In October of 2011 one internet writer disappeared into his room with his Netflix account. A week later, his article was found.
No one was prepared for The Blair Witch Project. When it hit theaters in summer of 1999, we were still a year away from Survivor, the internet hadn't yet recalibrated our bullshit detectors to keep us from trusting anything, and indie movies weren't able to stream at one's convenience. These factors led to the perfect storm: people actually believed Blair Witch was real, and the word-of-mouth buzz led to insane profits. While it wasn't the first "found footage" horror movie — that honor probably goes to 1980's gross-out classic Cannibal Holocaust — it revitalized the genre thanks to its $250 million gross on an initial budget of $25,000. The imitators soon followed, and while most of the post-Blair shaky flicks left much to be desired in terms of quality (Diary of the Dead), every so often one took Blair Witch's aesthetic and ran with it — here are five that crossed the finish line.
1. Paranormal Activity 2
With any sequel comes the seemingly uncontrollable pressure to up the ante by adding more characters, fancier effects, and so many convoluted plot points that the whole thing falls apart under scrutiny. (Looking at you, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch II.) But here's the rare horror sequel that outshines the original. Instead of using the extra dough afforded to this one for more shocking scares, they perfect the shocks while maintaining the suspenseful restraint that made the original Paranormal Activity's found-footage gimmick work. The biggest shock to come out of this sequel, though, is that the story actually expands the world created in the original seamlessly, to the point where you wonder if they had a trilogy in mind from the start.
2. The Last Exorcism
This Eli Roth-produced mockumentary, which follows a down-on-his-faith preacher who's exposing himself as a fake exorcist by performing one last time (spoiler alert: it doesn't go as planned), ultimately ended up as a bit of a sleeper hit in 2010. And rightfully so. The performances are too honed to seem ultra-realistic, and the ending brings up a logistical hurdle about exactly who's doing the editing for the film. However, the masterfully heightened tension and set design filled with creepy religious artifacts pulls this together and makes it well worth a viewing.
3. Paranormal Activity
The original Paranormal Activity took an even smaller budget than Blair Witch ($15,000) and approached $200 million in profits simply on door creaks and lights turning on and off by themselves. The biggest complaint about Blair — that viewers couldn't get scared with all the shaky-cam use since they were too busy trying to hold down their lunches — was solved the easiest way possible: sticking the camera on a tripod and letting it film. And film. And film. There hasn't been a better suspense-builder in the past decade than the Paranormal Activity movies' fast-forward-through-hours-then-slow-down-right-before-the-scares device.
This 2007 gem from Spain has a formulaic set-up that wouldn't feel out of place in a Resident Evil game: a group of firefighters — and the TV news crew documenting them for the night — respond to a 911 call in an apartment building and are met by folks infected with a zombie-like virus. But the real catalyst for terror comes from the outside, where the shadows of army troops drape plastic over the building and quarantine the survivors inside with the infected, giving the film a claustrophobic environment that's deeply unsettling. While the American remake Quarantine isn't half-bad, it's more or less a shot-for-shot remake, adding nothing. You might as well pick up the subtitled original.
Cloverfield might have been a bit of a letdown after its mysterious prerelease marketing campaign, but it's still pretty great. The action sequences are sometimes over-the-top, and plenty of disbelief needs to be suspended. (Anyone in their right mind would just put the camera down and run.) But they get the small things right: a mention that the tapes were found in "the area formerly known as Central Park" is a quietly affecting hint at a post-apocalyptic world. Touches like that, as well as the built-in echoes to home-video footage of 9/11, are more haunting than the overblown image of the Statue of Liberty's head rolling down a Manhattan street.