HORROR TEN SPOT: Best Found-Footage/Shockumentary Horror Films

Though taking a critical drubbing, William Brent Bell's found-footage exorcism film THE DEVIL INSIDE culled an astounding $34.5 million in its first week domestic take. Craziness. What this proves, at least in part, is that the shaky-cam, "found-footage" technical subgenre has yet to tire in the eyes of the masses. Or at least, when it comes to horror films, demonic/religious ones at that, the format is harder to kill than Tim f*ckin' Tebow in the 4th quarter. Considering this, we thought, why not embrace and celebrate the best and boldest reality/shockumentary horror offshoots to come about over the years. Either through "found-footage" or other narrative framing devices, this week's Horror Ten Spot is by and large dedicated to the most convincing horror films with outright pretenses of being "real." Take a look, you may be surprised by how far the form dates back!

#1. CACHE (2005)

The curveball of the coop goes to Michael Haneke's 2005 brain-buster CACHE, which, while not claiming to be a real-life or found-footage flick, still uses surveillance video to great disturbance. If you love enigmatic, thought-provoking conclusions, chances are you'll be interested in unraveling the mystery CACHE presents. The film focuses on a bourgeoisie couple who become increasingly tormented by a skein of videotapes left on their front stoop. They watch the tapes, only to see themselves onscreen, furtively recorded by an unknown entity from the street outside their house. As the videos reveal more and more personal info, the terror escalates, as it's implied someone close to the family is doing the filming. Is it the couple's son? A jaded acquaintance with vengeful motives? Is it someone else entirely? With solid performances, a sly dose of political commentary, and an unsettling finale, CACHE's spin on the "found footage" meme is both challenging and refreshing.

#2. [REC]/QUARANTINE (2007/2008)

As far as the unbridled brio of the format goes, here's your undisputed winner. The kinetic, first-person shooter quality of Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero's hyper-energetic [REC] is utterly unmatched by its contemporaries, as there is an immersive facet to the film that really makes the viewer feel involved in the action. We're essentially dropped in the middle of a zombie-siege, left to identify with the lone camera that serves as our POV. It's a brilliant framing device. So brilliant in fact it was employed identically in the US remake, as you know titled QUARANTINE. As far as remakes are concerned, I think QUARANTINE is damn solid, largely because The Dowdle brothers understood what worked so well in the original and not only kept it, but augmented a large part of it. I actually saw QUARANTINE in the theater, before seeing [REC], and think that both films measure equally for the effect it desired to achieve.


As proven on this here compilation, though THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT wasn't the first of its kind technically, economically the film pretty much reshaped the independent film business model. Here's one of the first true indies to gross over $100 million, but since it cost only $22,000 or so to shoot, it became far more profitable than most. So profitable in fact it set a Guinness World Record for "Top-Budget: Box Office Ratio." After culling over $240 million worldwide, the film netted a ratio of $1 dollar spent: $10, 931 made. Mucho f*cking dinero! I'd be interested to see how those numbers stand up to those of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, an obvious yet inferior successor. The shaky-cam advent was taken to extremes in this one, so much so that it induced vomitus among certain audiences. The method has since been used more tactfully, less self-consciously...which I think we can all agree to appreciate. I do wonder if that sequel will ever happen though!


Let me start off by noting, as revolting as the activity depicted in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is (should really be called ANIMAL HOLOCAUST), it features my all time favorite movie score...the magisterially soul-puncturing theme by Riz Ortolani. Like I said, I can't really apologize for many of the images shown in the actual film, but remember, so authentic-seeming was the final product (a documentary "found-footage" type), director Ruggero Deodato was arrested for obscenity and ultimately murder...he was given a life sentence. He immediately ordered a producer to find the three actors the police believed to be dead after seeing the film. When authorities realized the actors were still alive, the murder charges were dropped, although the film remain banned in its native Italy for another three years or so. Animal cruelty aside, the final scene of the film, mixed with the score and sound edit, is about as disconcerting as one can endure.

#5. THE LAST EXORCISM - (2010)

I won't even categorize the quality of THE LAST EXORCISM with the proviso of, "well, I had such low expectations that..." No, fuck that, this is a very well made movie. Straight up. It's clever premise of having an atheistic huckster film a "true" exorcism, one that starts off rigged yet gradually grows more authentic, is nothing short of ingenious. We the audience become vicarious conduits of Reverend Cotton Marcus and his two-man film crew...as they begin to witness and believe in the escalating horror, so do we. The shaky-cam format lends a jarring immediacy and a level of suspense that feels real, ameliorated by the highly believable performances by all involved. I know many have qualms about the ending of the film, but I don't. I actually like the direction it went, and the implications it splays regarding the father character. Props to Daniel Stamm for creating an engrossing, efficient PG-13 horror shockumentary.

