In my first installment of this year’s Halloween Watchlist, I recommended some horror films that were more lighthearted and funny, and also mentioned my love of found footage horror movies – good or bad. And that list even had a found footage movie on it: “Bad Ben.” So this week’s list is all about my favorite horror film genre. “The Blair Witch Project” may forever be the king of the found footage films, but here are some lesser-known flicks that are spooky, enjoyable, and admittedly of some mixed quality. But your mileage may vary.
The Blackwell Ghost
So this first entry is more in the mockumentary category rather than found footage, the distinction being that with found footage movies, the footage is usually “found” later on, after the protagonists have met their untimely demise. In “The Blackwell Ghost,” zombie movie maker Turner Clay (who also brought us “The Phoenix Tapes ’97,” which is awesome and was on last year’s list) sees a YouTube video of an alleged ghost and decides to become a ghost hunter, investigating the video and documenting his research. His initial investigation of the YouTube video quickly hits a dead end, but he is contacted by a new client, a man in Philadelphia with some impressive home video of paranormal activity in his home. Clay and his wife Terri travel to PA from their home in Kentucky and spend three nights in the home, investigating the ghost of Ruth Blackwell, a woman with a truly sinister past. With each passing night, they become more and more convinced that something unusual is happening in the home. The scares are subtle and realistic, the acting is top-notch (to the point where even the Skeptical Inquirer felt the need to run a lengthy article explaining that this movie was not, in fact a real documentary…duh), and the ending just leaves the viewer wanting more. Lucky for said viewers there are two sequels (conveniently titled “The Blackwell Ghost 2” and “The Blackwell Ghost 3”). The second film follows Clay as he returns to the Blackwell house, and the third film has clay investigating the home of a serial killer in the swamps of Florida. All three are great, scary flicks with a likable protagonist and believable, relatable thrills. If you’re tired of movies with over-the-top scares, laughable special effects, and main characters you kinda hope get torn apart by the starring demon, “The Blackwell Ghost” series is a great way to go.
For my money, the best found footage Bigfoot film out there is “Willow Creek,” which made it onto last year’s list. But a very, very close second is “Exists,” directed by Eduardo Sanchez, who just happens to be the same guy who directed “The Blair Witch Project.” The formula is pretty standard: Matt, his girlfriend Dora, Matt’s brother Brian, their friend Todd, and his girlfriend Elizabeth are taking a trip to a hunting cabin in the Big Thicket of east Texas. The cabin, which is owned by Matt and Brian’s Uncle Bob, has been abandoned for years, allegedly due to an “incident” years ago that Uncle Bob had there but of course refuses to talk about. Brian is apparently a GoPro fanatic and likes filming every moment of every day, and there’s your raison d’être for the film. As they drive deeper into the woods, they hit some unseen animal with their car, and soon start hearing strange sounds at night and come to realize that they are being stalked by something that is none too happy to have them all partying at the cabin. The film suffers from some immersion issues (such as a soundtrack and establishing shots that don’t seem to be “in universe” with the GoPro), but overall contains some really intense and frightening moments. More of a popcorn flick and less nuanced than “Willow Creek,” but still a very strong outing and a great scary movie.
This is a weird one, but has a certain quirky appeal. Carl Medland (the actual writer and director, but also the fictional star of the film) is a paranormal investigator who answers an advertisement placed by Lucy and Darren, farmers in a remote part of England. They have noticed some strange occurrences on their farm since their daughter went missing in the woods on the outskirts of their property. Lucy and Darren turn the farm over to Carl for an evening, while they spend the night in a trailer home, allowing Carl unrestricted access to investigate. What follows is an odd mishmash of cryptid cat sightings, paranormal activity in the home, and a bizarre, mysterious clown cult congregating in the woods and stalking Carl as he tries to conduct his investigation. The actor’s performances seem pretty authentic, and the scares ride that thin line between horrifying and hilarious. My son and I had a good time riffing on this one. There’s a sequel as well, “Paranormal Farm 2: Closer to the Truth” which is bewilderingly meta – Carl returns to the farm to talk to Lucy and Darren, to discuss the first movie, and it’s a little hard to tell if they acknowledge the first one is a “fake” or if they are still committed to the lie of it being real. The lines are blurred to the point of inducing a headache, nothing much happens and ultimately, it’s a poor successor to the original. Stick to the first one though, and you’re in for a spooky yet goofy treat.
This film made the list not only because it has some creepy moments, but also because it hits kind of close to home for me. I’ve recently started camping/Bigfoot hunting in upstate New York, and while I’ve so far only been to the Adirondacks, I always pass right through the Catskills on my way upstate, and spent a lot of childhood vacations in the Catskills. I even got married in the Catskill region. So of course, this movie caught my interest. Another cliche premise here, as Tommy, an aspiring filmmaker from New York City, takes his girlfriend, his friend Ex, and Ex’s girlfriend on a camping trip into the Catskill mountains, where he hopes to produce a sizzle reel for a Survivorman-esque TV show he is trying to pitch. They’re camping in the winter, and of course a blizzard rolls in overnight, just in time for a drunk Ex to get into a fight with his girlfriend, who has had enough of his boorish behavior and decides to sleep outside their tent. In a blizzard. Sure, okay. Anyway, a strange light appears in the sky, the girlfriend is abducted by the UFO, I guess because she didn’t have the impenetrable protection of being in the tent, and chaos ensues, as the wholly unlikable foursome are hunted and terrorized by aliens. Not the best found footage movie out there, and the immersion level here is even worse than other films, as a lot of the nighttime shots in the deep woods are just illuminated way too well to be even remotely convincing. But there are some decently creepy moments, especially if you’re a guy from the city who’s currently planning a winter camping trip in Upstate New York…
Creature in the Woods
My last entry on this list is a cheesy, campy, yet mostly enjoyable little movie about (you guessed it) a group of young film students heading into the woods to film a survival documentary. Survivorman-esque, you might say without ever having seen that exact phrase in the preceding paragraph. Chanda, Demetrius and Nic head out into the North Carolina woods to film their documentary, and in the process, spot a large, hairy, ape-like creature. Instead of being satisfied that they captured the creature on camera and leaving well enough alone, they decide to follow it, and as you can probably guess, things get really bad for the trio, really fast. Some good camerawork here, and some really neat scares, but the acting can be a little bush-league, and without really spoiling anything, the ending is a bit…unsatisfying. But overall a good, corny found footage film with my favorite hairy cryptid.