I’ve done Creepy Classics, Family-friendly Frights, Ghostly and Ghoulish Greats, and Sinister Side Splitters—all of which can be seen in the Spook Series Archives. Now I’m turning my attention to horror mockumentaries. Personally, I’m a huge fan. Well-done horror mockumentaries can really get to you, I believe, in ways that many other horror films can’t. They’re raw, they’re realistic, and, most importantly, they’re usually from a first-person perspective or from a stationary camera angle, getting you up close and personal yet often leaving parts of the horror up to your own imagination. Some people find them boring, but I think many of them are fascinating. With that in mind, I offer up 8 Malevolent Mockumentaries for the Halloween season. Try to ignore that chill crawling up your spine…
#8: Grave Encounters (2011)
Synopsis: “For their ghost hunting reality show, a production crew locks themselves inside an abandoned mental hospital that’s supposedly haunted—and it might prove to be all too true.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Marvelously Malevolent: Grave Encounters is not perfect. It’s got a slow beginning, characters that are hard to like, and several ridiculously over-the-top scares. Nonetheless, for what it is, it’s kind of fun. The beginning of the film humorously pokes fun at every generic ghost-hunting show out there. The crew of TV show “Grave Encounters” prepares for a night in an abandoned and allegedly haunted mental asylum, and they’re clearly not taking anything seriously. No one on the cast or crew actually believes in the supernatural, least of all the show’s host, Lance (Sean Rogerson), or the show’s “psychic,” Houston (Mackenzie Gray). They build up hype and tell spooky stories for good ratings—even paying a groundskeeper $20 to pretend he saw an entity—but at the end of the day they don’t expect to find any proof that ghosts and ghouls exist. Their night in the asylum changes everything. Suddenly, ghosts are a very real and dangerous threat. Terrifying proof lurks around every corner, and the dark spirits apparently intend to check the curious crew members into the asylum permanently. Filled with spooky shots in night visions and plenty of jump scares, Grave Encounters does a pretty decent job of keeping you on edge. It’s a little slow to get the ball rolling, but once the scares start, they keep up at a steady pace. It’s hard to completely love this one when the characters aren’t great and the film sometimes seems to try too hard, but if you like ghost-hunting shows, I bet you’ll like this. It’s like a behind-the-scenes look at these shows, but with much better scares. And a bizarre ending…
My Grade: B-
#7: The Last Exorcism (2010)
Synopsis: “A troubled evangelical minister agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed by a documentary crew.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Marvelously Malevolent: Exorcisms—they’re always just a barrel of fun, aren’t they? Well…maybe “fun” isn’t the right word. I find exorcism films fascinating, but it’s hard to unearth good ones. Aside from The Exorcist, which blazed the trail for basically every exorcism film that has followed, I find it difficult to come up with any stand-out examples. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started The Last Exorcism, but the film is actually pretty interesting and a fairly fresh spin on a classic story. The basic premise is as you’d expect: Girl gets possessed by demon. Concerned parent calls minister. Minister performs an exorcism. But there’s a catch—the minister wants to blow the lid off of exorcisms, exposing them as fake. You see, evangelical minister Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) has been struggling with his faith, and he stopped believing in the power of exorcisms long ago. To him, it’s all about putting on a show. He knows that when he speaks as a man of God, people will believe whatever he says, and he’s become uncomfortable with that fact. So he brings in a documentary crew to expose what he does as false, intending for his next exorcism to be his last. Trouble is, this might just be the real deal. This film is a little slow at first and has a very over-the-top ending, but it’s also pretty clever with several humorous bits in the beginning, plenty of creepy moments, and some interesting twists. Not a bad mockumentary at all.
My Grade: B
#6: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Synopsis: “The next great psycho horror slasher has given a documentary crew exclusive access to his life as he plans his reign of terror over the sleepy town of Glen Echo, all the while deconstructing the conventions and archetypes of the horror genre for them.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Marvelously Malevolent: This film isn’t exactly pure mockumentary. It begins and remains that way for roughly two-thirds of the film, then abruptly switches to a more standard style, rebuilding the fourth wall that it spends so much time smashing down. Not the best strategy in my opinion, but Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is still a fascinating and clever examination of the formula behind the classic horror films we all know and love. The focus of the mockumentary, Leslie (Nathan Baesel), is hoping to be the next big name in horror—the next Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, or Fred Kruegar. The beginning of the film sets up these fictional murderers as real-life villains, and cheerful Leslie intends to follow in their bloody footsteps. A film crew follows him as he works in his chosen “field” and reveals all the tricks of his trade—lots of cardio to keep up with victims, a sensory deprivation tank to train the heart to slow down and feign death, set-ups that play mind games with prey, etc. It’s all very funny, giving us a perspective that few horror films utilize. The film is riddled with nods to classic horror films. The presence of horror veterans Robert Englund (Fred Kruegar in the original Nightmare on Elm Street films) and Zelda Rubinstein (the feisty psychic in Poltergeist) are tribute enough, let alone one scene with little girls in white dresses playing jump rope (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and another with music from The Shining playing in the background. Unfortunately, the films falls into convention toward the end, lessening the effect of an extremely original idea. Still, classic horror lovers especially ought to enjoy this. Unique and darkly humorous, it’s a worthwhile mockumentary.
