For some, found footage horror movies have a reputation for frantic, nausea-inducing cinematography and an equally sickening overabundance of a repeated gimmick within the past decade or so. However, when done right, it can be more than just a gimmick, but an opportunity to tell uniquely immersive stories with a chilling authenticity that any genre could benefit from, really. Of course, scaring people has always been the method’s bread and butter.
I will admit, I believe there may be a few too many found footage movies these days, but I have come across several diamonds in the rough that keep my faith in the subgenre's potential alive and even qualify as some of the best horror movies of all time, in my opinion. In fact, I have many examples to share below, starting with the most essential one of them all.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
While investigating an urban legend, three aspiring documentarians find themselves lost in a wood near Burkittsville, Maryland, and soon begin to suspect that they are not alone.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: From directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project was astonishingly unique for the horror genre at the time and remains a remarkable achievement for the unrecognizable, but very convincing cast's improvised dialogue and camera use, as well as its ability to make you fear the villain without ever showing it to you.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
After a documentary film crew disappears deep in the Amazon rainforest, a rescue team discovers the footage they left behind and soon meet tribal natives who have quite an appetite.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: The Blair Witch Project brought found footage to the mainstream, but one of the first horror films to use the concept is the grotesque mockumentary that makes up much of the second half of Cannibal Holocaust – an Italian exploitation piece so shockingly realistic that, according to CBS News, director Ruggero Deodato had to prove his actors did not actually die on-set in court.
The Last Broadcast (1998)
A pair of local access cable TV stars (Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos) search for evidence of the legend of the Jersey Devil, only to encounter something more dangerous.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: Also written and directed by Weiler and Avalos, The Last Broadcast is one of the more overlooked found footage thrillers, despite its effectively chilling story and the fact that it predates The Blair Witch Project by a year.
Hell House LLC (2015)
A group of friends and business partners prepare their latest spooky attraction at an abandoned hotel which they begin to suspect is actually haunted.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: Not just an overlooked found footage movie but an overlooked haunted house thriller as well, Hell House LLC – the first chapter of Stephen Cognetti’s terrifying mockumentary trilogy – is a relentlessly chilling exercise in masterfully crafted, slow-building dread.
A pair of lifelong friends and aspiring filmmakers (Derek Lee and Cliff Prowse) set out to make a travel documentary that soon evolves into a chronicle of one’s horrifying transformation after suffering a stranger’s bite.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: Also written and directed by Lee and Prowse, Afflicted is one of the more unique vampire movies in recent memory, and not just because of its found footage style.
Lake Mungo (2008)
A documentary crew interviews a family about the strange circumstances that have led them to suspect the spirit of their teenage daughter is haunting them.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: Easily one of the more sophisticated After Dark Horror Fest entries, writer and director Joel Anderson’s Australian documentary-style ghost story, Lake Mungo, is a horror movie that was more beloved by critics than audiences, despite a cast strong enough to convince you that its heartbreaking story is real.
A young TV reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman (Pablo Rosso) become one of several innocents trapped in a quarantined apartment building following a viral outbreak turning people into ravenous, animalistic killers.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: Many credit Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s Spanish-language thriller, [REC], as the found footage subgenre's peak of brilliance for how it effectively takes advantage of its singular setting to authentically create a claustrophobic environment where unstoppable evil lurks at every turn.
A group of twenty-somethings struggle to survive the night when a gargantuan creature wreaks havoc on New York.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: A unique take on monster movies from producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves, the first of the Cloverfield movies essentially kicked off the found footage trend after becoming a modest commercial and critical success for its absorbing, character-driven narrative that adds an especially devastating aura to the chaos.
Paranormal Activity Movies (2009-2021)
A series of strange occurrences that are all connected to the horrifying experience of a young L.A. couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) are captured on camera.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: Shortly after Cloverfield reintroduced documentary-style horror to the mainstream, the Paranormal Activity movies ensured the found footage subgenre would not go away too soon. Oren Peli took a page from The Blair Witch Project by not putting words in his unknown leads' mouths and relying on their own reactions to the increasingly disturbing events that unfold to make this cheaply produced word-of-mouth hit a frighteningly convincing experience, enhanced by throwing out the closing credits.
Troll Hunter (2010)
A group of Norwegian students join a mysterious hunter to investigate a series of deaths assumed to be bear attacks, until they discover the threat they are chasing is much, much bigger.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: The breakout thriller of director André Øvredal, Troll Hunter, is a fun, inventive mockumentary which will never let you think of the titular fairy tale creatures the same way again.
Grave Encounters (2011)
The skeptical host of a paranormal reality show and his crew realize they are ill-prepared for a night locked inside a supposedly haunted insane asylum that becomes an inescapable struggle for survival.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: Grave Encounters feels like what would happen if shows like Ghost Adventures actually captured something sinister: the helpless hosts would shit their pants in desperation from the indelible frights and psychological torture our protagonists can just barely endure.
The Bay (2012)
A young reporter recounts the events of a horrifying 4th of July, during which a strange parasitic outbreak claims the lives of several infected with grotesquely bizarre symptoms in a small town by Chesapeake Bay.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: Academy Award winner Barry Levinson (Rain Man) directs The Bay – a found footage gem told from multiple angles via handheld cameras, security footage, and news coverage that makes the already frightening concept of a deadly disease all the more believable.
The lives of a lonely teen (Dane DeHaan), his cousin (Alex Russell), and their popular friend (Michael B. Jordan) change for the better (or, maybe, the worse) when a mysterious object gives them superhuman abilities.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: In addition to being a surprisingly relatable, and cautionary, supernatural coming-of-age story, Chronicle is one of the best “superhero” movies not based on a comic that brilliantly takes advantage of its characters' telekinetic powers to achieve camera angles unique to traditional found footage thrillers.
V/H/S Movies (2012-Present)
A night of debauchery ends with a volatile encounter, a documentary crew’s interview with a cult has grave circumstances, a TV news reporter investigates a local urban legend, and more stories framed as lost video cassette recordings make up this engrossing series.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: One of the most acclaimed anthology horror movies is 2012’s V/H/S, which spawned a franchise of even more strange, bizarre, and just plain traumatizing shorts that is continuing in October 2023 with Shudder’s upcoming horror movie, V/H/S/85.
These tales involve a deeply manipulative and deadly man (Mark Duplass) and his intimate encounters with two different amateur videographers (Patrick Brice and Desiree Akhavan).
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: One of the most impressive things about the Creep movies – which I hope get another sequel soon – is that both of them are almost entirely improvised from beginning to end, as Duplass revealed to EW, with deeply disturbing results that stick with you long after.
Unfriended And Unfriended: Dark Web (2015, 2018)
These tales both involve a group of friends whose online chat is breached by an uninvited guest that forces them to play a game with deadly consequences.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: I firmly believe that the supernatural Unfriended and its more grounded sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, are some of the best Blumhouse horror movies yet for the way they each tell an intense, character-driven story in real time and entirely from the point of view of the central characters’ laptop screens.
As part of their weekly remote activities during quarantine, a group of friends hold a seance over video chat, which soon proves to have dire consequences.
Why It Is One Of The Best Found Footage Movies: Yet another recent thriller I would recommend watching on your computer is Host – director Rob Savage and writer Jed Shepherd’s Covid-era hit that was originally released exclusively with a Shudder subscription and might be my most preferred entry of the video call horror trend so far.
What do you think? Do these classics and hidden gems give you a newfound appreciation for found footage horror, or would you prefer that I get lost in the woods for recommending them?
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.