While the horror genre has remained a consistently popular one over the decades, it is marked by the rise and fall of certain subgenres. From the Exorcist-inspired wave of possession movies in the ’70s to the glut of slashers that followed the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th in the ’80s, all it takes is a single movie to inspire dozens of homages, copies, and rip-offs. In July 1999, a micro-budget indie horror titled The Blair Witch Project hit US theaters and changed the shape of horror–and other genres, to be honest–for the next decade and beyond.
The Blair Witch Project’s gimmick was to present the movie as if we were watching the recovered footage left by a trio of missing student filmmakers as they investigated the legends of a witch who lurked in a spooky wooded area. This wasn’t the first time the technique had been used–the 1980 Italian shocker Cannibal Holocaust was partly found footage, while mock-documnetraries like This is Spinal Tap and the notorious British TV show Ghostwatch arguably used this technique too. But Blair Witch Project was by far the most influential.
In terms of the film itself, it gave the events on screen an intensity and scary realism, helped by the naturalistic performances by its three actors, that delivered a frightening experience unlike anything else many audiences had experienced before. And in terms of the industry, it broke down a financial barrier for filmmakers. You no longer need an experienced crew and expensive equipment. With a domestic camcorder, a location, and a few friends, anyone could make a found footage movie that had a shot at making some money at the box office.
And that’s what happened. The vast success of Blair Witch meant that seemingly everyone was making their own version. Horror has always been a genre that could maximize profit, with many of the biggest success stories being low budget independent movies that became huge hits. Suddenly films that might have been barely releasable a few years earlier were flooding the market. Terrible sound, lousy acting, murky photography? Doesn’t matter–it’s a found footage movie!
But while many of the found footage films released in the wake of Blair Witch were indeed very bad, there were some great examples too. These were all movies that used the limitations of the format to the story’s benefit. In some cases this meant delivering giant monster movies that put us at ground-level with terrifying beasts, and others it meant creating a sense of claustrophobia, denying the viewer that release and distance that a more traditional horror movie can. So with The Blair Witch Project celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, we’ve taken a look at the best and scariest found footage horror movies ever made. And once you’ve read that, check out GameSpot’s look at the background to Blair Witch and find out why the movie could not be made in the same way today.
13. Borderlands (2013)
This low-budget British movie doesn’t perhaps do anything that new, but it’s still a satisfyingly scary ride. A pair of Vatican investigators are sent to an old, recently reopened church in the English countryside to look into reports of supernatural activity there. Accompanying them is a cynical videographer, through whose cameras we see a series of weird events unfold. Strong performances, a great atmosphere, and a horrifying end sequence, as the team discover the truth about what lies beneath the church, add up to an underrated shocker.
12. Willow Creek (2013)
Comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait might be best known for his dark comedies, but in 2013 he turned in this impressive found footage bigfoot movie. Just as Blair Witch Project never reveals the witch, in this one Goldthwait holds back from showing us the monster. Instead, it invokes serious scares through the use of sound and suggestion, as a pair of young campers found themselves terrorised by the Bigfoot when they decide to explore the various myths about its existence. The scariest scene is an unbroken 20-minute sequence, as the couple cower in their tent while something seriously terrifying stomps around in the woods outside.
11. The Last Exorcism (2010)
The Last Exorcism combines the found footage genre with the possession movie to impressive effect. It’s produced by Eli Roth, and focuses on a priest who has lost his faith and makes a living by performing fake exorcisms on the mentally ill. This leads him to a girl called Nell, who claims to inhabited by a demonic entity called Abalam. The whole thing is caught on camera by a pair of documentary filmmakers, and much of the film plays around with the possibility that Nell is simply disturbed rather than possessed. It’s a smart shocker that deals with questions of faith and belief, as well as delivering some intense and scary scenes.
10. The Visit (2015)
While the vast majority of directors making found footage horror movies were first-timers or cash-strapped indie filmmakers, there were a few higher-profile examples. Renny Harlin (The Long Kiss Goodnight) and Barry Levinson (Back to the Future) both gave it a go, but neither The Devil’s Pass and The Bay added much to the genre. The exception is M Night Shyamalan, whose 2015 film The Visit proved something of a comeback after his expensive sci-fi flop After Earth. The movie follows a pair of kids who decide to film their week visiting their grandparents on a remote farm for the first time–inevitably weird things start happening. Shyamalan says he struggled to find the right balance between scares and humor while editing the film, but the result is a well-judged horror movie, with enough humor to relieve the tension without ever undercutting it.
9. Cloverfield (2008)
Horror has always been a genre that allowed to producers to make serious money–it does not require big stars, huge sets, and lavish vfx. It just needs to be scary, and found footage was the perfect format to cut budgets even further. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some more expensive entries. War of the Planet of the Apes and upcoming The Batman director Matt Reeves made his directing debut with the JJ Abrams-produced Cloverfield, in which giant rampaging monsters lay waste to New York City. Cloverfield combines the best of both worlds–the bigger budget allows for some fantastic visual effects, but the found footage technique means that the movie was scary and immersive, as the heroes of the story attempt to escape the city.
