It may have been a while since feature-length horror films shot in the so-called found footage or mockumentary approach brought home major box-office receipts, especially after the conclusion of the lucrative PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise, not to mention lackluster reaction to last year’s BLAIR WITCH reboot and last month’s Ridley Scott-produced PHOENIX FORGOTTEN… although it could be argued M. Night Shyamalan managed to revitalize the subgenre in 2015 with the success of THE VISIT — which also helped to jump-start the director’s genre career once again.
But the most creative and effective entries in the found-footage pantheon have almost always been smaller, craftier independent projects, whose creators are usually driven by budgetary constraints to be more inventive in their storytelling methods… and the subgenre still contains a surprisingly rich vein of thematic material, just waiting to be mined by a new generation.
While we did cover some excellent new found-footage arrivals in a recent feature (including THE DARK TAPES, one of the smartest and scariest horror anthologies of the past year), it’s high time I followed up my earlier lists, devoted to lesser-known found footage and mockumentary titles worth seeking out.
My first installment dealt with some rather extreme and obscure releases; I followed that with a list of titles from the past five years which may be a bit easier to track down. I figure I’ll just pick up where I left off, with some new discoveries I found clever, unique and sometimes straight-up terrifying… and you can watch nearly all of them right now!
Dolls never fail to give me chills… even when they’re just sitting on a shelf, their glassy, blank eyes staring off into the middle distance as they silently, patiently dream of killing you in your sleep. Even before motion pictures were invented, dolls were dancing through our nightmares… and now with a second ANNABELLE movie on the way, it seems a new wave of pint-sized horror is about to strike.
The makers of HEIDI chose a literally multi-angled approach to this POV story, in which a pair of teenage YouTube pranksters — whose impressive camera collection includes several tiny spy-cams — discover the title doll (whose name is engraved on her heart-shaped pendant) in a long-abandoned attic while cleaning an elderly neighbor’s home one summer. Their attempts to incorporate the creepy toy into their video pranks backfires, however, when Heidi begins demonstrating her demonic powers.
While not as subtly spooky as the doll featured in RORSCHACH [which I covered here], this menacing moppet isn’t as active as Chucky, either — which is fine, because that turf’s pretty much settled — but she does save her best moves for the final act.
The story develops the mischievous but otherwise good-natured protagonists in a fairly natural, organic way — which makes it all the more horrific when their little friend decides it’s “time to play.” This fun entry is best viewed in complete darkness, with a good surround system or headphones… because some of the directional sound effects are pants-crapping scary.
HEIDI is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
I was fearing zombie-film overload when I decided to give this one a shot… and I’m glad I did, because it’s not strictly a zombie flick. Instead, it provides one of the most intense and unique first-person, ground-level perspectives of an apocalyptic scenario since CLOVERFIELD.
Shot on location in the heart of modern Jerusalem, where socio-political tensions are already running high, the film is an assembly of mobile camera footage, mostly captured by a pair of tourists (one of whom is wearing a Google Glass-style eyepiece) and their newfound local friends on the eve of Yom Kippur, when they find themselves at the center of a catastrophe of literally biblical proportions. To quote GHOSTBUSTERS’ Ray Stantz: “Real wrath-of-God-type stuff.”
I doubt JERUZALEM would be nearly as unique if it were filmed in a less historic location, but it’s still a decently-crafted tale with some genuinely shocking moments, claustrophobic chases through narrow alleys and bombed-out buildings, and other epic set-pieces.
The finale, which rains down legions of winged demons (or pissed-off angels; it’s not entirely clear), is obviously heavy on CGI effects… but I have to admit the artistry behind these final scenes is quite breathtaking, inspired by the surreal hellscapes of painter Hieronymus Bosch.
JERUZALEM is currently available via Netflix streaming.
THE PRESENCE (Die Präsenz, 2014)
This German entry is yet another example of how a creepy location — when properly exploited — can enhance even a fairly standard horror story. In this case, it’s a massive, imposing structure known as Hahnau Castle. The vast stone building has only three occupants: visiting couple Markus & Rebecca (Matthias Dietrich & Liv Lisa Fries) and their goofball friend Lukas (Henning Nöhren). Or at least, they’re the only flesh-and-blood residents.
We soon learn from Lukas, who has been researching the castle’s bloody history, that there may be several dead bodies sealed within the walls, and perhaps a few restless spirits roaming the corridors as well…
What transpires is essentially a Euro-Gothic spin on PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, including fixed-camera night footage of the sleeping group, and the frequent use of sound design to enhance the tension and otherworldly mood — not to mention providing several blatant but often effective jump-scares. (Even the “audience reaction” trailer above is inspired by PA’s ad marketing model.)
The situation escalates to hellish proportions for the final act, but the actors help sell the scares with some genuinely rattled performances.
THE PRESENCE is currently streaming on Netflix.
THEY’RE WATCHING (2016)
It’s rare to find a horror comedy that manages to nail the delicate balance between chills and chuckles — but for the most part, this entry manages to entertain on both levels. Beginning as a wry parody of HGTV reality series HOUSE HUNTERS INTERNATIONAL, the film sticks fairly close to that format for most of its first and second acts, as a camera crew checks up on the progress of a young couple after they purchase an ancient, run-down house in rural Moldova.
The filmmakers pepper the proceedings with lots of bitchy in-fighting among the crew and threatening glares from the hard-drinking locals — who are deeply fearful that the house is cursed by a witch who was executed there centuries ago.
The film’s satirical foundation is established well enough that realistic performances are not really necessary here (or even possible), and the actors are allowed to run wild with their colorful, eccentric characters — from shifty but likable real estate agent Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko) to the show’s outrageously bitchy host Kate (Carrie Genzel).
The only downside to these comic chops comes during the crazed, blood-and-fire-filled final act; it’s hard to find empathy with these petty, one-upping bozos and the brutish caricatures of superstitious villagers — whose fears, by the way, are totally justified.
THEY’RE WATCHING is available for streaming on Netflix.
WEKUFE: THE ORIGIN OF EVIL (Wekufe: El Origen del Mal, 2016)
One of the most rewarding finds in the found-footage canon in recent years, this surreal and dreamlike film from first-time director Javier Attridge is set entirely on the Chilean island of Chiloé, where a documentary director (Paula Figueroa) and her occult-obsessed boyfriend (Matias Aldea) seem to be covering two seemingly unrelated topics: Paula’s investigating the local government’s alleged attempts to cover up a rash of sex crimes on the island; and Matias is obsessed with local tales of an ancient demon known as the Trauco.
As you can probably imagine, the two topics are not only intimately connected, but also drawing the intensely curious couple into a horrific spiral of doom.
For his first feature, Attridge demonstrates how effectively scary a low-budget POV film can be when it builds on an already-solid foundation of existing myths and legends. The regular people of Chiloé are incorporated seamlessly into the story — including an extremely spooky band of masked street performers — which nearly functions as a documentary on the lore of the Trauco itself until the horrifying final act, which I’ll assume (and hope) is work of fiction.
WEKUFE is the only title on this list still pending release (Attridge kindly provided me with a screener) but since it’s been racking up multiple awards at film festivals, chances are it’s secured a distribution deal by now. I’ll update you when it becomes available.
Special thanks once again to Found Footage Critic, a comprehensive film database cataloging and reviewing hundreds of found footage and mockumentary features, TV shows and web series from around the world (and not just horror titles, either). It’s a must-have resource for fans of the subgenre, or indie horror in general, and I found several of the films on this list by way of their reviews and recommendations.