of talking heads and grim “real” footage - of a particularly sadistic, never-caught killer who terrorised the eponymous area. The “tapes” of the title were made by the killer for cheap kicks and we get intermittent comments on them from a retired FBI profiler using them in his teachings and an unnecessarily upbeat “Dismemberment Expert” (at least someone’s having a good time!).
The movie is, essentially, an extension of all those short, subjective stalking scenes in slasher movies dating back to Peeping Tom, with several concessions to this era of unforgiving horror, including the discreet killing early on of a child. Like Romero with Diary of the Dead Dowdle bucks the sub-genre trend to some extent by incorporating non-diegetic music to amp up the uneasiness.
The format yields some genuinely upsetting rewards, notably a queasily voyeuristic variation on the prologue of Halloween that gives us more of an insight than we want into what it’s like to be a sick stalker biding his time and preparing for a kill. Scenes of bound victims verbally and physically abused by the theatrically minded killer, all captured unblinking by a locked-down camera in his basement are more distressing than the serial killer movie norm, though the movie’s most disturbing sequence involves an interview with a “survivor”, dragged on to camera two weeks before her suicide to prove just how fucked she is in the wake of her ordeal. Like many movies in this cycle, it ends with no hope and an end credits “thank-you” to the families of the fictional victims.
9 .Behind the Mask The Rise Of Leslie Vernon (2006) Initially resembling day-in-the-life-of-a-serial-killer mockumentaries such as Man Bites Dog and The Last Horror Movie, this turns into a very witty satire of slasher movie clichés, archetypes and narrative mechanics, using the format for one keenly observed hour before transpiring into a third-person thriller for the finale, albeit one that continues to subvert and dismiss conventions.
In the “picture postcard” small town of Glen Echo, a documentary crew follows the self described “heir apparent to the throne of terror”, Nathan Baesel’s Leslie Vernon, a man preparing a rampage similar to famous reported killing sprees in Haddonfield and Crystal Lake. The movie gets its biggest laughs from Leslie’s pre-rampage preparations, including his selection of a “survivor girl”, his self-training to appear dead and his physical development (“You gotta be able to run like a fuckin’ gazelle!”).
Glosserman’s clever movie deftly incorporates unusually subtle in-jokes with a vividly realised alternate-universe setting in which all the famous movie slashers really existed, thus avoiding the potential trap of turning into another smug post-Scream flick hung up on being “about” other movies. Baesel is spot-on as the cheery ordinary bloke yearning to follow in the footsteps of “legends like Jason, Freddy and Mike”, though some of the best gags are easily missed: check out the reference to CGI and a moment in which Leslie consciously puts on fire-retardent make-up.
8 .Home Movie (2008) The domestic setting of this compelling found-footage spin on the grim themes of Who Could Kill A Child helps set it apart from the volumes of shaki-cam woodland / zombie / monster flicks. It offers an early visual echo of a key inspiration - Blair Witch - for an innocuous scene in the woods establishing the rural location of middle class couple Adrian Pasdar and Cady McClain and their two young kids. Pasdar is a pastor with a dark, abusive background and a tendency to hijack the camera purchased by therapist McClain to document the increasingly apparent psychological disorders displayed by both their children. While Dad mugs for the camera and films everything, the two sullen kids (real-life siblings Amber and Austin Williams) do a lot of unpleasant things.
Like many movies in this sub-genre, this is a slow-burner forced by its own format to keep a lot of the really horrible stuff off-camera, a factor that only adds to its power. The build-up to the uber-downbeat climax cannily tracks the family’s decline via home movie excerpts of a year’s worth of special occasions, from Halloween through to Easter, while Pasdar’s juvenile joshing allows for clever references to the Paris Hilton sex tape and spoofs of the subjective scary moments from Jaws and Psycho. When Pasdar, one of this cycle’s many home movie-obsessed protagonists, starts capturing uncomfortable family dinners, creepily conspiratorial behaviour from the kids and discoveries of goldfish sandwiches, the movie takes a turn into chilling territory.
Brief, almost subliminal moments of visual horror - notably a Christmas Day feline crucifixion - pepper a script leading inexorably to a nihilistic conclusion, in which, after an hour of us experiencing the children’s behaviour from a third party perspective, the point of view switches to that of the two budding mini-psychopaths…to devastating effect.
