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Movie Guide: The Best & Worst Found Footage Movies

The media keeps telling us that “found footage” films are in, however, they never went out.  Taking off at the box office in the ‘90s with the immensely profitable The Blair Witch Project, found footage films have been a mainstay ever since.   Media awareness of found footage reached another peak in 2007 with the release of Paranormal Activity.

Contributing to the media obsession was the fact that Paranormal Activity made a killing at the box office, bringing in close to $200 million (estimated worldwide gross) while being made on an estimated budget of only $15 thousand.   It’s no surprise that countless imitators have come along since, looking to get a piece of the action.   The unfortunate thing is that, now, everyone with a handy cam thinks they can be the next Tarantino.  

Inside, we take a look at the best and worst found footage films and film you in as to who got it right and who got it terribly, terribly wrong.


Paranormal Activity

Katie and Micah begin noticing strange things around their home.  Not wanting to miss any of the action, Micah attempts to take video evidence of the strange goings on.  The couple discovers that there is a malevolent force running loose in their home.  This isn’t a total surprise to Katie, however.  It turns out that she has been the victim of an angry wraith for many years.  The same force has followed her, off and on, throughout her life.  Looking to rid themselves of the unwanted visitor, the couple calls upon the services of a paranormal investigator.  The specter, not put off by the investigator, continues to wreak chaos on the young couple.  The pair find themselves fighting for their lives and sanity in a haunted house tale that’s been updated for the digital era.

Paranormal Activity gets it right in a lot of ways.  Writer-director Oren Peli really revolutionized, both the found footage and haunted house sub-genres.   He made a film on less than a shoestring budget (before the studio came in, injected some more money to cover other costs) and he did it seamlessly.  Peli really impressed me with his directorial debut.  The scares are frequent and quite terrifying.  The simplistic approach proved to the benefit of the finished product.  The lack of frills and the crude nature of the production lent an added eeriness to the film.  This is most certainly one of the best found footage films to come out since The Blair Witch Project.

Lake Mungo

December of 2005 finds the small town of Ararat and a grief stricken family at the center of media attention.  Sixteen year old Alice Palmer disappears from a family outing at the lake.  She is later discovered to have drowned.  Days after her funeral, her surviving family members begin to experience strange phenomenon.  It’s as if Alice doesn’t want to stay dead.  Strange noises in the night and ghostly images in the background of photographs convince Alice’s family that something sinister is afoot.  

This film is brought to us by Joel Anderson in his feature film debut.  Lake Mungo breaks the mold of the traditional found footage film.  Mixing news footage with interviews and home video, it provides a unique spin on the more “conventional” approach to found footage.  On some levels, the film actually surprised me.  I’ve seen a lot of poorly-constructed and simply bad films from After Dark Horrorfest.  Lake Mungo separates itself from the pack with above-average acting, reasonably good production value and fair effects.  However, in spite of everything it had going for it, Lake Mungo had major problems with pacing.  The film takes too long to take off.  Even though the film is fairly well made, I found myself bored and waiting for something to happen.  Unfortunately, when Lake Mungo finally got where it was going, I was too irritated with the film’s lack of direction to actually enjoy it.  I can’t recommend it.  

The Last Exorcism

Reverend Cotton Marcus has lost his faith in God.  He’s invited a documentary film crew to come along with him to chronicle his efforts to debunk what he considers to be “the myth of the exorcism.”  He answers a call in New Orleans from a man who believes he is dealing with possession by the devil himself.  Reverend Marcus begins going through the motions of conducting an exorcism, but later comes to realize the he may be dealing with the real McCoy as Nell, the subject of the exorcism, begins to display undeniably legitimate signs of demonic possession.    

