Over the past couple of decades, the “found document” film has found its footing in mainstream cinema culture and managed to carve out a nice little niche for itself, complete with a devout fanbase. I am one such fan. I love “found document” movies – movies that claim to be real found footage of some strange, often paranormal or supernatural event. The handheld, almost documentary style that is applied to films of this kind (I hesitate to call it a genre; it’s more like a style or a gimmick) lend an air of realism to the proceedings, even when there’s an enormous, Godzilla-like monster on screen. It’s a tough feat to invoke a feeling of realism in the face of ridiculous, over-the-top subject matter, but somehow, filmmakers have managed to do it, and do it well. What follows is a list of my top 5 “found document” movies. Brace for shakey camerawork!
5. The Blair Witch Project
Even though it wasn’t the first movie to employ the “found document” gimmick, The Blair Witch Project launched the revival of the “found document” style when it was released in 1999. After over a decade without a movie that purported to be real footage of a terrifying event, The Blair Witch Project became synonymous with the “found footage” style and was so successful that it quickly became one of the most profitable films of all time. The movie itself is pretty minimalist, with most of the scares appearing in the film’s final minutes, but it was still scary enough to work its way into popular culture and frighten the crap out of me when I stayed the night at my cottage following a screening. It’s not the best “found document” movie, but it made such an impression that I have to include it on this list. Were it not for The Blair Witch Project, most of the other films listed here probably wouldn’t have been made.
4. Cannibal Holocaust
Cannibal Holocaust is the grand-pappy of the “found document” film style. About a group of anthropologists who set out into the South American jungle hoping to rescue a team of documentarians attempting to make a documentary about cannibal tribes, they soon discover the gruesome fates of the people they’re trying to save…in the form of their documentary footage. Director Ruggero Deodato was way ahead of his time when he made this film, and people were so shocked by it that he was even taken to court because the public was certain he had killed his actors. He didn’t, but he did kill several animals on camera, which makes Cannibal Holocaust a tough watch. It’s a grim, disturbing movie, and it set the bar for all “found document” films to follow. For a more in-depth analysis of Cannibal Holocaust, be sure to check out Robin’s Underrated Gems column on the infamous film!
3. Paranormal Activity 2
The first Paranormal Activity proved that using the right balance of tension can make people jump at the tiniest thing, such as a door moving a few inches or a light turning on. The second Paranormal Activity took the tools from its predecessor (in fact its sequel – figure that one out) and turned everything up to “maximum”. The scares are frequent and truly frightening, and you can cut the tension with a knife. The “found footage” angle works wonders here, as Youtube videos of “real” ghosts are a dime a dozen, and the film ends in a way that both connects to the first Paranormal Activity and allows Paranormal Activity 2 to stand on its own. This is by far one of the scariest ghost movies I’ve ever seen.
2. The Troll Hunter
The #1 entry on this list set the standard for the “found document” monster movie, and while The Troll Hunter borrows liberally from J.J. Abrams’ film, it is so full of enthusiasm and awesome action sequences that it never feels derivitive. The Troll Hunter is a “documentary” about Norway’s last professional, government-employed troll hunter, and we follow him as he quells an outbreak of rabies among the many different species of troll. The pseudo-scientific explanation of troll biology are actually believable, and the movie is both tongue-in-cheek and totally serious at the same time. And hey, the trolls are just freaking awesome. Be warned: after watching The Troll Hunter, you’ll want to move to Norway and hunt trolls forever.
The biggest budget, most mainstream “found document” film is also my favourite. J.J. Abrams and director Drew Goddard got everything right with Cloverfield. The characters are likeable, the action is thrilling, the scares are really frightening, and the intercutting between the events of the night during which the giant monster attacks New York and the footage that was on the tape being recorded over allows for some brilliant storytelling. The shakey camerawork isn’t even particularly nauseating (not that shakey camerawork bothers me normally). There is so much to like about Cloverfield that I can’t do it justice in a single paragraph. It will be a true feat if any other “found document” film manages to match Cloverfield.
The Last Exorcism