7 .Rec 2 (2009) 2007’s [Rec] was an excellent example of the verite-horror flick that happened to own one of the most overtly terrifying denouements in modern horror history. In the two year gap between the Spanish horror hit and its sequel, Hollywood (specifically the director of The Poughkeepsie Tapes) had already made a respectable remake in the form of Quarantine, though this unusually effective sequel trumps both of them in fine style.
The proficiently frightening [Rec] 2 begins exactly where its predecessor left off but has a lot of experimental fun with the now - familiar format, alternating between the perspectives of the SWAT team sent into the virus-ravaged apartment block (via their helmet-mounted cameras) and the amateur footage filmed by a trio of misbehaving youths on the rooftop who get caught up in the escalating chaos.
This bravura movie does a lot of familiar horror-sequel stuff - including the return of the original’s shell-shocked heroine as a shotgun-wielding, ball-busting survivor girl - and is careful to reproduce everything that worked before, but it also manages to pull the rug out from under the audience at the point where you think you know where it’s heading. The format is inventively used throughout (clever use of failing batteries, audio drop-out, the cameras seeing what the characters cannot) and the original’s set up is extended to take the franchise into harrowing Exorcist territory, complete with blaspheming possessed kids, plus a truly jolting twist involving the original heroine and some voice recognition technology.
6 .The Last Horror Movie (2003) Written by James Handel as a charismatic / menacing showcase for actor Kevin Howarth, this is a riveting study of a mass-murderer’s views of his own crimes in the vein of American Psycho, while echoing the faux-documentary approach of Man Bites Dog and questioning the audience’s engagement in all the unfolding nastiness like Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video and Funny Games. It is disarming from its opening sequence, a neat parody of generic late 90’s American slasher movies suddenly interrupted by Howarth talking directly to the camera, explaining that he has taped over the film we just rented (nope, this conceit doesn’t quite work in the DVD era!), questioning our tastes (“You wanted to see something scary…?”) before introducing us to a lengthy series of sequences filmed by a young companion and documenting his on-going killing spree.
As it follows Howarth’s “career” from its messy, scrappy beginnings through to the cold efficiency of his current kills, the movie is especially strong on gallows humour : before covering a rich guy with gasoline and setting him alight, he notes sardonically :”The neighbours are over a mile away: if you wanted to be rescued, you’d own less land…”. It takes time to comment on the violence-in-movies debate (“Take it from someone who knows - it aint the movies…”) and, at its best, captures a queasy sense of uncomfortable blackly comic / visceral horror reminiscent of Texas Chainsaw : particularly a harrowing set piece in which Howarth’s inexperienced cameraman ineptly strives to kill a young woman with a chair leg.
Director Richards expands the notion of viewer-implication memorably featured in Henry, and has Howarth challenging the audience before, during and after vicious murder scenes :”Did you want to see that or not? And, if not, why are you still watching?!”. The wonderfully dry off-hand ending takes this direct questioning to a sarcastic close, as Howarth ponders over whether we watched the whole movie because of its “self-conscious subversion of horror film conventions” before concluding, quite fairly, that if this was the case, it would make you “a bit of a shit”.
5 .Paranormal Activity (2007) Though the source of the horror turns out to be a demon rather than actual ghosts, this is essentially a post-Blair Witch reworking of the Amityville - inspired Bad House sub-genre made for peanuts in the director’s own house. It has many ingredients you would now expect from this format : a fake affirmation of its reality at the outset (complete with paramount Pictures thanking the families of the two “stars”), an absence of credits and the main actors using their real names. With its remarkable use of sound and a single, usually tripod-fixed camera, is an impressive testament to the power of the unseen.
Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat are the attractive, reasonably sympathetic couple who discover a demon who apparently haunted Katie as a child has followed her into adulthood and now terrorising them in their expansive home. Sceptical Micah humours her enough to set up a camera in their bedroom to document any spooky shenanigans and, bucking the shaki-cam trend, the movie allows its most unsettling events to unfold from a fixed, non-handheld vantage point, with key moments unfolding in long shot or even completely off-screen.
Director Peli cannily has us looking for things in the corner of the frame (or in mirrors) that never appear, making us dread every successive static night scene, while understanding that, if the right dread-laced ambience has been created, chills can be generated from moments as low-key as a landing light abruptly turning itself on or an ominously damaged photograph appearing of a main character. In an era of torture movies, here’s a flick that remembers how scary a slowly opening bedroom door can be - and one that makes the hitherto over-used format feel fresh : even more chilling than the idea of Katie silently standing over the bed watching Micah sleep in the night is the revelation (via fast-forward) that she held the same unmoving position for an hour and a half.
