Found footage horror films aren’t for everyone. Its typical low budget and shaky camera angles can be a turnoff to some genre fans, but it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. Just consider the success of Host, a film shot entirely on Zoom during COVID. It earned so much hype that even The Atlantic took notice. As Host proved, found footage constantly reinvents itself and evolves with technology. More than 20 years after The Blair Witch Project terrified audiences, Host tapped into the zeitgeist and showed how found footage continues to remain relevant and reflect collective anxieties. Below is a list of 10 must-see found footage horror films.
Directed by Paco Plaza and Juame Balagueró, REC is a Spanish zombie film that’s unflinching and brutal. Manuela Velasco plays Angela, a young reporter embedded with a team of firefighters. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, everything goes wrong. The firefighters respond to an emergency at an apartment complex. Angela and the men wind up sealed off from the rest of the world as the infection spreads. The film resonates so well because of COVID and how recently we witnessed a pandemic spread rapidly, fundamentally altering the world. Further, the gory practical effects look incredibly realistic, especially when coupled with the tight shots and close-ups within the claustrophobic apartment complex. REC spawned three sequels but stick with the original.
REC is currently streaming on Crackle for free.
Unlike REC, Creep isn’t a bloody film. Instead, it focuses on the psychological and follows struggling videographer Aaron (Patrick Brice). He accepts an assignment to travel to a remote cabin. There, he meets Josef (Mark Duplasss), who claims he has a brain tumor and will die before his pregnant wife gives birth. Therefore, he wants Aaron to record a video diary for his unborn child. Josef’s behavior grows more and more eccentric and unnerving, resulting in a jaw-dropping conclusion that makes Creep a must-watch. Brice’s directorial debut is not only one of the best contemporary found footage films, it’s one of the best horror films of the last decade.
Creep is currently streaming on Netflix.
The Atlantic dubbed Host the “first great quarantine horror movie” last year. At a lean 56 minutes, director Rob Savage’s film is a major success story from the pandemic. The narrative about a seance gone terribly wrong unfolds completely through Zoom during the height of lockdowns. Like The Blair Witch Project, the cast features unknowns who look and act believable. While some of the scares nod to other found footage films, like Paranormal Activity, Host serves as a document of life during quarantine. There are face masks, an elbow bump, and plenty of scares. Savage signed a three-picture deal with Blumhouse, so we’ll hear from him again soon.
Host is available to stream exclusively on Shudder.
Lake Mungo (2008)
Few films have as many red herrings and fakes as Lake Mungo, an Australian ghost story about Alice (Talia Zucker), a teenager who drowned. There are slight supernatural elements within the story, but ultimately, the narrative centers on a family’s heartache. Director Joel Anderson’s use of docufiction serves the story well and compounds the portrayal of grief. The film’s final shot is a last reminder just how powerful and haunting this one is. Second Sight Films will release a limited-edition Blu-ray in May with tons of cool features.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without the first entry in the Paranormal Activity franchise. Shot on a shoestring budget, the film earned big bucks at the box office and spawned countless sequels. But it’s the first film that has the most re-watch value because the story remained simple and familiar. A couple, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat), move into a house and start to hear strange noises. We’ve seen this before, but the found footage technique retells what’s essentially a haunted house/demonic possession story in creative fashion. Each night, the sinister activity worsens, and Micah keeps the camera rolling so we witness it all. While some of the scares haven’t aged too well, the closing minutes leading to Katie’s doomed fate remain chilling. Love it or hate it, Paranormal Activity had a major impact on the horror genre.
Paranormal Activity is available to rent on Amazon Prime.
The Devil’s Doorway (2018)
This Irish found footage film, directed by Aislinn Clarke, tells the important story of the Magdalene laundries. For more than two centuries, women were put away and punished if they had children out of wedlock or were dubbed mentally unstable. Clarke’s film takes place in 1960 and follows two Irish Roman Catholic priests, Father Thomas Riley (Lalor Roddy) and Father John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn), sent to investigate a “reported miracle” at a remote Magdalene laundry. They discover something far more sinister. Clarke’s film is a must-watch for the history it addresses, and she herself made history, becoming the first Irish woman to write and direct a feature-length horror film.
The Devil’s Doorway is available on Hulu.
Unfriended makes the cut simply because it’s presented as a computer screen film, told almost entirely through a screencast of a MacBook. It re-invented the found footage subgenre and pushed the limits of storytelling to reflect the digital age. Directed by Levan Gabriadze, Unfriended follows a group of friends terrorized online by an unknown user after a high school student commits suicide after someone uploads a video of her passing out and defecating at a party.
Unfriended is available on Netflix.
Director Antoine Le’s film deserved a bigger audience when it released last year during the pandemic. It’s a clever commentary on social media influencers with a bit of humor, too. Mike, aka DroptheMike (Matthew Solomon), will do anything to increase his followers, including staying at a haunted hotel. Like Unfriended, Followed uses social media to tell the story, but there’s a stark difference between the Mike that exists on screen and the Mike that exists off screen. On screen, he must always perform, desperate for likes. Followed has much to say about social media influencers without ever feeling preachy, and it packs some decent scares, too. Fortunately, the film is now streaming on Amazon Prime, so catch it if you haven’t yet.
The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)
Adam Robitel’s directorial debut remains creepy and unnerving. It’s so effective because what’s scarier than the aging process? Deborah (Jill Larson) suffers from Alzheimer’s but agrees to let a film crew document her condition. The movie begins like a medical documentary but then transforms into an unnerving portrayal of dementia. There may be something supernatural at work, and the ending leans into that, but The Taking of Deborah Logan contains plenty of pathos. Strip away the hair-raising moments, and it’s ultimately a film about aging and death.
The Taking of Deborah Logan is available on Shudder.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
What can be said about this film that hasn’t been said already? Due to the film’s clever marketing campaign, especially the website containing missing persons photos, I couldn’t sleep for days after I saw this in the theater. I thought that what happened to Mike (Mike Williams), Heather (Heather Donahue), and Josh (Josh Leonard) on screen actually happened! The Blair Witch Project has been imitated and spoofed countless times, but the cultural impact of this film can’t be understated. Three film students, who are at times likeable and at times incredibly annoying on screen, head into the gloomy Black Hills Forrest to search for the fabled Blair Witch. From there, well, I’m sure you know the rest…
The Blair Witch Project is available on Netflix.
There are a number of found footage horror films that deserve an honorable mention. An honorable mention must be given to Cannibal Holocaust, director Ruggero Deodato’s Italian cannibal video nasty that started the subgenre. Due to gruesome kill scenes and animal slayings, Italy, Australia, the U.K. and other countries banned it. Deodato and the actors even had to appear in court to prove the film was fiction. It remains an important part of horror history.
Other honorable mentions include V/H/S (2012) and Cloverfield (2008).
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.