The horror genre is perhaps one of cinema’s most diverse, peppered with a swath of varying subgenres, all with different tricks and tropes. One of the more widespread subgenres is found footage — films told from the perspective of, usually, consumer-grade cameras, often in a pseudo-documentary or video journal style. The format was unleashed on the mainstream in 1999 with "The Blair Witch Project," which terrified critics and (less so) audiences while dominating the box office. It’s easy to see the appeal of found footage, with its point-of-view esthetic of filmmaking immersing viewers in the horror that’s being presented.
In the decades since "Blair Witch" came on the scene, found footage has become a regular part of everyone’s horror diet — especially through films like "Paranormal Activity" and "Creep." However there are some other legitimate gems of the found footage genre that deserve a bit more love than they’ve gotten. Presented here are a slew of underrated found footage movies that are definitely worth your time and support.
Hell House LLC
"Hell House LLC" uses its simple premise to set up some supremely effective suspense and jump scares. The film, a found footage story mixed with a documentary, concerns a haunted house attraction gone horribly wrong. A moderately successful haunted house production team takes their pop-up operation to the abandoned Abaddon Hotel. The team get to work retrofitting the hotel for their needs, all while a sinister presence makes itself known. From ghostly former residents to inanimate clown dummies becoming sentient, the film uses some admittedly tired tropes. But much like the attraction within the film itself, there is an undeniably addictive charm to "Hell House LLC."
This is a very homegrown, low-budget horror film but one that wisely takes advantage of that fact. It also helps that the acting is definitely above average, miles better than the fare usually present in many found footage films. The film was successful enough to garner two sequels, both a step up in terms of quality from the previous. "Hell House LLC" is a film that knows its budgetary limits, but uses every trick up its sleeve to leave the viewer sufficiently thrilled and chilled.
"The Dirties" doesn’t really become a horror film until its final moments, but definitely succeeds at grounding the viewer in a relatable setting. The film follows the story of Matt and Owen, two best friends and amateur filmmakers who look to expose the bullying in their school via their film class assignment. The duo themselves are victims of bullying, specifically at the hands of a group they refer to as the Dirties. Their student film showcases them killing their persecutors in action movie style, much to their teacher’s concern.
Meanwhile, Matt falls deeper and deeper into depression and begins making their twisted cinematic fantasy a reality. This forces a wedge between Matt and Owen, with the latter becoming increasingly disturbed by his best friend’s break from reality. Eventually Matt’s eroding mental state leads him to buy some real guns.
"THe Dirties" was the first major directing credit for filmmaker Matt Johnson, who also stars as its main character, and was championed by Kevin Smith, who helped distribute Johnson’s homegrown movie through The Kevin Smith Film Club (via Variety). In an episode of his "Smodcast" recorded with Johnson, Smith notes that the movie portrays the school shooter as the modern boogeyman, also calling the 2013 effort "one of the most important films of the year."
Noroi: The Curse
With the advent of horror-focused streaming services, many unsung international releases have begun receiving the attention they deserve. One film that has definitely received a recent boost via streaming is the Japanese found footage faux-documentary "Noroi: The Curse." The film tells the story of Masafumi Kobayashi, a paranormal investigator and documentarian who’s gone missing amidst the production of his next movie. Slowly but surely, the film goes crazier and crazier until its final moments, which will leave viewers disturbed and mystified. The film’s grounded tone mixed with its relentlessly creepy visuals make for a truly stellar pairing and really helps the film stand out.
Despite the 2005 film’s quality, it wouldn’t reach other countries until years after its original release in Japan. Luckily, the horror streaming service Shudder added "Noroi: The Curse" to its selection in early 2020, bringing the film a whole slew of new fans. If you’ve never seen it before, definitely check it out, as it’s truly one of the scariest Japanese horror films ever made.
The WNUF Halloween Special
"The WNUF Halloween Special" is definitely a cut above the rest in terms of its immersive presentation. The film presents itself as someone’s VHS recording of an infamous 1987 television broadcast set on Halloween night. This includes the WNUF evening news, a slew of decade-appropriate commercials and a special exploration inside an infamous haunted house. However, when host Frank Stewart and his crew venture inside, they end up right in the middle of a real-life Halloween nightmare. This is where the television broadcast format really comes in handy as the commercial breaks now become a source of welcome suspense.
