A common goal inherent in most thrillers and/or horror films is to make the audience feel as if they are right there in that same harrowing situation as the characters onscreen. Often, a filmmaker relies on cinematography, musical composition and other technical tools to set the tone and lure unsuspecting viewers into the story at hand. However, some films opt for a more radical approach and employ the found footage technique to simulate the characters’ journey and literally drop audiences in the middle of the action.
With 10 Cloverfield Lane heading to theaters soon as a surprise follow-up to one of the most successful found footage films ever, we’re looking back on the films that have proven just how effective the use of “found footage” can be. For the record, our ranking is based on the films’ box office success, its response from audiences and the impact each release had on the industry itself
Here are 14 Found Footage Movies That Worked.
14. The Visit (2015)
This thriller – written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan – centers on two children who spend an increasingly unsettling week with their grandparents, and though its critical response was mixed, The Visit did manage to earn the filmmaker his most successful release in years. Likely, this is due in large part to its more intimate scale and tight budget of just $5 million, as the film marked a needed change of pace, following Shyamalan’s After Earth.
Although the film’s footage isn’t technically “found” in the traditional sense, nearly the entire film is told through the lens of aspiring filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge), lending the main characters’ experience an up close and personal touch that adds a great deal to the tension they experience during their vacation. As a result, The Visit marks a step toward redemption for Shyamalan.
13. Trollhunter (2010)
This Norwegian release may not have received an extensive release in the United States – bringing in just $253,000 – but it’s certainly managed to gain a cult following anyway. Centering on a group of college students who end up tagging along on a troll hunt, the film features many references to Nordic culture and folktales, tying the titular mythological creatures in with a distinct blend of horror and satire.
Written and directed by André Øvredal, the film employs a mockumentary-style narrative that combines unknown actors with established Norwegian comedians. Plans for an American remake are reportedly in the works, though nothing solid has come of the project just yet. Filmmaker Neil Marshall (The Descent) is attached to bring that version of the film to the screen.
12. V/H/S (2012)
For the most part, the 2013 sequel to this horror anthology film might be more well-regarded, but the original earns extra points for bringing together a collection of terrifying tales linked by a found footage framing device. Each of the stories is connected to a videotape with its own disturbing images, including segments by directors David Bruckner (The Signal), Ti West (The Sacrament) and Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies).
Of course, horror anthologies are nothing new (films like Creepshow took the same approach decades earlier). Still, V/H/S deserves recognition for re-popularizing the format for the modern era. Although the third entry in the franchise failed to match its two predecessors, a spinoff inspired by the original film’s “Amateur Night” segment remains set for a debut on the Chiller network sometime this year.
11. Europa Report (2013)
While most found footage films remain strictly Earth-bound, this sci-fi thriller takes the narrative into space. Chronicling the fictional first mission to Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons), the film features a nonlinear story structure and an ensemble cast that includes Michael Nyqvist (John Wick), Embeth Davidtz (Army of Darkness), Dan Fogler (Balls of Fury) and Sharlto Copley (District 9).
Praised for its realistic depiction of space, Europa Report stands as one of the few releases to seamlessly blend together sci-fi with the found footage format. Unfortunately, director Sebastián Cordero has yet to helm another feature since its release, perhaps due to its paltry domestic gross of $125,000. Nevertheless, Europa Report stands as a distinctive, wholly effective sci-fi experience.
10. The Dirties (2013)
Matt Johnson directs, co-writes and stars in this comedy/drama that deals with such themes as bullying, school shootings and the increasing desire for fame. That heady subject matter earned critical praise upon the film’s premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival and was named Best Narrative Feature at the festival.
The Dirties ultimately captured the attention of filmmaker Kevin Smith, who included it in the Kevin Smith Movie Club. Shot for a shoestring budget, the film marked Johnson’s feature debut, and the director’s sophomore release, Operation Avalanche, was released earlier this year to positive reviews.
9. End of Watch (2012)
Nowadays, David Ayer might be putting the finishing touches on Warner Bros. DC villain team-up Suicide Squad, but the director’s crime drama – which stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as a pair of LAPD officers – proved that he has quite the knack for wringing a great deal of tension out of found footage storytelling. End of Watch follows the two leads as they record their police duties for a film project and face off against gang members.
Like the best examples of the genre, the found footage in End of Watch amps up the intensity onscreen, and the film’s combination of the technique along with traditional photography allows Ayer to make the most of both styles, contrasting them at critical moments throughout. Upon its release, End of Watch was met with positive reviews and earned nearly six times its production budget in the U.S. alone.
8. Creep (2014)
Mark Duplass is perhaps best known for co-producing and starring in films like The One I Love and Safety Not Guaranteed. With Creep, however, he and first-time director Patrick Brice take on something far more sinister. The film stars Brice as a man who responds to a employment ad on Craigslist and is brought into the world of a mysterious man named Josef (Duplass).
Creep deals with obsession in such a slow-burn way that it has proven to sneak up on audiences and critics alike, earning universal acclaim upon its premiere at South by Southwest in 2014. Brice and Duplass have repeatedly discussed plans for a sequel (and perhaps even a trilogy) based on the film, though at this point there’s no timeline for when the project will enter production.
