Rookie of the Year: Incomplete and Unabashedly Undiscerning Found Footage Horror Movie Guide

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  • The following is the latest in a series of journal entries chronicling the author’s descent into next-gen gaming degeneracy and assorted geekery – from getting his first television in years to trying to figure out why the @$@$&@@ you need two goddamn directional pads just to walk down an effing hallway.

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    If found footage horror movies are a dime a dozen, I’ve spent about 45 cents over the past month obsessively watching them.

    Add to that my $7.99 monthly Netflix bill, the outrageous price I paid to see Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones in the theater last week, the amount I shelled out for a Haunting Melissa season pass on iTunes and my charitable purchase of the Marble Hornets DVD/T-shirt set, and I’ve invested quite a lot of time and cash into the oft-maligned genre since I first encountered it, like most people, via The Blair Witch Project some 15 years ago.

    It’s time I wrote about it.

    So, without further ado, here is the Rookie of the Year’s Admittedly Incomplete and Unabashedly Undiscerning Guide to Some of the More Recent Found Footage Horror Movies.

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    Paranormal Activity (I, II, III, IV and The Marked Ones)

    The Gimmick: I could write a whole column on this series, now four sequels strong, and maybe someday I will. But for now I’m just going to assume you already know the premise. No? Just go stream the first one already – if you don’t like it, you might want to skip most of the movies on my list or stop reading now, if you haven’t already. But we can still be friends. How about a nice game of chess?

    Rookie’s Take: The Blair Witch Project aside, the PA series is what really got me into the found footage genre, to which I have become a completely indiscriminate devotee. (As in, if it’s found footage, I will at least start watching it. Usually, I finish; sometimes I don’t. Keep reading.)

    That being said, here is what I believe to be the definitive PA series ranking, from best to worst:

    1. PA III. Two words: oscillating fan.
    2. PA II. I’m going against the grain here, but most days I think this one topped the original. Which means I officially believe the series got better as it went along, at least for a while.
    3. PA I. The original, against which all the sequels must heretofore be judged.
    4. PA: TMO. It’s too new to spoil by telling you anything about it; but it squeezes out PA IV because of where it takes the mythology of the series. At this point, many of the scares are predictable. But where this is all going still has me hooked, and although TMO wasn’t a great film, it re-energized me for PA V, coming this fall.
    5. PA IV. This one’s just not as scary or as satisfying as the first three – although the ending is killer.

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    Marble Hornets

    The Gimmick: While reviewing a bunch of old tapes from his friend Alex’s unfinished student film project, Jay starts to notice strange happenings in the footage – including the appearance of a tall, faceless man – which leads him on a journey to find Alex and solve the mystery of The Slender Man.

    Rookie’s Take: For its ingenuity on a low budget, this groundbreaking You Tube series may actually be quote-unquote better than Paranormal Activity, and I will certainly pay to see it in IMAX, should that option be available now that they have apparently decided to sell out (again, my standards for found footage horror movies are very low). It may be too low-fi in parts – I found myself constantly playing with the volume, especially early on – but as far as pure creativity and scare-value, you really can’t beat this ongoing series. Slender Man is terrifying, and the brilliant ways the series manages to mess with your mind without expensive special effects make it a must.

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    Haunting Melissa

    The Gimmick: Melissa’s mom died in mysterious fashion after going insane, and her old bedroom is now locked shut. Melissa is home alone because her father is away and her boyfriend, who seems to hardly care that Melissa’s life is clearly in danger via supernatural forces and/or her own family history of mental breakdowns, is stuck at school. We see everything she’s doing via IM and Skype chats with her friends and her (soon-to-be-ex?) boyfriend, video footage her psychiatrist is making of her sessions and Melissa’s iPhone – on which she captures footage that frankly should scare her a whole heck of a lot more than it seems to.

    Rookie’s Take: This is an iPad-only series, which is fun, and it is timed so that when you download and watch an episode, you have to wait a while for the next one to arrive. The app is designed to make you feel as if you’re experiencing Melissa’s demon-plagued plight in real-time; in my case, since I decided to watch it with my friend Hannah, who lately has divided her time between New York and Florida, it means I’ve had a number “1″ with a red circle around it on the iPad app icon for at least three months. I can only guess what Melissa’s been up to since – but I still care enough to click it, eventually.

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    V/H/S and V/H/S 2

    The Gimmick: Although the circumstances are slightly different, in both films characters break into a mysterious house filled with, among other things, a ton of television sets. Searching around the various rooms, they discover unmarked videotapes and watch them. Each viewing is a different vignette, in found-footage style, that appears to be a real-life event some unidentified connoisseur is hell-bent on collecting.

    Rookie’s Take: Women who turn into winged bat creatures during sex, characters accidentally walking into the middle of satanic rituals, zombie attacks from a first-person perspective and scientific experiments gone terribly wrong kind of all meld into one another seamlessly, especially when you watch the films back-to-back – which you might as well do since they’re both streaming on Netflix. If you don’t like a particular vignette – people unlike yours truly, who haven’t lost all perspective, say they can be hit-and-miss – you’ll soon be on to the next one.

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    The Bay

    The Gimmick: Evil corporations and politicians have poured so much slime into a Maryland bay that parasites in the water evolve and start to infest and then slowly kill everyone in town during the most bucolic, all-American Fourth of July celebration you could imagine. Footage comes from a number of places, but mostly from a young amateur television journalist (with an amazing ass) who is awkwardly documenting the festivities.

    Rookie’s Take: Even if you buy the premise, the mayhem happens so quickly it strains credibility, and a lot of the actions of the characters, especially the government officials, just don’t quite ring true. But the obviously higher budget and the strong acting make it look very real – and the number of scenes that happen in public, during broad daylight, without the nausea-inducing camerawork that practically defines the genre, sets it apart.

