Today, everyone has a camera in their pocket. Capturing video footage has never been easier. However, there is something truly raw and gritty about using actual, physical film, especially for a found footage horror film. The film is not ephemeral and can deteriorate quickly, which makes the footage it holds feel all the more urgent. Damaged tape, scratches, or other defects obscure images, and make the film all the more terrifying.
While most found footage horror has been made during the digital age, some classics, as well as newer titles, have captured their tales of terror on film to tell stories of the past. Using (or at least claiming to use) film lends an authenticity to a film more than any costume can. This list will dive into those films, counting down some of the best, and only, examples of found footage horror shot on something other than a digital camera.
Some of them, such as V/H/S, combine both digital and film to create a pastiche of media history. Regardless of how the film is used, whether to create a certain atmosphere or transport the audience into the past, these are the top ten non-digital found footage films to check out on your next horror movie night.
10. The Dark Tapes (2017)
Michael McQuown’s 2016 horror anthology film, The Dark Tapes, is similar to the well-known V/H/S franchise (which will come up later in this list). The Dark Tapes tackles all types of found footage, from surveillance cameras to webcams to handheld cameras. But, its last segment, Amanda’s Revenge, involves an 8mm spring-driven wind-up camera and 1920s Victor Talking Machine phonograph replica.
The titular Amanda (Brittany Underwood, One Life to Live) uses these seemingly ancient recording devices to try and capture footage of the thing abducting her every night. No digital technology seems to work, so film and a more archaic recording device are in order. It’s an effective justification for the camera, especially since it’s relatively well-known that paranormal entities can tamper with electronics. It also gives The Dark Tapes a segment full of gorgeous and somewhat experimental cinematography that is rarely seen in the subgenre.
9. V/H/S (2012)
The film’s title gives away the reason why it’s included on this list: all of the short films included in V/H/S are supposedly recorded on VHS tapes, as indicated by its frame narrative. In that narrative, a group of teenagers break into a house to steal one videotape. What they find is A LOT of videotapes that they have to sift through. Each tape they watch is a short horror segment. The issue with this format, however, is that most of the segments are obviously captured on digital devices, such as phones or webcams. What poor schmuck was tasked with transferring all these videos onto VHS? Is that even possible anymore? Regardless, it is still a found footage film that deals in physical media, which is why it’s earned a spot on this list.
8. Apollo 18 (2011)
Sure, they say that the moon landing was fake, but what about the unconfirmed mission of Apollo 18? Gonzalo López-Gallego’s 2011 found-footage-in-space film, Apollo 18, is an alternate version of history about an unreported, top-secret final mission to the moon in 1973. Since the film is set in 1973, the only way to record the events happening in the ship and on the moon’s surface is with film. This gives Apollo 18’s a grainy, retro look which further lends to making this footage look authentically from the time period. Astronauts are shown holding older cameras, the film is grainy, and every shot seems blurry and slightly out of focus. Apollo 18 is an ambitious project that takes the found footage genre to space and into the past.
7. The Atticus Institute (2015)
The Atticus Institute refers to a psychology lab that, in 1976, captured the first government-confirmed case of possession. The film alternates between footage of the possession’s progression and interviews from the present of those who were apparent of the institute. They discovered the possession through a program that was meant to help discover those with supernatural abilities. When Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt, Deep Impact) comes in and displays a wide array of supposed powers, the scientists are ecstatic. However, they quickly learn these powers are from an otherworldly, and evil, source.
Adopting a pseudo-documentary style gives The Atticus Institute a greater appearance of truth telling, especially in including interviews with experts. It is harder to discern truth from lies in a format that is so dedicated to portraying reality.
6. 1974: La posesión de Altair (2016)
1974: La posesión de Altair, shot on an 8mm camera, claims to have captured the most terrifying events in Mexican history. The film, at first, contains images of a happy newly-wed couple who were thought to have disappeared. However, the scenes become increasingly sinister and horrifying as Altair (Diana Bovio) becomes possessed. The 8mm film, again, helps transport its audience to the 1970s, from the film’s grit to its faded colors. It is easier to suspend disbelief and view it as if this was literally found footage.
5. Cold Ground (2017)
Journalists seem to get the short end of the stick in found footage films. The journalists in Fabien Delage’s 2017 film, Cold Ground, are prime examples of such a claim. In 1976, two young reporters headed to the French-Swiss border to tape a story about strange cow mutilations. But of course, that all goes downhill as soon as they arrive and realize the team they were supposed to meet has disappeared. So, they decide to try and find them. They film their entire experience on 1970s-era cameras. This is also, supposedly, France’s first found footage film.
4. The Devil’s Doorway (2018)
Aislinn Clarke’s feature film debut The Devil’s Doorway marked the first film from Northern Ireland directed by a woman, and what a debut this film is. It was shot almost entirely on 16mm film and addresses horrors done by the Catholic Church in the 1960s. Father Thomas Riley (Lalor Roddy, Grabbers) and Father John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn, Hunger) are sent to an Irish home for “fallen” (aka pregnant) women where miracles have been occurring. They investigate said miracles and discover the atrocities going on at the hands of the nuns running the place.
The 16mm film adds the film’s terror, especially towards the end as the priests run through the building’s labyrinthine catacombs. It also gives a reason for the lack of clear images (along with the usual shaky hand issues). Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway joins the ranks of beautifully-done found footage films that work to push the subgenre into new and different directions.
3. The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2008)
Again, this is a film included on the list because of its direct reference to tapes in its title. The Poughkeepsie Tapes documents hundreds of VHS tapes from a deranged serial killer. For decades, he recorded how he captured, tortured, and killed his victims. Between his snuff films, people are interviewed about the killer, again creating a pseudo-documentary. It is an absolutely horrifying and downright creepy film that also feels like you’re just watching someone’s deranged home movies. Somehow that VHS collection shot of family video now seems sinister; you never know what might lurk on those tapes.
2. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
There’s nothing quite like being convicted of murder because your film seemed so real. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is perhaps one of the first found footage films, and burst into the film scene with gratuitous violence, gore galore, and the belief that actors were actually killed on camera. Cannibal Holocaust documents the contents of lost reels of film from a group of filmmakers who disappeared in the Amazon rainforest. These film reels contain scenes of animal slaughter, rape, and murder. It is a film that, despite its shock value, works to expose media obsession with violence for ratings and the consequences of filmmakers entering places without permission.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Perhaps the crown jewel of found footage films, The Blair Witch Project made me realize just how huge video cameras are. Filmmakers Heather (Heather Donahue), Mike (Michael C. Williams), and Josh (Joshua Leonard) take turns hauling the massive equipment as they get progressively more lost in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. I could write many words about this film, but for this list, I will just highlight its use of film cameras.
On top of a regular video camera, they also utilize 16mm cameras and film to capture creepier footage of coffin rock, the woods, and the strange stick figures found throughout their hike. The use of 16mm adds an even more uncanny vibe to the whole film. It especially comes in handy at the film’s end as the fallen camera continues to film the Blair Witch’s creepy basement after Heather has most likely fallen to her death.