#6. CLOVERFIELD (2008)

Much like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT did a decade prior, Matt Reeves' hand-held monster-movie CLOVERFIELD more or less brought the home-video-within-a-movie motif back into the consciousness of pop culture. Here's a mega-blockbuster employing the technique, and in the wake of its success, inspired countless imitations (even by producer JJ Abrams himself with his SUPER 8). Now, I'm not the world's biggest CLOVERFIELD fan, but I recognize the appeal and importance the movie has for the reasons mentioned above. I like the movie and all, don't get me wrong, but I always have a hard time believing that in the midst of all this apocalyptic chaos, homey would continue to keep the lens aimed and the recorder on. The same complaint applies, though far less so, in [REC], as the single location makes it far more feasible than the sprawling urban settings of CLOVERFIELD. Still, Matt Reeves is a talented guy, and for the most part, worked the vérité angle to good use here.

#7. MY LITTLE EYE (2002)

Battling for our most unheralded list title is MY LITTLE EYE, Marc Evans' 2002 techno-thriller that essentially takes the voyeuristic "Big Brother" paradigm and flips it on its ugly little head. We saw a spate of these types of flicks yielded at the turn of the century, in the wake of the internet boom, but few remain as effective. A young and yet to be discovered Bradley Cooper stars in the film, taking part in a small cast that really helps the claustrophobic nature of the story work. He and four others agree to stay in an isolated farm house for six months, while every waking and sleeping moment is filmed by copious cameras dispersed throughout. All kinds of odd and eerie shit ensues, but the catch is, if any one of the five occupants leaves, they all lose out on a chance to cash in on a $1 million prize. It's a clever set-up, augmented by the nightmarish paranoia bubbling under the surface. If you haven't seen it, I urge you to do so and try to pull away from the gaze of MY LITTLE EYE.


Lending more of a humorous bent than its contemporaries, BEHIND THE MAS: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON gives us a pretty fresh take on the not just the horror "schockumentary," but at the slasher genre as a whole. Why? Partly because of the willingness of the subject, in the case an aspiring psychopathic murderer, to be filmed and exposed to the world. Leslie Vernon wants to be discovered, his personality as ridiculous as his intent. This shite is the SPINAL TAP of horror, where the joke is lost on the subjects, and they become amusing without even really knowing it. No sense of self-irony, which is ironic in itself, as the multitude of horror references call attention to themselves as much as they do in something like SCREAM. And of course, by the third reel we're into full self-reflexive mode, where, reminiscent of something like ADAPTATION, the topics explored in the first two thirds of the film become the actual reality.

#9. MONDO CANE (1962)

The breadth of my research shows that, if MONDO CANE isn't the O.G. horror "shockumentary," it's certainly the forerunner when it comes to real life cannibalism exposés. Good grief! Made in Italy in 1962, MONDO CANE plays like a compilation reel of FACES OF DEATH style horror...anthropological rituals, maddening human perversion, sick animal torture and other odd indigenous rites of passage. And the thing is, it all appears very real...as if it were something you'd watch in history class. And it appears that way because real archival footage was pulled apart and stitched together to create a somewhat cogent narrative. Most of this shite really happened! Props must be cast once more to the great Riz Ortolani, whose antithetical score drives an emotional wedge in the viewer. We're repelled by such imagery, yet elated by the gorgeous sounds seeping from the screen...and the result, much like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, leaves your senses assaulted.


Nine months before THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT subsumed the masses, another chilling "shockumentary" horror joint ruled the day. At least, in some esoteric horror circles it did! The flick I refer to is the miniscule-budgeted THE LAST BROADCAST, which was apparently shot for a mere $900. The premise is a simple one: a trio of young men get hold of some video equipment and head to the woods to find answers regarding the Jersey Devil. Is it a myth? A hoax? Something truly sinister? Well, when only one of the three return home and becomes accused of malfeasance, the video footage is called upon to expose the truth. Dubbed as the first "desktop movie," not a single reel of film was used during production. The flick was shot, edited, and screened digitally...the first of its kind to do so. And while the ending of the film has been known to draw the ire of many viewers, you can't deny the film as an early and effective example of found-footage horror.
Tags: Hollywood

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