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    Grave Encounters (I and II)

    The Gimmick: A douchebag reality TV host and his crew of phony psychics decide to spend the night in the old, abandoned Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. They really want some authentic supernatural footage for their show. They get it.

    Rookie’s Take: I had zero expectations for the first film, but it turned out to be surprisingly clever in spots – the way it’s revealed that they’ve gotten themselves trapped in the asylum is a fantastic moment, as is how the movie plays with time. Definitely worth a go. Grave Encounters II, in which some teens go to the asylum to try to find the missing filmmakers – on a hunch the network was lying when it claimed the original crew came home safely – is total, unabashed garbage.

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    Europa Report

    The Gimmick: An epic manned space voyage to one of Jupiter’s moons is being documented by cameras throughout the ship. What will happen when the crew of the Europa One loses contact with Earth six months into the journey? Is there life out there, and could it possibly be dangerous? Thousands of hours of footage has just been declassified – and we’re about to find out why the ship never returned.

    Rookie’s Take: This one is more sci-fi than horror, though it clearly contains both elements. I think this one, unlike some of the others here, is a little gem of a film that would appeal to movie lovers of all stripes. It’s definitely higher on production value and realism than your average found-footage film – think of it as the genre’s Gravity – and it’s a film I plan to recommend to the ‘rents.

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    Apollo 18

    The Gimmick: Did you know that the Apollo 18 mission wasn’t canceled, that it instead landed on the moon in 1974, and that it never came back? Did you also know that the astronauts filmed what happened to them and only now has the footage been leaked to the public?

    Rookie’s Take: Another sci-fi option for my fellow found-footage freaks. Similar in concept but not nearly as good as Europa Report – or as believable. I buy that the footage could have been straight out of the ’70s, but I felt a little dirty afterward for sitting through something so far-fetched; the concept of the mission and subsequent cover-up is hard to swallow, and I wondered, more so than usual, how the footage was recovered. I wouldn’t mind any of that quite as much if the movie had more scares or a better payoff, or if I were invested in the characters or the conspiracy enough to be rooting against the government. In the end, I just felt I was sold a bill of goods.

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    Apartment 143

    The Gimmick: A team of parapsychologists is dispatched to study the White family, which is ostensibly living in a haunted apartment. The crew sets up cameras and a host of other gadgets looking for evidence in an attempt to uncover the truth – leaving the father trying to raise an angst-ridden teenage daughter and a young son not long after the death of his wife, while tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment documents his never-ending torment.

    Rookie’s Take: The ending is rather lame, but there is some legitimate creepiness here, mainly provided by the daughter and the payoff that comes from employing just about every ghost-hunting trick in the book. This isn’t a slow-burner, nor is there a whole lot of real mystery. But it’s packed with yummy goodness because the filmmakers decide Mr. Alan White shouldn’t be afforded a single goddamned break over the course of the movie’s 80 minutes. Did that shit scare you, Mr. White? Yes? Well, just wait ’til you see the next toy we can play with!

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    Devil’s Pass

    The Gimmick: Based on the true story of Russian hikers found dead in 1959 – Google the “Dyatlov Pass incident” – a group of American students decide to retrace their steps and try to discover exactly what happened high up in the snowy, desolate mountains. They find out the hard way.

    Rookie’s Take: I don’t think the ending of this movie quite adds up, but it gets an “A” for effort, with some pretty massive twists you won’t expect and a sci-fi element that also caught me by surprise. Imagine a found-footage feature with more than a dash of Lost, and you’ll know how intriguing and ultimately frustrating Devil’s Pass is.

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    Trollhunter

    The Gimmick: Student filmmakers stumble upon the fact that there are fucking awesome trolls in Norway and a badass dude who hunts them.

    Rookie’s Take: This one, from 2010, isn’t exactly recent (I disqualified Cloverfield, which is even older, for that very reason), but I liked it so much I wanted to give it some love here. Trollhunter doesn’t simply rely on that sense of perverse pleasure in watching someone’s home movie. With the Norwegian countryside and the steady cam, this is just an epic, beautifully shot action-adventure film with a much-appreciated quirky sense of humor.

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    Amber Alert

    The Gimmick: A pair of BFFs – Sam and Nate – are making an audition tape for an Amazing Race-type show. While driving to one of their locations, they realize they are trailing a car that has been flagged by an Amber Alert. They decide against all logic and reason to follow it deep into the night, long after the cops have told them to stop.

    Rookie’s Take: A fantastic concept, but nearly impossible to tolerate in this iteration. If Sam, the female lead character, wasn’t so goddamned foolish, or if Sam and Nate could go two minutes without arguing with each other, then possibly this could have been a decent film. But Sam cries and shrieks so much you’ll need a bottle of Advil, and Nate is so pathetically in unrequited love with her that he begrudgingly agrees to do every dumb, beyond-reckless thing she incessantly whines about doing. I love these movies, but I wouldn’t force anyone to sit through this one. Too bad.

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    The Frankenstein Theory

    The Gimmick: A film crew accompanies an eccentric, self-absorbed, overprivileged PhD student to the Arctic, where he claims he will find Frankenstein based on his collection of old family letters which he says prove Mary Shelley’s novel is a work of non-fiction.

    Rookie’s Take: Remember when I said I don’t always finish found-footage movies? Case in point.

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    Matt Marrone watches Oscar-worthy movies, but only in his spare time. And, in case you’re wondering, he hasn’t seen Chronicle or the [Rec] series yet, which is why they weren’t included above. Someone send him a loaded flash drive. You can arrange a drop-off via Twitter @thebigm.

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