The History of the Found Footage Genre in Six Films

Stumble across an old camera (often one which has been bloodied, buried or burned), press play and watch in horror as the happy home movie scenes turn to terrifying images straight out of our worst nightmares…

The found footage formula may already be well established, but the genre is still a relatively new one having emerged over the past couple of decades as a means for talented young filmmakers to scare the pants off us on a tiny budget. Horror cinema has always been a breeding ground for innovation, and this is where found footage has been most successful. Using first person perspectives, unknown actors, low-fi footage, a documentary styleand novel marketing campaigns these films try their best to convince us that what we’re seeing is real, and in many cases they’ve succeeded.

Brand new sci-fi horror Phoenix Forgotten is the latest scary movie to put a novel twist on the found footage formula by merging an already unexplainable true-life event with cinematic sci-fi horror. The film tells the story of three teens who went into the desert shortly after the infamous ‘Phoenix Lights’ incidentof March 13th, 1997, when several mysterious lights appeared over Phoenix, Arizona. Hoping to document the strange events occurring in their town, they disappeared that night, and were never seen again. Now, on the twentieth anniversary of their disappearance, unseen footage has finally been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition. For the first time ever, the truth will be revealed.

The Phoenix Lights incidentis one of the most notorious and widely viewed UFO sightings in history and Phoenix Forgotten utilises the mystery surrounding the event to craft a frighteningly believable tale. Employing many of the best tricks of the genre, the film will leave you wondering what’s real and what isn’t. To celebrate the film’s release we take a look back over the history of found footage cinema, picking out the films that made their mark.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
This is the one that started it all. Italian director Ruggero Deodata’s film sees a documentary filmmaking team trek into the Amazon jungle in search of indigenous tribes, only for them to disappear. When a rescue team arrives in the area, the camera crew’s film reels are found and their gruesome fate revealed. Featuring cannibalism, impalement, animal abuse and sexual assault, the film caused immediate controversy on release and the director was actually arrested on obscenity charges after his movie’s premiere. Accused of making a ‘snuff’ film (footage showing an actual murder), he’d eventually be cleared, but only after bringing his actors out of hiding to prove that they weren’t actually killed during the shoot. Continuing to garner controversy to this day, the film has nevertheless earned its place in cinema history as the first major found footage feature.

The Last Broadcast (1998)
Notable for its pre Blair Witch Project release, The Last Testament is one of the first films to utilise a found footage approach to create a story around a well-known myth. In the same way Phoenix Forgotten explores a real-life UFO incident, The Last Testament looks into America’s infamous‘Jersey Devil’ urban legend. The film is based around the violent murder of the hostsof a crew from a cable television show who head into New Jersey’s Pine Barrens woodland in search of the fabled creature. Having filmed themselves for live Internet broadcast, the murders are pinned on the only survivor of the encounter but when a damaged videotape reel turns up the real killer is revealed.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The global phenomenon that earned $250 million dollars from a $60,000 budget and brought the found footage genre to the mainstream.Written, directed and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, the film placed three student filmmakers in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland in order to shoot a documentary on a local legend, the Blair Witch. Unique features of the production involved giving each of the three principal actors individual instructions they would have to find and improvise each day, and also having them operate the cameras themselves. Much of the film’s success can be put down to its ingenious use of early internet marketing after awebsite was set up featuring ‘Missing’ posters of the actors who had gone into hiding and been labeled as ‘Missing, presumed dead’ on their IMDb page. The fake news reports and other information on the site led many people who stumbled upon it to believe the incident to be real. The Blair Witch Project remains one of the most successful independent films of all time.

Paranormal Activity (2007)
Following its release The Blair Witch Project inspired a rash of imitators but only Paranormal Activity has exceeded its success. An exercise in slow-build tension the film centres on a couple who setup recording equipment in their home in order to document the suspected ghostly occurrences. Terrifying in its believability, the film had audiences jumping out of their skins at the sight of a creaking door. Like Blair Witch, director Oren Peli did not provide a script for his actors in order to create plausibility and naturalism through their improvisation. Earning nearly $200 million from a tiny $15,000 budget, the film would spawn a slew of sequels making it one of the most successful horror franchises of all time.

REC (2007)
Spanish found footage effort REC deserves a mention for pushing the genre forward in terms of scale and ambition.The film follows a reporter and her cameraman who are tagging along with a group of firemen for the night. After being sent to an apartment block to rescue an old woman trapped in her apartment, it’s not long before all hell breaks loose. The apparently sick tenant attacks the crew and shortly after the building’s other residents fall to a mysterious disease that turns them into violent savages. The film ramps up to a terrifying finale, which gives a demonic twist to the zombie horror plot.

Cloverfield (2008)
Found footage goes Hollywood as J.J Abrams produces this Matt Reeves (Planet of the Apes series) film on a budget of $25 million – still minuscule by most standards. Thanks to the experienced talent behind the camera, the film utilises the small budget to the max. Cloverfield features a towering creature on the rampage in New York as the army are sent in to stop it. We follow the action through the eyes, and cameras, of a group of young friends as they make their way through the increasingly hostile city. Cloverfield was followed up by a sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane just last year, and a third entry, The God Particle is in the works.

Signature Entertainment presents Phoenix Forgotten on DVD and Digital HD September 18.

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