It also helps that the commercials are all a delight, made with superb accuracy and perfectly encapsulating the feeling of Halloween during the ’80s. That’s probably the best way to describe this movie, creepy yet weirdly comforting. The creators of the film really did their homework (via Den of Geek) and went all-out to make everything as decade-accurate as possible. Ever since its guerilla release in 2013, the film has become increasingly popular seasonal viewing around October and especially around Halloween night. It even spawned a sequel, released in 2022, known as "The Out There Halloween Mega Tape," a superb follow-up set in the 1990s.
"The Borderlands" is a film that knows what subgenre it’s in and uses that fact to its devious advantage. The setup is a promising one: a film crew investigating a reopened 13th century church. Specifically, the film crew is composed of Brother Deacon, Gray Parker and Father Mark Amidon — a trio sent by the Vatican to look into alleged supernatural activity. Once they arrive, things become all too weird all too quickly, with village priest Father Crellick and many of the other locals acting bizarre and inhospitable.The film’s dour tone, crossed with its use of twisted religious iconography, makes for a truly unsettling watch. Standard horror movie logic might have you think that this is all part of an insidious cult, but you’d only be partially right.
Where this 2013 film blindsides you and leaves you completely speechless is in its third act, specifically in its closing moments. Without spoiling it, if you are frightened by small spaces, then these final minutes will thoroughly shake you. If you need something that’ll leave you legitimately freaked out of your skull, then "The Borderlands" is definitely for you.
It’s fair to say that many found footage movies have barebones premises, which is very much the case for "The Tunnel." The New South Wales state government announces a plan to quell a water shortage by using abandoned train tunnels beneath Sydney, Australia. However, with no public explanation, the plan is abandoned, leaving the public desperate for actual answers. This leads a journalist named Natasha, her producer, and a duo of tech assistants to head down into the tunnels for the truth — which turns out to be an elusive, almost demonic creature that seeks to make victims of the crew.
The film was made possible by a crowdfunding campaign that brought in a small but still impressive $135,000 (via The Hollywood Reporter). Given its modest budget, the film doesn’t coast on giant set pieces or lavish creature designs, instead going for the claustrophobic approach. The creature is rarely seen and when it does make its presence known, its true nature is never confirmed. This adds a level of ambiguity to the film that only serves to heighten the scares when they occur. "The Tunnel" is a movie that’ll definitely leave you in the dark in all of the best ways.
With the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020, the film industry got knocked for a severe loop in terms of production restrictions. However, isolation definitely bred creativity in this instance, because that same year "Host" was unleashed on the world. Bored out of his mind in lockdown, director Rob Savage opted to create a spooky prank video mostly to mess with his friends. This video’s popularity was enough to get the ball rolling on a longer version, which was massively supported by horror streamer Shudder.
The film, 56 minutes in total, mostly follows a Zoom call between a group of friends set during the height of the pandemic. During a makeshift seance, one of the friends accidentally invokes a sinister and mostly-unseen entity which begins menacing everyone on the call. From there the film jumps into back-to-back scares, using everything from digital tricks to simple things like a chair moving by itself. One can easily compare "Host" to the likes of the "Unfriended" films, but the concept is executed far better here. The group call gimmick is used to masterful effect, especially in the film’s final moments, which brilliantly uses Zoom’s free trial countdown clock for added suspense.
The first "Rec" is widely regarded as one of the more effective found footage horror films made since the genre’s inception. From its anxiety-inducing pacing to its claustrophobic final moments, the film grasps you by the throat and never lets go. However, less has been said about its follow-up, "Rec 2," which was released two years after the first film. The sequel literally picks up where the last one left off, with a doctor and a team of police officers investigating the quarantined apartment building. We see characters from the first film, now having succumbed to their infections and turned into ravenous ghouls. The team of investigators must fight to survive, while also learning more about the mysterious circumstances behind this deadly outbreak.
"Rec 2" does what every good sequel should do: it takes what worked the first time around and adds to it. The film definitely amps up its technical production while still maintaining the manic energy that made the first one so riveting. With its added lore, action and increasingly disturbing undead creatures, the film takes on a vibe very similar to "Resident Evil." If you are a fan of those games, then "Rec 2" is definitely for you.
The Houses October Built
Sometimes a film succeeds less because of strong characters or dialogue but more from the mood and atmosphere it evokes. "The Houses October Built" is far from the most original found footage film around, but it does succeed at being a genuinely entertaining one.
