The found footage genre took off with a bang with the original release of The Blair Witch Project (1999) but then became the sub-genre that allowed no and low budget films and filmmakers to thrive with most of the results less than exemplary. Now, for general audiences (and most horror fans) found footage films are a lost cause whose time has passed with most people thinking the genre never really achieved anything great passed the Blair Witch but I’m here to say that there have been plenty of great found footage films and there still continues to be great films produced. Now, the conventions which were originated with the Blair Witch have become cliché but that does not mean that there is not still enough fuel left in the genre’s fire.
Many may not be aware of this but the first, and still the most harrowing, found footage film was Cannibal Holocaust (1980) which jump started the cannibal genre instead of an early version of the found footage. It is more infamous for real animal cruelty and controversy than it is for being a film about a professor who is task with going over the found footage of a documentary crew. It is an aesthetic that would later show up in Welcome to the Jungle (2007) and the non-found footage film The Green Inferno (2013). Another early classic was Man Bites Dog (1992), one of my personal favorites that gained greater appreciation after the genre became popular.
Before the Blair Witch Project there was the similar film The Last Broadcast (1998) but that film was less successful due to many issues one of which was less interesting characters and bad editing. For the next several years there were no films of note as the genre was quickly forgotten and Blair Witch, by many, had been seen as a one hit wonder. Then 2005 hit and the rest of the ‘00s became littered with found footage films. The next major found footage hit with mainstream audiences was Cloverfield (2008) but before that you had some small screen success stories with Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) (one of my personal favorites) but there was also [REC] (2007) and its American remake Quarantine (2008), American Zombie (2007), and Brutal Massacre: A Comedy (2008) not to mention the fact that celebrated zombie director George A. Romero unleashed his Diary of the Dead (2007). The rest of the ‘00s saw the release of The Fourth Kind (2009), The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) (depending upon when you were able to get a bootleg of this film) and the true king of the found footage genre Paranormal Activity (2007). This film crossed over to audiences of all ages scaring up $193 million worldwide. This was not as much as The Blair Witch Project (which managed $248.6 million worldwide) but it spawned an entire franchise, something that never caught on with the Blair Witch.
To date there are seven films in the franchise! Included are Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014), Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015), and the Japanese spin-off Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010). There is also an untitled new film in the works! I actually like most of the films in this series and thought Part 4 was the weakest and Part 3 and The Marked Ones being my favorites but the thing that makes this franchise successful is the fact that they all inter connect and feed into each other and the larger story and universe (something the SAW franchise also did extremely well). A lot of found footage films fail because the characters are not interesting, and neither is the story being told but this franchise manages to keep audiences engaged and connected to the characters throughout each instalment.
The ‘10s were a mixed bag of releases as this is when the genre really began to stretch itself way to thin not only in terms of stories to mine but also believability. There are some true clunkers like Chernobyl Diaries (2012), The Pyramid (2014), Phoenix Forgotten (2017), The Frankenstein Theory (2013), Devil’s Due (2014), and The Devil Inside (2012), to name but a few, but there are also some gems like As Above, So Below (2014), Trollhunter (2010), Creep (2014), Creep 2 (2017), The Bay (2012), The Sacrament (2013), Digging Up the Marrow (2014), The Visit (2015), and The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014). Some of my personal favorites were What We Do in the Shadows (2014), The Last Exorcism (2010), Grave Encounters (2011) and its sequel (2012), Frankenstein’s Army (2013), Apollo 18 (2011), Europa Report (2013), and the entire [REC] franchise. Some of the films I enjoyed but seem to have split audiences were The Gallows (2015), Willow Creek (2013), Exists (2014), The Last Exorcism Part II (2013), and the eventual sequel Blair Witch (2016), to name a few.
I was happy to see the found footage genre take on the anthology format most successfully with V/H/S (2012) and its sequels V/H/S/2 (2013) and V/H/S: Viral (2014). This was at the height of the found footage popularity with horror fans but by this time general audiences had tired of the genre. Films like Devil’s Due ($36 million worldwide), The Gallows ($42 million worldwide) , The Devil Inside ($101 million worldwide), As Above, So Below ($41.8 million worldwide) and others were all amazingly successful at the Box Office due to low budgets and huge returns. The problem is that the aesthetics of the genre were becoming too predictable and frankly most audiences hated the abrupt endings to the films due to the fact that the person holding the camera dies and that’s the end of the film.
The genre needed to redefine itself and that is where the film Unfriended (2014) comes in. It uses computer technology and social media such as the ability to group chat to spin an otherwise typical ghost story among friends. This was huge final success bringing in over $62.8 million worldwide on a budget of about $1 million! It quickly spanned (in my opinion) a better sequel in Unfriended: Dark Web (2018) which was still successful but did only a fraction that the original did with $16.02 million worldwide (on a $1 million budget). The genre also got self-referential (i.e. Scream) with the entertaining but polarizing film Found Footage 3D (2016), which acknowledges all the faults of the genre as it shows a film crew trying to make a found footage film. One of the more recent films that I enjoyed was the South Korean film Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) as it is always nice to see how other countries and cultures take on the found footage genre.
Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a different type of found footage film which gives new meaning and themes to play with which is exemplified in the film Host (2020), where a group on friends forced to social distance decide to do a group activity together which is a séance to talk to the dead. Needless to say, that the séance does not go as planned and people start to die. I really enjoyed this film as it had something new to say especially in the current times that we all find ourselves in.
Like any sub-genre of horror there will be lots of films that just don’t make the grade and it is unfortunate that since many filmmakers saw this genre as an easy way to make a film (i.e. no name actors, limited camera, low budget, easy to edit, etc.) but they forgot that the most important thing is that you need compelling characters with an interesting story and journey that needs to be told. Telling a convincing and compelling found footage film is just as hard, if not harder, than telling a conventional film story in a conventional manner. There are some amazing found footage films and I have to agree that the ratio of bad to good is pretty damn high (for every single film I’ve mentioned there are at least 10 really bad ones that I’ve seen that I didn’t mention). I watch found footage films because I love the genre and I’ve managed to find those diamonds in the rough and I hope that horror fans take a look at some of the films I’ve mentioned above and give the genre another look and another chance as it is a shame to dismiss the entire genre just because you happen to have seen a handful that were just not that good.
The ‘80s and ‘90s were littered with extremely bad slasher films and the same can be said of the found footage genre in the ‘00s and ‘10s, or for that matter any horror genre that helped define a decade or a time in horror history.