This story is part of a series done in partnership between Blumhouse.com and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION.
If you’re a fan of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY phenomenon, then you’ve experienced the worldwide demand for the so-called “Found Footage” style of cinema that followed its success. Although the original ACTIVITY did not invent the technique (that distinction arguably can be attributed to the 1980 Italian shocker CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST), there’s no question that the film gave Found Footage an incredible jolt of popularity that spawned literally hundreds of similar films — from other major-studio outings to micro-budgeted indies shot with smartphone cameras — enough to consider Found Footage a genre unto itself.
Since dedicated PARANORMAL ACTIVITY followers have been starving for the next (and possibly final) installment in the franchise, THE GHOST DIMENSION, they’ve probably been sustaining that hunger with one of the many horror films to follow in PA’s demonic footsteps. But even if you consider yourself a connoisseur of the genre, there are many obscure titles you might have missed… and some of them are not only well-made, but truly terrifying and disturbing in their realism.
Unfortunately, lack of promotional/advertising funds often makes it damn near impossible for a talented filmmaker’s project to rise above the murky ocean of lesser entries; you may recall that even PARANORMAL ACTIVITY itself, despite being popular at film festivals, had a difficult time securing a distributor… that is, until none other than Steven Spielberg was famously terrified by it. Even then, a fair share of studio-backed projects end up being released straight to digital video with little or no marketing fanfare. But for hardcore fans, digging through rubbish to find one of these rare treasures is an obsession that can often boost an unknown title to cult status.
To that end, today I’m digging deeper to find some forsaken or forgotten obscurities that may not have the slick promotional campaigns of their wide-release brethren, but are every bit as creepy… maybe even more so. Thankfully, most of these are available in some format or another, so you can seek them out yourself, and I’ve included clips/trailers for each to give you a little taste. If you like where I’m going with this list, there are plenty more where these came from…
One of several recent found footage entries revolving around the practices of unusual cults (including Ti West’s SACRAMENT and the excellent CHILDREN OF SORROW), this Australian entry may be the most uncomfortably realistic. It’s shot by a documentary team investigating the highly secretive practices of a fanatical doomsday cult seemingly comprised entirely of women – apart from their Manson-like leader. Like SACRAMENT, it draws heavily from the events in Jonestown, but achieves a far more claustrophobic tone.
DELIVERY: THE BEAST WITHIN (2013)
Much like the wide-release found footage feature DEVIL’S DUE, this film involves allegedly paranormal phenomena centered on an unborn child, but I found DELIVERY much more intense and disturbing. Initially set within the framework of a typical family-oriented reality TV show, things quickly and literally go straight to hell. The format then switches from a slick, broadcast-ready look to a roughly-edited sequence of raw footage, which helps to bolster a feeling of dread through the insane final act.
EXHIBIT A (2007)
This incredibly grim British entry begins as a home movie recorded by a teenage girl, depicting the steady disintegration of her family. As the title suggests, this footage will end up as horrific police evidence after paranoia, panic and madness cause the father’s thin veneer of sanity to crack – revealing an all-too-human monster. While the amateur nature of the footage can be a bit grating, it lends a practical realism to the footage that mostly solves the “Why are they still filming?” conundrum that plagues most films in this subgenre.
THE FINAL PRAYER (2013)
Originally titled THE BORDERLANDS, this extremely creepy British entry follows a Vatican investigator and his assistant as they seek to debunk the unsettling myths and local legends surrounding a remote church. Obviously, they find much more than they bargained for, and while I won’t spoil the twist, I will say this film has common ground with dark fantasy classic THE WICKER MAN (and if you didn’t dig the final twist of THE LAST EXORCISM, you may not like how this one ends either). It does benefit from a certain Hammer Films atmosphere, and first time writer-director Eliot Goldner definitely did his occult homework.
This TV special has become legendary due to the mass panic it caused when it first aired on BBC1 for Halloween. Presenting itself as an actual documentary, featuring familiar news hosts and other celebrities, the special was based around “live” coverage (actually pre-recorded and cleverly edited) shot at an allegedly haunted London house – the site of many reports of poltergeist activity. Despite onscreen disclaimers revealing the show to be fiction, it nevertheless terrified enough viewers to overwhelm the network with more than 30,000 concerned calls. After rumors that one disturbed viewer committed suicide following the broadcast, the BBC never aired the show again.
