Although it has slowed down in recent years, found footage was once a dominant subgenre in cinema. Although it had been used sparingly across the medium in previous decades, it wasn’t until 1999 The Blair Witch Project that the cinematic technique found popularity. Realizing the unique brand of terror the format provided to horror films, many independent filmmakers used it as a way to create low-budget films with scares right in the face.
Although found footage is primarily associated with the horror genre, films in most genres have dabbled in technique. The concept of viewing a film in the first person has found its way into action films, sci-fi epics, and even smaller-scale character studies. While many people have come to view found footage as a fading gimmick, when used correctly it can create unforgettable experiences told from an up close and personal perspective.
“Punishment Park” (1971)
Presented as a mockumentary, punishment park is set in an alternate 1970 where prisons are at capacity at the height of the Vietnam War. A new punishment is designed for anti-war protesters, who are forced to spend three days running through the desert as authorities attempt to hunt them down and murder them.
punishment park was apparently ahead of its time, a film so rooted in conveying messages about the unjust brutality of police forces that it would be even more relevant if it were released today. As a film crew follows the accused, their plight resonates with viewers as the full extent of police brutality is shown.
A new-age approach to the found footage genre, Research is told through the perspective of webcams and phone cameras. When David (John Cho) realizes that his teenage daughter Margot is missing, he searches his laptop for answers. What follows is a frantic trip down the rabbit hole as David learns new secrets about his daughter.
Although the concept of a film told entirely using modern technology is likely to be fanciful, Research avoids this pitfall by telling a gripping story that immediately engages the viewer. Cho is terrific in the lead role, and he carries the film on his shoulders as he refuses to give up on his daughter in this great tech thriller.
“Day Zero” (2003)
Freed four years after the Columbine High School massacre, zero day is a fictionalized version of the tragedy. When students Andre and Cal decide to commit a similar crime at their high school, they film themselves days before as they plan the shoot, hoping to rise to fame after their deaths.
The most haunting aspect of zero day is that it seems real, that these perpetrators and the crime they commit could have been ripped from the headlines today. Despite being nearly twenty years old, its plot is still sadly relevant in modern society, as its conflicted history has lost none of the impact that made it controversial upon its release.
‘Project X’ (2012)
If you thought your teenage parties are playing Halo cooperative were crazy, wait and see what the guys in it Project X get up for. When three teenagers decide to throw a high school party that will make them popular, things quickly spiral out of control as the party becomes a viral sensation, resulting in massive property damage and more crime.
Although it lacks the same laughter and charm of super bad, Project X worth a watch for anyone who loves this classic comedy. The found footage look of the film is what sets it apart, and it’s unique to see the technique used in a comedy. It creates a movie that feels like it’s a party gone wrong that someone recorded on their phone and uploaded online.
Whereas Troll Hunter is often thrown into the horror genre, it belongs more in the realm of fantasy, as the core of the film is about documenting the mythical creature rather than being terrorized by it. When three Norwegian students decide to make a documentary about the strange killings of bears in the wild, they discover that the culprit is a huge troll.
Although the found footage genre is dominated by films about teenagers getting lost in the woods, Troll Hunter stands out for its fantastic orientation and snowy Norwegian setting. The film succeeds by leaning into its ridiculous premise, without taking itself too seriously as its characters discover this fantastical world that exists alongside our own.
‘The Dirty Ones’ (2013)
Fed up with being bullied, teenagers Matt and Owen decide to make a movie in which they kill their bullies in the name of revenge. When the screening of the film results in even more humiliation, plans to make the film a reality lead to dangerous consequences as Matt prepares for a real school shooting.
Despite its heavy subject matter, dirt will make you laugh surprisingly, because the small arguments between the two protagonists seem believable. That’s probably the biggest compliment you can give. dirtthat it feels real, as Matt and Owen feel like two kids we knew in high school or who we ourselves were.
dirt is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
A unique take on the superhero genre told through found footage, the Chronicle is a grounded representation of the classic superhero origin story. When three teenagers discover a strange hole at a party, the crystalline object inside grants them telekinetic powers. Initially using them for fun and to prank others, their power fantasy quickly turns deadly.
Released just before superheroes exploded at the box office, the Chronicle uses the genre to tell a story more centered on disadvantaged youth. Stars Dane DeHaan, Alex Russelland Michael B. Jordan all deliver great performances as ordinary teenagers placed in a situation they are far from equipped for.
the Chronicle is available to stream on Hulu.
‘The Man Bites the Dog’ (1992)
When an amateur film crew decides to follow Ben, a charming serial killer, they are thrust into his world of darkness. As the filmmakers document his every heinous deed on his innocent victims, they find themselves implicit in his crimes, ultimately becoming his accomplices in one of the best mockumentaries of the 90s.
A man bites a dog was controversial when it was released due to its graphic nature, and it remains a confrontational watch today despite its black and white presentation. What makes the film work is the central performance of Benoit Poolverde, whose portrayal of the psychopath Ben is as gripping as it is terrifying, reciting poetry as he commits murder.
A man bites a dog is available to stream on HBO Max.
“End of Watch” (2012)
Told through footage from body cameras and patrol cars, End of guard tour follows cops Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (michael pena). As the film explores the close relationship between the two officers, they suddenly find themselves in danger after a gang leader punches them.
End of guard tour puts viewers in the shoes of the LAPD, showing both the mundane and dangerous sides of working for the law. As the stakes rise, the direct nature of the film becomes more tense as Taylor and Zavala move closer and closer to a forced “early retirement”.
‘District 9’ (2009)
Whereas District 9 is only partially found, it is still one of the best films associated with the genre. Set in Johannesburg, which has been overrun by alien refugees, the film begins with a film crew following Wikus (Sharlto Copleyin one of his best performances), a government employee sent to the alien’s refugee camp to move him.
As the action in the film intensifies, it shifts to a more traditional style of filmmaking, but those early moments of Wikus and the camp film crew are some of the best moments in District 9. The documentary style goes a long way to selling the poor living conditions of the aliens in the filthy slums they are forced to reside in and helps make their plight that much more sympathetic.
District 9 is available to stream on HBO Max.
KEEP READING: 10 Feature Films That Started Life As Shorts