After we published our first list of lesser-known horror features from the “found footage” or “mockumentary” horror subgenre, we received an avalanche of feedback from fans and detractors alike. But regardless of which side you choose in this debate, you’ve got to admit folks are passionate about their preferences. I suspect both camps will find their views put to the test with the release of BLAIR WITCH, which combines the talents of director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett for a surprise sequel to the world’s first found-footage blockbuster: 1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.
As with our previous list, I’m steering clear of major studio-backed productions in favor of indie filmmakers who exploit the found-footage or mockumentary aesthetic in unique and terrifying ways. This time I’m also focusing on films released in the past five years (not for any particular reason; just to narrow the field down), but rest assured, I’ll be digging deeper into the vaults for the next batch…
ALIEN ABDUCTION (2013)
This entry employs a narrative device that solves one of the main points of contention among found-footage viewers: why does the camera operator insist on filming when his life is clearly in jeopardy? In this case, the POV is that of an autistic boy, for whom the camera is his chosen device for interacting with his surroundings, forging an unbreakable link between the camera and its user.
Still, you may have to suspend your disbelief quite a bit during the film’s second half; I can’t imagine anyone keeping that camera running by this point. Nevertheless, there are plenty of intense shocks and deep-down creeps to be found along the way, making this one of the scariest pseudo-reality UFO movies since the groundbreaking 1989 project THE MCPHERSON TAPE (more on that alien oddity in a future article).
I was pleasantly surprised by this entry from prolific genre director Kôji Shiraishi, who has helmed everything from the graphic torture-fest GROTESQUE to this year’s high-concept monster match-up SADAKO VS KAYAKO. One of the director’s many horror mockumentaries (which include the amazing NOROI: THE CURSE — another one I’ll cover in a future article), this lesser-known release involves a loose reality TV show (it’s never actually named) in which three young actresses attend the exorcism of a possessed teenager… or so we’re led to believe.
Things quickly spiral into complete insanity as the premise evolves from a routine haunted-house tale to a Lovecraftian nightmare filled with wormy, black demon-things. The final scene is a bit of a cop-out (setting up a sequel that never came), but it’s well worth the ride for the horrific atmosphere alone.
DIGGING UP THE MARROW (2014)
An offbeat venture into mockumentary mode from Adam Green (HATCHET, HOLLISTON), this semi-comic project is elevated by two elements: first, a compelling performance from Ray Wise (TWIN PEAKS) as a man obsessed with a hidden world of hideous mutants living below the Earth’s surface (not unlike Midian in Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED); and second, the nightmarish monster designs of artist Alex Pardee, which inspired Green to base a film around these twisted creations and the backstory the artist wrote for them.
Hampered a bit by Green’s smirking, dude-bro performance, which tends to distract from Wise’s increasingly frantic obsession, MARROW is still a fast and fun ride, with some jump-inducing frights springing from the shadows, and wisely stops short of explaining all the events we see transpiring before Green’s cameras.
I’m not just including this as a tip of the hat to director Eduardo Sánchez, who co-created THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT with Daniel Myrick, but because I’m ranking it with THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK as one of the scariest Bigfoot movies ever made.
The story is nothing new — a quartet of friends find themselves under siege by a vengeful Sasquatch after accidentally killing its offspring — but Sánchez injects this scenario with steroids, expanding his use of the GoPro camera that made “A Ride in the Park” one of the most fun chapters of found-footage anthology V/H/S/2 (and foreshadowing Wingard’s multi-camera approach in BLAIR WITCH). The creature itself is one of the scariest man-in-suit monsters ever depicted on screen — even up close, in broad daylight. Worth watching for the bike chase alone (you’ll know when you see it).
INNER DEMONS (2014)
I’ve seen this scenario played out before — using demonic possession as a metaphor for addiction — but while films like AVA’S POSSESSIONS play the concept for dark comedy, this film serves up its reality-TV horrors straight. The story centers on teenage good-girl-turned-addict Carson (Lara Vosburgh), whose family convinces her to appear on what she thinks is an educational series about teen addiction… but is secretly a televised intervention. The insensitive production team (with the exception of a camera operator who has a crush on Carson) is so busy exploiting the drama for all it’s worth that they fail to realize Carson’s heroin use is a desperate attempt to sedate the evil presence inside her.
This was an impulse watch for me, which turned out to be a thoroughly creepy experience, culminating in a shockingly violent twist; director Seth Grossman gets a point or two knocked off for depicting nearly all of the characters as unsympathetic assholes, but when it comes to serving up scares, INNER DEMONS is hellishly effective.
THE MIDNIGHT SWIM (2014)
This quirky, lyrical and totally unique creation from director Sarah Edina Smith (who directed the “Mother’s Day” segment of horror anthology HOLIDAYS) is without a doubt the most beautifully crafted and elegant found-footage film ever made. Critics have tried to put distance between this project and a horror subgenre which often gets accused of being cheap and artless; I am not one of those people. Yeah, I said it: found footage can be art… and in making that case, I present THE MIDNIGHT SWIM as exhibit A.
The story is set entirely at the home of a marine biologist who vanished while swimming in her beloved lake, presumed to have drowned in its unmeasured depths. Her three daughters meet to honor her memory and discuss the family’s future, while the most emotionally unstable of the trio (Lindsay Burge) records every moment for an intimate documentary. Smith’s story constantly teeters on the brink of the supernatural, teasing us with a local legend associated with the lake, but SWIM is more about the sisters’ inner journey… no matter what dark paths it may lead them.
Full disclosure: this is a Blumhouse release, but I’m not playing favorites by calling it a diabolically clever spin on the genre. The setup takes the form of a demented prank, perpetrated on three separate targets: a college student living alone; a couple and their two children; and a socially-inept man living with his alcoholic mother. Each party is gifted with a video camera and told to keep recording in order to win an undisclosed prize… but the “contest” is soon revealed to be something else entirely, as the players begin to realize that failure to follow instructions may have fatal consequences.
THE STRANGERS director Brian Bertino knows how to craft suspense out of thin air, and here he also weaves a thread of dark humor into the proceedings — cutting between the humiliating tasks carried out by the clueless mama’s boy (who is ordered to dress as a clown) and the building paranoia of the other victims. Viewers expecting a definitive solution to the puzzle might take issue with the final shot, but it’s still undeniably creepy.
This is a surprisingly effective micro-budget entry, relying more on a creeping sense of dread than goosing the audience with the same old jump scares. The result is a more naturalistic variation on PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, with the same sense of unease generated by the superb Australian mockumentary LAKE MUNGO (I’ll get into that one on my next list, because it’s a masterpiece). The story simple: a pair of amateur paranormal investigators — both of whom bring a healthy amount of skepticism to their work — camp out in the suburban home of a single mom (Jamy Gillespie) and her young daughter, who may be the focal point for some increasingly disturbing and unexplained phenomena.
[NOTE: The video above contains the entire feature film, which is being made available free online for a limited time.]
As I mentioned, if you’re looking for heavy-handed spookhouse thrills, RORSCHACH will likely be a letdown; but as a moody, character-driven piece, it’s remarkably effective, capturing the feel of a non-exploitive documentary, with an undercurrent of sadness that magnifies the slowly-building sense of doom. Plus, there’s that doll… that damn doll. The first feature from writer-director C.A. Smith, who makes the most of limited resources.
[A special shout-out to Michael Steinberg, Boss Butcher and the staff of Found Footage Critic, a comprehensive database of found-footage films, where I discovered several of the titles listed below.]