This flick takes an interesting spin on exorcism films.  Rather than rehashing what we’ve seen time and again, it brings some new ideas to the table.  The twists along the way keep the viewer guessing and the twist at the end was unexpected.  I liked virtually every aspect of The Last Exorcism.  The film’s pace kept me engaged.  The effects were simple, but believable.  The story managed to be fairly original.  The camera work was quality.  There were very few of the typical motion sickness inducing shakes and jolts that have come to be associated with the found footage genre.  The only thing that didn’t work for me was that Ashley Bell’s performance, as Nell, felt overacted.  It wasn’t so bad that it became a derailer of my overall enjoyment of the film, though.   Beyond that, I have no complaints.  This is well worth a look and my pick for the best found footage film to come out in the wake of Paranormal Activity.  The Last Exorcism is worth a look.  

Paranormal Entity

The Finley family loses their patriarch in a tragic accident.  Ellen, the mother, starts talking with her late husband, after his passing.  In turn, bizarre things begin to happen.  The Finley’s employ the services of a paranormal investigator.  He asks the Finley family to document the events of their day to day lives, in order to capture the strange phenomena that are plaguing their household.  Strange things continue to happen, and get progressively stranger and more malevolent as the film unfolds.  

Paranormal Entity is just one in a long line of Asylum rip offs.  Asylum made no effort to even try to disguise their intent to clone the success of Paranormal Activity and capitalize on the profitability of the found footage phenomenon.  I was actually shocked at just how unapologetically Asylum ripped off Paranormal Activity.  The acting is awful.  None of the cast brought any level of believability or depth to their performances.  The plot is unoriginal, obviously.  The camera work is so shaky that it gave me a headache.  I found zero redeeming qualities in Paranormal Entity.  I’m going to recommend steering clear of this rubbish.  

Troll Hunter

A group of student filmmakers producing a documentary on a on a bear poacher are surprised to learn that the subject of their film isn’t hunting bears at all.  He reveals that he is actually contracted by the Norwegian Government to hunt and kill trolls.  After some initial protest and a troll bite, the Trollhunter allows the film crew to tag along and document his exploits.  

Trollhunter is written and directed by André Ovredal, who brought us Future Murder in 2000.  This sophomore effort from Ovredal is an interesting spin on the found footage genre.  The premise is far-fetched and a little ridiculous, but it works.  The cast is likeable.  There are some genuinely funny moments in Troll Hunter.  The troll effects are good.  The film is quirky, bizarre and highly enjoyable.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to check it out, definitely do so.   

The Devil Inside

Isabella Rossi travels to Italy, where her mother is institutionalized, to get to the bottom of her mother’s failed exorcism which resulted in the death of three people.  She brings along a cameraman to document her findings.  While there, she and her cameraman get involved in a ring of underground exorcisms, which are being conducted by a pair of priests who have gone rouge from the Catholic Church.  

I can’t say that The Devil Inside was all bad.  It certainly wasn’t all good, either.  It had some legitimately frightening moments and a couple of good jump scares.  The effects are decent and the acting is bearable; on the other hand, the direction is weak and so is the script.  The film borrows too heavily from superior films like The Exorcist.  The ending came directly out of left field and offered no closure for any of the events of the preceding 90 minutes, which makes the entire film feel like a waste.  The Devil Inside could have been more than what it was if writing duo William Brent Bell and Matthew Peterman had given more attention to the rushed and premature ending.  As it stands, this one is worth avoiding – unless it’s on television and you are in a body cast and unable to reach the remote.  

Home Movie

Jack and Emily seem like typical kids, on the surface.  But, if you look a little closer, they are anything but typical.  They have one thing on their mind…cold blooded murder.  They start small, by killing of the family pets, and then they set their sights on their parents.  Their naïve mother and father, David and Clare are too busy with their own lives to see what’s actually happening.  This film furthers my long time assertion that children must be kept on a short leash

Writer-director Christopher Denham has a couple dozen acting credits to his name, but curiously, Home Movie is his only attempt at directing.  I was left wanting to see more from Denham.  He picked up a warranted “Best Up And Coming Director” award at the Sitges International Film Festival for Home Movie, but this is all we have seen come from this director.