7. Grave Encounters (2011)
Taking a fresh take on the popularity of reality television, Grave Encounters centers on the crew of a paranormal investigation show that winds up locked inside a haunted psychiatric hospital on a quest for evidence of supernatural phenomena. In true horror film fashion, the television crew soon discovers that they have made greatly underestimated the inhabitants of the asylum.
As written and directed by The Vicious Brothers (who also wrote and produced the film’s 2012 sequel), the film has plenty of style to support its premise. Though it received a mixed reaction from the critical community, Grave Encounters has developed a strong cult following and ultimately proved to be a moderate box office success as well.
6. Chronicle (2012)
Before the controversy surrounding his 2015 reboot Fantastic Four, Josh Trank made his directorial feature debut with this found footage interpretation of a superhero origin story. The film follows a trio of high school students — played by Alex Russell, Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan — as they encounter a mysterious object that soon leads them to develop supernatural powers like telekinesis and flight.
Much like Cloverfield revitalized the monster movie with a found footage twist (more on that in a bit), Chronicle brought a distinctive take on super-powered people just a few months before Marvel’s The Avengers hit theaters. A box office smash, the film proved to be an enduring crowd-pleaser, and despite Fox’s initial interest in a sequel, years have passed without any update on its progress, though Trank and original writer Max Landis have long been disassociated from the project.
5. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Long before found footage films were the hot new trend in Hollywood, this controversial Italian production set the course for future horror films to follow. Initially faced with allegations that the extreme violence depicted onscreen was authentic and not staged, Cannibal Holocaust centers on a documentary crew that ventures into the Amazon rain forest to document the indigenous cannibals that reside there.
However, the film – directed by Ruggero Deodato – purports to raise far more sobering questions than its gore-filled premise might suggest. As such, it has developed a devoted cult following and had a lasting impact on the world of horror cinema. Just last year, filmmaker Eli Roth made his own variation on Deodato’s film with The Green Inferno, so named based on the faux-documentary at the center of Cannibal Holocaust.
4. [REC] (2007)
Remade as Quarantine in the U.S. a year later, this Spanish zombie film was probably one of the projects most directly responsible for the widespread proliferation of found footage releases in the years immediately following its release. Its shaky camera technique adds to the gritty realism at play in the film’s story, which follows a reporters and cameraman who end up trapped inside an apartment building during an unspeakable emergency situation.
The film’s widespread success and critical acclaim kicked off a long-running franchise, though the original is still considered one of the most notable examples of found footage horror to date. Co-writers/directors Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró went on to collaborate on its first sequel in 2009 before each directing the following two films separately.
3. Cloverfield (2008)
Countless films had chronicled an attack by a giant monster prior to the release of Cloverfield, but few had ever done it like this. The story follows a small group of survivors – including Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex), T.J. Miller (Deadpool) and Jessica Lucas (Gotham) – as they attempt to navigate the ravaged New York City streets and avoid attack by the monster as well as a horde of smaller beasts.
Immediately following its release, fans were eager for a follow-up to director Matt Reeves’ film. Since its release, Reeves’ career has skyrocketed with films like Let Me In and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, while screenwriter Drew Goddard was recently Oscar-nominated for his work on The Martian. Best of all, longtime Cloverfield fans will finally get a sequel (of sorts) in this month’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, which dropped a surprise trailer in January 2016.
2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
In the final year of the 1990s, the release of classics like The Matrix and Fight Club heralded one of the most creatively rich years in cinema history. While The Blair Witch Project may prove divisive among moviegoers, the film’s impact cannot be underestimated. With its initial budget set at just $60,000, the film went on to bring in nearly $250 million at the worldwide box office.
Moreover, the film is considered among the first to be widely promoted online, and much of its marketing campaign centered on presenting its events as having actually happened. Its release sparked a phenomenon and inspired a slew of other media projects, including books, comics and video games. To that end, the less said about the ill-conceived 2000 sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, the better.
1. Paranormal Activity (2009)
Although The Blair Witch Project was a breakthrough hit in many ways, it was this film – which made its debut at Screamfest in 2007 before its domestic theatrical release two years later – that truly made found footage cinema a lasting sub-genre and not merely a passing fad. Shot for just $15,000, the entire film is told through security cameras placed throughout a young couple’s home, as they come to realize a dark entity may inhabit their house.
Of course, the $193 million worldwide gross for Paranormal Activity didn’t just incite countless imitators to rise up. It also sparked an ongoing franchise that includes five more films of varying degrees of success, both critically and financially. Despite a growing backlash against the similarities between each film in the franchise, the Paranormal Activity franchise has earned more than $400 million domestically, with last year’s Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension intended to be the final installment.
Love them or hate them, found footage films have proven their box office appeal with audiences. When used in the right way, this filming technique can breathe new life into a tired genre. However, a fair share of films have attempted to simply ape the success of their predecessors and capitalize on the popularity of found footage. In any case, only time will tell what the future holds for this particular type of film.
What’s your favorite found footage film? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.