4 .Lake Mungo (2008) A rare Antipodean entry in the “found footage” cycle, this shares conceits with Paranormal Activity : both movies feature prominent characters setting up fixed cameras in their homes to record what they believe to be supernatural phenomena. Structurally, however, the movie is closer to Ghostwatch, utilising our era’s equivalent to the traditional ghost story’s first-person viewpoint : fake documentary talking head interviews, video cameras, phone-cams, digital photos. Clever misdirection involving human hoaxing of supposed “paranormal” activity adds an edge of unpredictability and paves the way for genuinely sinister revelations in the second half.
In New South Wales, troubled 16 year old Talia Zucker disappears on a family trip, her drowned corpse discovered days later. Via superbly acted interview materials, we learn how, despite their efforts to move on from the tragedy, her family came to believe Zucker’s presence was haunting their home. A séance is conducted and cameras set up to try and prove this, while investigations into the girl’s sordid secret life reveal what led to her death.
One of the few movies in this sub-genre that manages to sustain its authenticity throughout, Lake Mungo is, regardless of format, an uncommonly poignant and chilly ghost story. Like many of its kind, it forces its audience to look into the shadows and the darkness in search of potential ghosts but, crucially, at the point where it seems like the script has undermined its own supernatural undercurrent, the movie pulls off a devastating reveal. A single, grainy phone-cam shot of an apparent “ghost” ranks as one of the creepiest, hardest-to-shake genre images of the past year.
3 .The Blair Witch Project (1999) Many believed the hype back in 1999 : just as Ghostwatch could never hope to pull off the feat of tricking the masses in today’s uber-sophisticated media world, Blair Witch was a one-time-only instance in which still-burgeoning tools were used to draw unsuspecting surfers and viewers into its own mythology. The release delay between the U.S. and the U.K. ensured that, over here, very few believed the hype and very many just didn’t get what all the fuss is about.
From a one-decade remove, this famous guerilla horror film, consisting entirely of footage shot by three “film students” in Burkitsville, Maryland either on camcorder or 16mm, remains an impressive achievement in spite of all the parodies and clones. It feels more “real” than many that followed: seldom has the sense of being lost and hungry and desperate been so vividly depicted in genre movies.
It is, of course, an acquired taste, like most of the movies on this list. You either get sucked in to the movie’s steadily escalating sense of dread, gripped by the lengthy uneventful build-up and grainy nocturnal encounters, or it leaves you absolutely cold. The sense of claustrophobia - we are trapped by the first-person perspective of Heather, Mike and Josh with no reassuring objective cut-aways to be had when we really need them - is superbly sustained, and the unfairly maligned Heather Donahue makes a remarkably credible transformation from headstrong unsympathetic project leader to crumbling, truly terrified inevitable victim resigned to a grim fate.
What’s more, the final 20 minutes feature among the finest examples of found-footage horror : Heather’s uncomfortably authentic direct-to-camera eulogy, and the understated chaos of her discovery in the abandoned house capture a rare sense of outright terror on screen. Format or not, this is an examination of how, when we’re cut off from the world we take for granted, we’re at the mercy of our own panic-stricken emotions - and, regardless of the Blair Witch’s existence - we lose it.
2 .Ghostwatch (1992) The movies on this list, especially the ones that go to great lengths to masquerade as “real” have a lineage that dates back to Orson Welles’ famous 1930’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast that tricked the gullible into believing an alien invasion was really unfolding. Ghostwatch, screened on Halloween night 1992 by BBC1 and unseen on the small screen ever since, is the nearest any of our modern media have come to pulling off the same trick : prefiguring the reality TV boom along with assorted subsequent movies and series (notably Blair Witch and Most Haunted) by several years, it inspired a wave of panic amongst a convinced general public and an inevitable tabloid frenzy that blamed it for everything from soiled trousers to teen suicides. Curiously, at a time when pure horror was seldom seen on TV and had been streamlined into the mainstream thriller on the big screen, the main complaints from viewers expressed an anger about being scared by a horror movie that, because of its clever presentation, they accepted as real without questioning either the writing credit at the very start or a cast list in the Radio Times.