The film works on several levels.  It succeeds at building a mounting sense of tension throughout the first portion of the film and then rewards the viewer’s patience with a stunning finale.  The effects, although nothing spectacular, serve their purpose well.  Home Movie manages to be sufficiently disturbing without resorting to the over-the-top intestinal ripping antics of many of its contemporaries.  This one rates towards the front of the pack of the found footage films we’ve examined.  I would wholeheartedly suggest seeking this one out.

Cloverfield

Rob gets a promotion at work, which requires he and his girlfriend, Lily, to move to Japan.  Rob and Lily’s going away party is interrupted by a small disturbance, in the form of a Gozlilla-esque monster attack.  The Statue of Liberty is decapitated and Lady Liberty’s head lands near the apartment complex where the party is being hosted.  Mass hysteria and chaos ensue.  The party goers become appetizers and the monster continues to tear shit up.  

Cloverfield is directed by Matt Reeves, known for his work on television’s Felicity.  It was written by Drew Goddard who penned the script for The Cabin in the Woods.  I have never been able to get in to this film.  I’ve watched it several times.  Each time, I expect to like it and I try to enjoy it, but it never works for me.  I find the pacing too sluggish and the characters impossible to warm up to or take any interest in.  If anything, Cloverfield elicits an “I’m glad they’re dead” kind of reaction from me when the characters are picked off by the giant monster.  Speaking of the giant monster, I thought the monster effects were way too overdone.  I realize that doing a giant monster movie with practical effects might be asking too much in the digital era, but I know I’m not alone in wishing for a less computerized looking monster.  I can’t get behind recommending this one.

Quarantine

A nearly blow-by-blow remake of the Spanish film REC.  Angela, a television reporter, is covering a ‘fluff piece’ on the fire department for the local news station.  The station gets a call from an apartment complex where bizarre things are transpiring.  Once Angela and the fire department arrive at the scene, things have gone from bad to worse.  Several of the residents have been infected with a nasty virus that makes them thirst for the delicacy that is human flesh.  

John Erick Dowdle, who brought us The Poughkeepsie Tapes, co-wrote and directed Quarantine.  This one was just “okay,” for me.  I didn’t love or hate it.  My enjoyment was marginal.  I enjoyed Jennifer Carpenter’s performance.  I also liked the claustrophobic feeling that the film achieves by setting nearly the entire film in one location.  Quarantine didn’t necessarily do it better than REC and it didn’t really bring anything new to the table.  It was a bit of an unnecessary reimagining.  It’s worth a look, but if you haven’t seen REC, check that out first.  REC is definitely the superior film here.   

Monster 

Sisters, Sarah and Erin head to Tokyo to film a documentary on global warming.  Like the seasoned journalists that they are, the girls conduct serious interviews and work to solve all of life’s big issues.  Then, a monster shows up and ruins their fun.  

This film was released direct-to-DVD three days before the theatrical release of Cloverfield.  Monster is yet another Asylum “mockbuster.”  The camerawork is extra shaky, even for a found footage film.  The acting is laughably bad.  The plot is an obvious attempt to capitalize on the hype surrounding Cloverfield.  There’s nothing to see here.  This one is bad, even for an Asylum release.  Stay away.  The end.  

The Amityville Haunting

Yet another ill-fated family moves in to the Amityville house.  As with their predecessors, the cash strapped Benson family lets the ‘killer’ price tag overshadow their better judgment.  Not surprisingly, evil shit starts happening and people start dying.  

This is yet another failed attempt at movie making by Asylum.  This looks like someone cut together a bunch of poorly-edited footage and called it a movie.  The camera work is so bad I thought I was going to have a seizure.  The acting is equally laughable.  It’s the kind of acting that would even be bad on a soap opera.  Even the deaths are unintentionally funny.  It’s sad to see that this is what the Amityville franchise has digressed to.  Stay away from this.  This flaming pile of crap is not worth your time or money.  This easily takes the cake for the worst found footage flick on the list.


To look at the future of found footage movies, check out this check list of what’s to come!