HEAD CASE (2007)
This grisly, hard-to-watch entry is reportedly so realistically disturbing that several film festivals and distributors feared the footage was real, despite actors in the film (including scream queen Brinke Stevens) attending screenings. The horror of the proceedings comes mainly from the complete lack of empathy displayed by a psychotic, serial-killing married couple (based on real-life killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka) as they discuss their gruesome hobby on camera in the same casual way your grandma might share her recipe for lemon bars. While the torture/murder scenes are indeed horrific, it’s the couple’s gleeful attitude toward their sadistic actions that will chill you to the bone.
HOME MOVIE (2008)
This intense, doom-filled indie packs a horrific punch thanks to excellent and utterly convincing performances by the two young stars as sociopathic brother and sister Jack & Emily Poe, whose skills as amateur documentarians are surpassed by their sadistically mischevous tendencies – which begin with breaking dishes, then torturing and killing small animals, and inevitably escalate to even more horrific acts. Despite casting well-known actor Adrian Pasdar (NEAR DARK) as the kids’ religious father, there’s a gritty realism that pervades every pixel of this outing, and while it cheats more than once with the POV conceit, it’s still worth a watch for fans of psycho-kid flicks in the (evil) spirit of THE BAD SEED.
IN MEMORIUM (2005)
There are plenty of chills to be found in this character-driven production, in which a terminally-ill man decides to document his every waking moment so that future filmmakers can edit the footage into a posthumous documentary. (This premise is partially adopted by the more recent CREEP, albeit with a unique twist of its own.) To that end, he installs cameras throughout the new house he rents with his girlfriend. They don’t yet realize that the residence is already occupied by an unseen party who doesn’t want them to leave – and the man’s sudden, rapid decline in health gives way to something worse than death.
LONG PIGS (2007)
Since CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST pioneered the genre in 1980, dabblers in the medium have not explored cannibalism as much as you might imagine… but this grotesque, darkly humorous entry manages to make up for lost time with its candid, morbidly humorous depiction of a hulking, brutal killer who takes great pride in his work – from the acquisition and dispatching of victims to the butchery and preparation of human meat. Much of the macabre humor stems from the casual manner in which the killer shares his secrets with the filmmakers… but you’ll be in a constant state of unrest wondering if and when they’ll suddenly find themselves on his menu.
MANSON FAMILY MOVIES (1984)
Urban legends have long held that the murderous followers of notorious cult leader Charles Manson frequently filmed their grisly crimes – including their infamous murder sprees in the late summer of 1969 – and the creators of MANSON FAMILY MOVIES attempted to simulate what those films might have looked like had they been suddenly unearthed. While it’s essentially a plotless assembly of silent Super-8 footage with no connective material to guide the viewer through it, the whole thing is so relentlessly grim and grimy that it somehow becomes mesmerizing. The 2005 DVD release includes a running commentary by filmmaker John Aes-Nihil, which helps immensely in putting the confusing footage in perspective.
NIGHTMARE CODE (2014)
A wild tangent from the computer-screen perspective of films like THE DEN and UNFRIENDED, this unique premise suggests that the computer itself could be the villain. An emotionally disturbed programmer steps in to complete a security A.I. application designed to learn and predict human behavior patterns, but before long both the code and its writer begin to merge identities until we’re no longer sure who’s running the show. The concept of an entire film playing out via security cameras, desktop cams and the like – often simultaneously in split-screen – might seem distracting at first, but the filmmakers tie the content together into a fairly seamless and surprisingly brisk-paced existential thriller.
This haunting entry follows former reality TV star Meridith Phillips (as herself), having moved on to legitimate news reporting, and a film crew attempting to merge a documentary on her life and career with an investigative piece about the bizarre murder of young twin girls, allegedly by their religious-fanatic father. Like EXHIBIT A, this project handles the usual keep-the-cameras-rolling issue with enough finesse to keep things quite realistic for most of the runtime (despite the rather leisurely pacing), and there’s a fairly unique twist in the tale.
What starts as a documentary on underground pseudo-snuff horror filmmakers (including Fred Vogel of the notoriously graphic AUGUST UNDERGROUND found footage trilogy) slowly turns even more twisted when director J.T. Petty’s lens turns toward aspiring auteur Eric Rost as he promotes his multi-volume “S&MAN” DVD series (pronounced “Sandman”), which he claims to be ultra-realistic staged death porn. As the director delves deeper into Rost’s life, philosophy and gonzo filming techniques – which include “recruiting” his actresses by stalking various young women – you begin to wonder if we’re actually peering into the psyche of a real serial killer. While there’s more buildup than payoff, S&MAN is still a clever, grisly and highly convincing piece of meta-fiction… so realistic, in fact, that some viewers are reportedly still suspicious of the film’s authenticity.