Fascinatingly, Stephen Volk’s ingenious script predicts the outraged reaction at various points : fictional “viewers” phone in urging the programme to be ended because it has unleashed a “mass séance”, (shades of Halloween III : Season of the Witch) creating supernatural phenomena in their own homes. Cynical anchorman Michael Parkinson (one of four TV personalities playing themselves as part of the faux-live broadcast from a haunted London council house) reassures viewers to send their kids to bed and not to be alarmed. More significantly, despite two decades worth of similar confidence tricks, Ghostwatch pulls off the rare balance of keeping events credibly “real” while succeeding as a terrifying genre movie. The potential awkwardness of celebrities playing themselves in nightmare versions of their normal presenting duties is largely avoided, and the story doesn’t do anything to harm its carefully crafted “realism” until around 75 minutes in, when the need for climactic, overt horror demands a clearly staged (but still frightening) riff on The Exorcist.
Though now remembered and often described as a “spoof”, what some forget about Ghostwatch is just how much unpleasant detail and suggested nastiness is built into the script : the central ghost, “Pipes”, (a brilliantly used, virtually subliminal presence throughout) turns out to be a schizophrenic child molester now mutilating and abusing the teenage girl in the terrorised house. No other movie has used the format so effectively for genuine chills: there is remarkable deployment of disappearing figures in video footage, and inspired use of the fake Crime watch style viewer hotline. A measure of its overall success is that it even avoids laughable absurdity when depicting, in the closing moments, a possessed Michael Parkinson reading from Hell’s Autocue in a deserted studio.
1 .Cannibal Holocaust (1979) The dangerous grandfather of all the above mentioned films - a grandfather who has to be severely tamed before he’s allowed to make public appearances in the U.K. and one who, if anything, seems even more shocking in a PC world where multiple layers of “reality” (as used by Deodato) are commonplace to a bewildering degree in our mass media. Deodato doesn’t hold back on anything: infamous animal violence, full frontal nudity from both genders, voyeuristic sex scenes, rape scenes that are disturbing even by 1970’s standards, and a final descent into violence that leaves you drained. Inspired probably by Mondo Cane (with which it shares a composer, Riz Ortolani) and certainly by exposure to manipulative, violent TV news broadcasts, this nihilistic movie was released by U.S. DVD company Grindhouse with an almost apologetic disclaimer added to the start referring to the movie as “a disturbing historical document of a bygone era of extreme irresponsibility”.
These days it’s almost surprising when a horror movie doesn’t start with a “Based on actual events” tag. This one, which alternates between 16mm and 35mm, between TV broadcasts “edited for air” and choppy “found footage”, opens with an influential note explaining “for the sake of authenticity, some sequences have been retained in their entirety”. Although non-linear narrative structures are not uncommon to horror today - every Halloween a new Saw movie uses one - Cannibal Holocaust offered a ground-breaking, complex form beyond its technical experimentation. Unlike many of the films it influenced, only a portion of the film takes the form of first-person “found” footage, with the first half - documenting a rescue mission into the Amazon to find four missing “space age” New Yorkers - conventionally shot, almost conventionally plotted.
If the whole of Deodato’s film is a visceral, unsubtle condemnation of Western “civilisation” invading territory they don’t understand, the second half is a sustained expression of disgust at sensationalised representations of “reality” on TV and dishonest “documentary” making. Deodato dwells on the restoration of footage found by anthropologist Robert Kerman, complete with embellishments (eg stock music) to make it a more entertaining “Wednesday At 9” ratings winner ; while “The Last Road To Hell” is a documentary shot and heavily contrived by its makers, who paid off soldiers for their own ends.
The main bulk of the found footage, intermittently accompanied by provocative commentary from the TV crew back in NYC (“Today people want sensationalism, the more you rape their senses, the happier they are…”) occupies a second half in which the quartet of “outsiders” revel in the alien culture’s “savagery”, filming everything to further their own careers while committing atrocities because they can . There’s a kind of Hell-on-Earth feeling of out-of-control chaos in the final act, from an on-camera presenter hiding his gleeful smile upon discovering a naked woman impaled on a very long pole (“Keep rolling, we’re gonna get an Oscar for this!”) to the handheld ferocity of the comeuppance the four sensationalists face, rife with fleeting images of rape, castration and disembowelment. In one of the most powerful juxtapositions in horror history, Deodato cuts from the insanity in the jungle to a stunned silence in Kerman’s projection booth - reflecting our own devastated reaction and blurring again the line between we the audience and the audience within the film.
Given the real animal cruelty captured by Deodato to reinforce his themes, there’s no middle ground here : either you trust it was made for the right reasons and embrace its harrowing power or you conclude Deodato is no different to those he passionately condemns. Whichever side you err on, there is no “found-footage” movie with the impact and fascination of this one.