Following the monumental critical and commercial success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, it would have been safe to assume that found footage was the next big thing in horror cinema – and it was – but it took a while to get there. Rather than replicate the 16mm, and lo-fi video look of Blair Witch, filmmakers in the early 2000s turned to the increasingly democratic and cost effective landscape of digital video, eventually leading to the Spanish horror film, [REC], arguably a major turning point for the sub-genre. It would go on to spawn three sequels and an American remake that was fast tracked and released in 2008.
[REC] follows a reporter (Manuela Velasco) who is recording footage of a fire station’s overnight shift for a late night TV program. They respond to a call at an apartment building where a hysterical woman takes a bite out of a police officer already on the scene. And what follows is barely an hour of constant terror shot documentary style (the filmmakers Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza both have experience in documentary filmmaking) culminating in a finale that is almost unbearable in its tension.
Early attempts at found footage horror films in the 2000s leaned heavily on shock value and the concept (or urban myth) of the snuff film, perhaps organically building off of the reputation of boundary pushing films of prior decades, like the found footage pioneer Cannibal Holocaust as well as films like the bluntly titled Snuff and Man Bites Dog. The 2000s saw films like August Underground, Zero Day, The Last Horror Movie, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes predominantly gaining notoriety via hardcore horror websites rather than any mainstream critical or commercial attention. Yet many of these films have now become the focus of academic study.
The snuff focused entries between The Blair Witch Project and [REC] started and remained niche both due to the decidedly shocking nature of their violence, but also likely because they were less easy to relate to both in regards to genre and the framing of the found footage itself. Besides that, these titles also had a relatively low reach in the pre-streaming environment of the era – they were generally all released by small, independent companies and not readily available at most chain stores – making this particular iteration of the subgenre a decidedly underground movement compared to what would come. And then, in 2007, [REC] swooped in to seize an opportunity and re-ignited the sub-genre for the remainder of the decade and into the next.
What [REC] did to the found footage sub-genre in 2007 was take already established horror tropes (disease outbreak, zombified/crazed humans, the occult) and frame them via a found footage device (a late night TV program) that was far easier to relate to than the snuff-film entries of earlier years. The idea of watching a news program that features trauma (especially mere years after 9/11 and the televised ripple effect around the world of the War on Terror) is arguably easier to imagine than tossing in an unmarked tape and watching someone be brutally murdered.
Not long after the film’s release, the sub-genre saw Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Quarantine ([Rec]’s American remake), Paranormal Activity (and its sequels), Apollo 18, V/H/S (and its sequels), Chernobyl Diaries, The Bay, The Sacrament, and Unfriended. Even non-horror titles took advantage of the found footage device with Chronicle and Project X joining in on the fun, to varied success. The sub-genre had moved away from the more grim snuff trappings that it began with in favor of material that was decidedly more commercial. The sub-genre today isn’t the box office sensation it once was and the luster has been mostly lost in favor of new trends, but there’s no denying the power that found footage had for nearly a decade and it was a low budget, documentary styled Spanish film titled [REC] that really kicked it off.