It’s another film centered on a Halloween attraction, but this time we follow a team of traveling haunted house enthusiasts. In the days leading up to the holiday, Brandy, her boyfriend Zack, Jeff, Bobby and Mikey hit the road in an RV to tour some of America’s finest seasonal haunts. The group’s main goal is to locate an elusive yet extreme attraction known as the Blue Skeleton, said to utilize real torture methods. However, the group’s boisterous behavior once they get there quickly draws the ire of some of the performers — including several in masks and a girl dressed as a porcelain doll — who seem a bit too invested in their roles.
The film, like many found footage efforts, is perfect for a raucous Halloween party, with the visuals providing a great backdrop. If you need something fun for the spookiest time of the year, look no further than "The Houses October Built."
"Lake Mungo" is a true oddity, even within the found footage subgenre, and definitely an underrated gem. The film presents itself as a straight documentary in terms of its tone and editing, and relates the sad story of the recently deceased Alice Palmer, who drowned while on a family trip. Through interviews with her family — her mother June, her father Russell and her brother Matthew — we are shown the kind of girl Alice was. However, Matthew soon reveals that his own recording efforts have picked up what appears to be Alice’s ghost haunting the house. Much like the rest of the film, these moments are staged with the utmost realism, which only adds to their unsettling nature.
Where "Lake Mungo" shines is through its performances, with the little-known actors playing Alice’s family doing stellar work here to convey their profound grief. Additionally, the film leads up to one of the more disturbing visuals in recent horror history, when Alice sees a glimpse of her future. There are few films that use the faux-documentary format as well as "Lake Mungo," and its popularity — deservedly so — has been boosted in recent years.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum
Films like "Exorcist III" and "Grave Encounters" have shown that psychiatric hospitals (or, as they used to be known, mental asylums) will always make a great setting for horror stories. "Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum," a 2018 found footage film, most definitely fits into this niche, taking advantage of almost every inch of its creepy setting.
Directed by Jung Bum-shik, the film follows Ha-Joon, the personality behind a YouTube channel known as "Horror Times." Following the disappearance of two youths, Ha-Joon looks to investigate their last known location: the abandoned Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital. Things start off innocently enough but quickly take a turn for the disturbing. From the asylum itself, which is fittingly decrepit, to the designs of the ghoulish haunts inside, everything in the film exudes unease and terror. The livestream, found footage format only serves to elevate the film and its unique atmosphere.
Despite its immense success in South Korea, "Gonjiam" has only just begun to reach viewers in the U.S. Thankfully, due to its increased presence on streaming services, the film’s audience has been expanding in the last few years.
"Butterfly Kisses" is set in the early 2000s, with aspiring filmmaker Gavin York looking to prove the legitimacy of a series of tapes. The tapes were the property of Sophia Crane, who’d been making a documentary regarding a local legend known as Peeping Tom. The legend states that you can summon Tom, a flicker-spirit, by staring down the Ilchester Tunnel from midnight to 1 a.m. for one unbroken hour. If you can make it the full hour without blinking, Peeping Tom should materialize in front of you.
The film succeeds in an area that found footage films rarely do, which is character development. Gavin York is a well-defined character, a classic flawed horror movie protagonist who is equal parts sympathetic and despicable. As the film progresses it’s made evident that York is far from selfless, often putting his fledgling film career ahead of even his family. It gets to the point where York’s associates begin wondering if he’s forged the tapes himself just for attention. However, it soon becomes clear that this situation is more complicated than York or his remaining crew ever expected.
One of the many appeals of found footage horror is its do-it-yourself nature — the idea that anyone with a camera can make an effective horror film. Nowhere is that notion better exemplified than in "Bad Ben," in which Tom Riley, played by director Nigel Bach, looks to get rich by flipping a house he’s recently purchased. Unfortunately, Riley soon finds himself plagued by a seemingly supernatural presence that he dubs Bad Ben.
The film is super-low on budget but uses that to its advantage, paying off on simple scares and effective execution. Additionally, the character of Riley tends to have some very realistic yet hilarious reactions to his supernatural victimization. For a film made for a tawdry $300 — filmed at Bach’s own house with his smartphone and security cameras — it’s far funnier and effective than it has any right to be. "Bad Ben" was successful enough on Amazon that Bach has gotten to make a series of eight higher concept sequels — and they’re all still a one-man show.