Though a controversial sub genre, there are great found footage and faux doc films worth your time. Here’s part one of my list of personal favorites.
Oh, found footage. Hardcore horror fans certainly have mixed feelings about this sub genre. Whether you love it or hate it, or just think it’s been overdone, there’s no doubt that it’s made a huge impact on the horror industry, making it much easier and cheaper to produce convincing looking scares. Unfortunately, if done without a sense of how film should actually work, or without proper actors to deliver realistic performances, it can be just painful to sit through.
But if done correctly, it can be absolutely terrifying.
It’s understandably controversial; the shaky camera work and seemingly unscripted dialogue can get on a lot of viewers’ nerves. And since it is so cheap to produce, it easily finds its way into the hands of total amateurs, thrilled with the idea of being the next genius in horror. This results in more of the same, mundane and incoherent bullshit. But every once in a while, someone comes along and manages to execute a truly satisfying vision — with interesting characters, a developed story and, of course, great scares.
This five-part article will feature a mini review of four different films each week. They are not in any particular order, but are grouped to similar styles or subject matter. These are some of the best found footage and faux docs I have discovered out there.
First, let me just say, since there are so many of these films in this sub genre, I have chosen to exclude pioneers in found footage — including all of the Mondo films. I have also excluded obvious innovators, like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. These lists deal with lesser known works that I think are just a cut above the rest of the stuff out there.
Part One: SOME THINGS ARE BETTER LEFT ALONE
HEIDI (Written and Directed by Daniel Ray, 2016)
Move the hell over, Annabelle. Heidi is here to kick ass and take names. This film was disturbing on a number of levels. It’s gory, it’s creepy, and it doesn’t rely on jump scares for thrills, but rather a growing sense of paranoia and dread.
It tells the story of two high school friends who film pranks for their YouTube channel. When one of them takes a summer job watching an elderly woman’s bird and caring for her house while she is away, the friends go snooping in her attic. Finding a number of strange relics, including valuable comics books, they make the mistake of disturbing an intensely creepy looking black-eyed doll, wearing a necklace with the name Heidi on it. The madness begins almost immediately, as the friends and anyone else who come into contact with Heidi face her wrath.
Literally stalked by whatever demonic presence resides within the doll, the friends blame each other as pranksters at first, until people start dying in REALLY awful ways. And Heidi doesn’t discriminate nor does she hold back on her brutality. No one is safe: toddlers, little brothers, hamsters, birds, fish…etc. Everything and everyone that has an unfortunate account with Heidi is violently massacred.
The film features strong female characters, realistic dialogue, and delivers steady pacing. Just enough horror is revealed bit by bit until it culminates into literally some of the most twisted and frightening final frames I’ve seen in a found footage film. It utilizes new tech well, as far as cell phone cams, wearable cams, and features believable reasons for filming. All in all, Heidi is a huge winner, especially where demonic dolls are concerned.
HELL HOUSE LLC (Written and Directed by Stephen Cognetti, 2015)
I passed up this film a bunch of times, until one day while doing other research, I decided to check it out. I found myself pleasantly surprised. The film has an eerie and delivers the perfect blend of supernatural horror and suspense. It focuses on the events surrounding a fatal “malfunction” at a popular haunted attraction called “Hell House,” resulting in the deaths of 15 patrons and staff.
The footage documents the events leading up to the tragedy, which occurs on opening night in 2009, at the Abaddon Hotel. The hotel, now abandoned and run-down, boasts a sordid past, shrouded in local legend and rumor. So, of course, a group of entrepreneurs decide it would be the ideal place to open their latest haunted attraction.
The performances are solid, and the plot unfolds steadily, delivering little doses of terror here and there, building to the terrifying climax. It leaves enough for our imaginations to fill in the blanks, yet doesn’t skimp on the scares. The look of the hotel is dingy and creepy, and the presence of mannequins and haunted house props is utilized to perfection, blurring the line between what is staged and what is real. If you’re in the mood for a super creepy haunted house experience in the found footage genre, then HELL HOUSE LLC is definitely for you.
DEVIL’S PASS (Written by Vikram Weet, and Directed by Renny Harlin, 2013)
If you’re familiar with the strange and extremely creepy details of the Dyatlov’s Pass case, then you will probably enjoy Devil’s Pass.
It concerns a group of student filmmakers who are looking to retrace the steps of the ill-fated hikers who went missing in the Russian wilderness in 1959. The isolated, and maddening silence of the snow covered mountains is enough to conjure up the most intense kind of survival nightmares. But add some top secret Russian experiments gone wrong, mutants who seem to be able to teleport, hidden government bunkers, time travel and alternate dimensions, and you’ve got yourself a truly menacing horror story blended with sci-fi terror.
Needless to say, the students encounter a series of unexplained events, and their expedition into the frozen wilderness does not go as planned. The film features strong performances from the cast, including a great female lead.Steadily building a heightening sense of impending doom, the director uses the desolate location to create something truly weird and terrifying.
It also climaxes in a very interesting twist ending, which hints at horrors beyond the visuals of the film. Wilderness. Freezing temperatures. Total isolation. Teleporting mutants. That should be enough to creep anyone out.
BLAIR WITCH 2016 (Written by Simon Barrett, and Directed by Adam Wingard, 2016)
With the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, found footage changed forever, literally reinventing an all but lost sub genre with the use of clever marketing, and detailed, developed mythology. We all wanted more, and we had hoped we would get it with the “sequel,” The Book of Shadows, but unfortunately what we got instead was an incoherent plot line that had been changed and edited until it had nothing to do with the director’s original vision for the film.
Finally, filming under the guise of a production entitled, “The Woods,” the trailer for Blair Witch premiered at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con. Released as the official sequel to the 1999 original, it brought in Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard to write and direct. They stated that they were not going to reference or include any material that was not conceived of by the original filmmakers, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, and their original creative team.
The story concerns James, Heather’s younger brother, who was very young when she went missing. Now an adult, he decides to take a film crew into the woods to try and discover more about his missing sister’s case. This was the sequel we all wanted to see, and I dare say there are elements of the story that point to a much deeper and more sinister type of evil than we originally thought.
The cast delivers believable performances, and the pacing of the film is steady, delivering a variety of creepy sequences and intense scares. It also expands the lore, and we get a lot more on screen information about Ellie Kedward, Rustin Parr, and local legends concerning the myth. The impressively frightening climax hints at a number of disturbing theories on the “witch” and her abilities, including time warps and alternate dimensions. It also features glimpses of a terrifying long-limbed creature, which has become the subject of much debate on the internet.
My only reservation with the film is that, unlike the original, it relies a bit too much on fake-out jump scares when it doesn’t even need to, as the rest of the film is so deliciously spooky. Other than that, Blair Witch is a faithful addition to the series, and it’s sufficiently frightening. THIS is the sequel that we were waiting for, and there are indeed rumors of more installments to come.
Well, my friends, that concludes Part 1. Check back next week for Part 2, “Strange People, Unexplained Events,” where I’ll review four more fantastically frightening found footage phenomenas.
Until then, stay scary!