Twenty years ago this summer, moviegoers everywhere were shaken to their core by a film about three film students who went into the woods with a couple of cameras and met a seemingly supernatural entity that wouldn’t let them leave. It was called The Blair Witch Project, and it proved to be a landmark film for horror cinema, indie cinema, and a particular filmmaking medium known as "found footage."
The idea behind found footage films is simple: Make a movie while acting like you’re not trying to make a movie. This all really happened, someone who was there filmed it, and then you just found the resulting video and cut it together. It’s a method that allows plenty of room for improvisation, often requires minimal budget, and can get a lot of mileage out of very few locations and characters. That makes it an attractive technique for many filmmakers, but it’s not as easy to pull off as it sounds. So, in tribute to The Blair Witch Project and its impact, here are the movies that got found footage right in the best way possible.
1. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Cannibal Holocaust is not a 100 percent "found footage" movie, but it didn’t have to be, because it paved the way for dozens, if not hundreds, of other films in the subgenre with its use of the found footage technique. The film is the story of an anthropologist who sets out to find a group of filmmakers who went missing while documenting indigenous tribes in South America, and discovers that only their film cans and their bones have survived.
The back half of the film is largely composed of this found footage, as the anthropologist reviews the cans of film and discovers the documentarians were often more savage than the tribes they set out to chronicle, as their bloodlust and exploitation reached fever pitch shortly before their deaths. The film is best known for the controversy it caused, including the rumor that several of the onscreen killings were real (Ruggero Deodato, the film's director, was forced to bring one of the actors into court with him—to prove he was alive), but it’s also a surprisingly complex look at appropriation, voyeurism, and our addiction to filmed spectacle.
2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Yes, The Blair Witch Project really does still work as a minimalist scarefest, but even if it didn’t it would still be held up as one of the most important works in the found footage subgenre. At a time when found footage wasn’t on the minds of moviegoers and the internet was still in its relative infancy, this film arrived like a dark gift and helped to shape what the looming 21st century would look like in terms of horror filmmaking. If you were paying attention to pop culture at the time, you probably remember the brilliant viral marketing campaign that made you believe, if only for a second, that this was a real lost film made by dead students. And even if the marketing didn’t get you, the children laughing in the dark did.
3. Cloverfield (2008)
Many found footage movies are, by their very nature, small scale affairs involving only a few characters and a story that can be told in a relatively confined way, which makes them great for low-budget filmmakers. If you’re producer J.J. Abrams, writer Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves, however, you look at the subgenre and you start to think about a kaiju movie. Cloverfield brilliantly combines the large-scale destruction of a giant monster ravaging a city with the intimate, immediate thrills of a found footage movie. Throw in some brilliant viral marketing and the idea that you’re watching a tape recovered by the government after a disaster, and you’ve got an addictive little movie that spawned a small franchise.
4. Chronicle (2012)
Given enough time, every film genre will be invaded in some way or another by found footage, because the method is just so adaptable. That meant superhero films would definitely get the treatment one day, and in 2012 we got it with Chronicle, Josh Trank’s tale of three friends whose lives change forever when they acquire superpowers. The film works right away because of course the first thing a certain kind of teenager would do if they got powers is film themselves goofing off. And as the plot picks up steam, the ways in which each young man deals with the fallout of their gifts propels it to compelling levels of intensity and fun.
5. [REC] (2007)
The best found footage films are often the ones that can make optimal use of a single location by establishing a sense of place and then just shredding your nerves as you watch the chosen location fall apart amid the terror. The Spanish film [REC], co-directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, is a masterclass in this technique, following a reporter and cameraman as they try to survive a night in a quarantined apartment building where everyone is slowly turning into a monster. The film just keeps finding ways to freak you out, from the silhouette of a motionless little girl at the end of a hallway to its iconic, absolutely terrifying final shot.
6. The Visit (2015)
In 2015, M. Night Shyamalan’s three most recent directorial credits were After Earth, The Last Airbender, and The Happening. The man who had once wowed Hollywood with The Sixth Sense needed another win, and he got one by stripping down his budget and his storytelling scope to create another intimate, taut, darkly funny thriller about two kids who go to stay with their grandparents and discover something awful. The found footage element of the story adds a sense of urgency to the detective work the kids have to do to figure out what’s going on, and the very idea of following the camera as it peers out of the kids’ room at night to see what the creepy people in the house are up to is enough to make you jump in your seat.
7. Creep (2015)
Creep is what happens when found footage horror meets a mumblecore hangout movie, as Mark Duplass (co-writer and star) and Patrick Brice (co-writer, director, and star) set out to tell a two-person story that will chill you to your core while also causing you to laugh at really odd times. The setup is simple: A creepy loner who lives in the woods hires a cameraman for the day under the pretense of making a video for his unborn. He has terminal brain cancer, you see, and wants to leave him some kind of remembrance. You can probably see where this is going just from the title of the film, but what you can’t see is how the film gets there. Creep packs a lot of scares, twists, and turns into its lean 77-minute runtime, and by the end it ensures you’ll be looking at that one guy you barely know who just has a “weird sense of humor” a little differently.
8. Trollhunter (2010)
Shows about weird guys who hang out in the woods and claim to hunt monsters have, like ghost hunting shows, become a staple of 21st-century cable television, and it was only a matter of time before someone decided to ask the question “What if that all turned out to be real?” Trollhunter, André Øvredal’s brilliant found footage fantasy film, does that with a sense of scale and wild fun that makes it an instantly watchable ride.
9. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Like The Blair Witch Project before it, Paranormal Activity came along at exactly the right time and injected new life into the found footage subgenre with a clever premise, a low budget, and a hook that kept driving people to the theaters. As ghost hunting shows began to spread all over basic cable, filmmaker Oren Peli had the idea to tell the story of a couple who wired up their own house with cameras in order to conduct a search for an evil presence in their home. It was a phenomenon that launched a franchise and dozens of ripoffs, and the scares still work pretty damn well.
10. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
Ok, hear us out: Yes, Exit Through the Gift Shop is billed as a documentary, and is purportedly not a work of fiction. No one found this footage in the woods in the world of the story, so how can it be “found footage”? Because the legendary street artist Banksy found a movie in the midst of thousands of hours of random, often useless footage compiled by a Frenchman living in Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta (a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash), who became obsessed with street art and turned his constantly filming camera lens on it. Banksy didn’t set out to make this film, but as he became more intrigued by Thierry and his journey he turned to Guetta’s lifelong habit of compiling video of almost literally everything he did, and somewhere in there a truly great film emerged (the movie earned a Best Documentary Oscar nomination in 2011).
11. Unfriended (2014)
Unfriended is a film that unfolds almost entirely on a computer screen, as a group of friends slowly discover that the unknown user intruding on their evening chat might just be the ghost of a girl who was cyberbullied into suicide a year earlier and now wants to take her revenge. You’d think a film that unfolds through Skype chats and Facebook Messenger might drag a bit, but Unfriended actually has a healthy and horrific grasp of the way teens use these tools to construct their own compelling high school narratives, and it warps that understanding to its advantage. A film like this was bound to get made eventually, but Unfriended turns out to be more than another found footage gimmick.