8. Creep/Creep 2 (2014/2017)
Although found footage has encompassed many different type of horror movies, there aren’t many horror comedies, perhaps because the format creates an uncomfortable realism that lends itself much better to scary than it does funny. The great exceptions are Patrick Brice’s Creep movies. Make no mistake,these two films every bit as unnerving as any other on this list. But they are also damn funny. Mark Duplass, who also co-wrote and produced both, plays a strange man called Josef, who, in the first movie, places an ad to hire a videographer for the week. The bizarre, ghoulish events of Creep lead directly onto the even funnier and more unsettling Creep 2, which puts a fascinating spin on the first movie’s plot. Both films walk a fine line between uncomfortable humor and genuine scares, and are anchored by Duplass’s wonderfully weird performance. You’ll laugh, jump, and cringe–usually in the same scene.
7. Trollhunter (2010)
Like Cloverfield, this hugely entertaining Norweigan movies uses its found footage style to bring a level of gritty realism to an outlandish monster movie. In this one, a documentary crew are following the exploits of a man who claims to track giant trolls through the countryside. The movie combines thrills, humour and social commentary, and the filming technique ensures that the trolls are damn scary when we get close to them. The movie launched director André Øvredal’s Hollywood career–he followed it with the acclaimed indie chiller The Autopsy of Jane Doe and helms the upcoming Guillermo Del Toro-produced Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark.
6. Noroi: The Curse (2005)
The Japanese classic was unavailable in the West for many years, but can now be found on the streaming service Shudder. It’s a long and sprawling film that starts with the disappearance of a paranormal expert while he was making his latest documentary about a strange curse affecting seemingly unconnected people. The bulk of the movie is made up of the unfinished film; director Kōji Shiraishi does a brilliant job of weaving in this storyline with real-life archival footage, to create a movie that blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction. The movie’s two-hour length and complex story was criticized in Japan at the time, but it remains an ambitious, intricately plotted, and very scary movie that shows what can be done with the found footage format.
5. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Perhaps the earliest example of found footage, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust remained the genre’s defining work, until The Blair Witch Project was released nesrly 20 years later. It’s also unquestionably the “best” of the more disreputable Italian cannibal movies of the late-’70s/early-’80s. The first third of the movie is traditionally made, and sees an American anthropologist head into Amazon jungle to find out what happened to a team of documentary filmmakers who disappeared months earlier. He discovers that they were all killed out there, and the rest of the movie allows us to see the reels of film they shot, as they manipulate, provoke, and torture the natives in order to get some sensationalist footage. Cannibal Holocaust is, at times, a powerful, extremely well-made comment on the role of the documentarian and the influence of the “civilized” world upon more remote people. But it’s also a brutal, exploitative film in its own right–there’s the indefensible animal violence that was an unfortunate feature of Italian cannibal films, and there are some truly gruelling scenes as the filmmakers have the tables turned on them and become dinner for the cannibal tribes.
4. Lake Mungo (2008)
This Australian movie was not the film that director Joel Anderson originally wanted to make; when he couldn’t raise the funds for a more ambitious project he instead wrote a found footage horror movie that he knew he could make cheaply. Nevertheless, Lake Mungo is far from the quick, commercial movie we often associate with the subgenre. It’s a powerful exploration of grief, in which a family are coming to terms with the mysterious drowning of their daughter Alice. But as they deal with their loss, Alice begins to reappear in photos taken by her brother. Found footage movies are at their strongest when evoking a sense of realism that conventional movies cannot, and Lake Mungo is a fantastic example of this. The naturalistic performances and use of “mockumentary” style interviews help create a truly chilling, utterly convincing atmosphere which makes its various scares and twists even more effective.
3. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Like Blair Witch a decade earlier, Paranormal Activity showed what could be done with a tiny budget and a great idea. It cost only $15,000 to produce yet grossed $193 million worldwide, and spawned a hugely successful franchise. It had an incredibly simple set-up–a young couple set up cameras around their new house in order to record the supernatural evil that is tormenting them at night. Director Oren Peli generates incredible tension by making the audience wait for minutes on end, watching people sleep, for something to happen, before delivering some expertly crafted scares. Ironically, after the movie was bought by Paramount, the studio’s initial plan was for Peli to remake it with a higher budget. Peli agreed but with the stipulation that he was allowed a single test screening with his original version–the effect on the audience was so strong that remake plans were scrapped, and the rest is movie history.
2. REC/REC 2 (2007/2009)
This pair of Spanish zombie movies work as a hugely enjoyable pairing, with the second movie starting immediately after the end of the first. Both films take place in a zombie-infested tenement building–REC is seen through the camera of a reporter who is investigating strange goings-on in the block, while the second mostly focuses on a heavily armed special forces team who attempt to take back control. Both are intense, exciting, and unpredictable experiences–REC 2 in particular throws us straight into the mayhem as we experience it all the cameras worn by the soldiers. Two more sequels followed–one traditionally filmed, the other found footage again–but neither match the sheer verve and intensity of the first two.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Blair Witch Project might not have been the first found footage horror movie, but it is unquestionably the most influential. It still stands as one of the most profitable movies of all time, and absolutely terrified audiences when it hit theaters in the summer of 1999. The simplicity of its story was enhanced by a brilliantly creative viral marketing campaign designed to convince audiences the film was “real.” The raw visuals, naturalistic performances, and a refusal to follow traditional plot conventions resulted in a film that was copied for years to come–but rarely bettered.