My Grade: B
#5: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Synopsis: “Three film students go missing after traveling into the woods of Maryland to make a documentary about the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Marvelously Malevolent: It’s funny how your environment can change your perspective. The first time I watched The Blair Witch Project, it was early evening, there were people bustling about in my apartment, and I was settled back, munching on popcorn. When the film ended, I talked with a friend about how much it sucked. Watching it this time around, it was nearly midnight when I put the disc in, everyone else was asleep, and the TV had my full attention. With no distractions and no friends to keep me brave, I was on edge. I’ve always had respect for The Blair Witch Project simply because it was, to my knowledge, the first of its kind. The Blair Witch Project brought horror mockumentaries into the mainstream, blazing the trail for every other film on this list. Its raw, low-budget filming style sets a very realistic tone, and it was advertised as a true story—a clever strategy because this film absolutely blew up, grossing well over $100 million. The premise is simple: three film students go to into the allegedly haunted woods near Burkittsville, Maryland to make a documentary about the eerie local legend of the Blair Witch. Big surprise—they get lost. They find seriously creepy things and begin to hear strange sounds at night, and it’s all downhill from there. The film has few true scares and moves at a fairly slow pace, but there’s a constant sense of foreboding that’ll wrack your nerves. The Blair Witch Project is a clever, unsettling film that forces you to use your imagination to fill in the blanks. It might not be for everyone, but if nothing else, this film deserves mad respect as the mother of “found footage” horror.
My Grade: B
#4: Cloverfield (2008)
Synopsis: “Revolves around a monster attack in New York as told from the point of view of a small group of people.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Marvelously Malevolent: It may seem more sci-fi than horror, but Cloverfield is still a wonderfully malevolent mockumentary and a fresh perspective on monster movies. Right from the beginning the film is labeled as government property, setting it up as ominous, classified found footage. What begins as a celebration among friends in a New York apartment quickly turns bad when the city is wracked by an earthquake and then a series of explosions. The source of the catastrophic events is eventually identified as a strange, Godzilla-sized monster that tears the city apart bit by bit. In the midst of the chaos, a small group of the partygoers decides to journey across town to rescue a friend trapped in her apartment. The film has an almost frustratingly slow beginning, prolonging the party scene with details of a failed romantic relationship that I find it hard to care about. But after that the action is almost nonstop and very intense. The visuals are impressive and also unnervingly realistic. A bridge collapses, buildings topple, the Statue of Liberty’s head rolls down the street—and that’s all just a warm-up. However, in the midst of all this craziness, thank God for goofy, loyal cameraman Hud (T.J. Miller). Hud is recruited to film the goings-on at the party, and when the destruction begins, he clings to the camera like a lifeboat, insisting that he needs to document everything. With his awkward, stunned comments, he is without doubt the comic relief of the film, and the humor is a nice tool to break up the tension. The very shaky camera may be a turn-off for some people, but I think Cloverfield has cleverly ushered monsters into a new era.
My Grade: B+
#3: V/H/S/2 (2013)
Synopsis: “Searching for a missing student, two private investigators break into his house and find collection of VHS tapes. Viewing the horrific contents of each cassette, they realize there may be dark motives behind the student’s disappearance.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Marvelously Malevolent: For those who have seen the V/H/S films, you may be surprised that this pops up lower on my list than the first film—because yes, they are both on here. The general opinion seems to be the V/H/S/2 is an improvement over its predecessor, but I respectfully disagree. I do think the sequel does several things better than the first, but overall I think the first film just feels more…genuine, I guess? Anyway, for those unfamiliar with the V/H/S films, they are basically horror anthologies containing found footage tapes. V/H/S/2 has an overarching story about a pair of private investigators who are sent to find a college student, only to find his home abandoned, his laptop playing a mysterious video, and a series of VHS tapes scattered around several TV sets. Each tape delves into a different realm of weird: murderous ghosts, zombies, a cult, and aliens, respectively. Though all of the segments are interesting and reach unique, horrifying climaxes, I believe that the second and third are probably the strongest—the second because it brilliantly combines horror and humor with an emotional punch at the end, the third because it’s some of the weirdest, most disturbing crap I have ever seen. To its credit, I will say that the filming quality in the second V/H/S is better than the original, and I appreciate that the segments are more fleshed out, including the overarching one (because it’s very weak in the first film). However, unlike the first film, it feels scripted, which is a major flaw for a series of found footage films. Still, it’s very close to being as good as V/H/S, and I’m curious to see what they come up with if this franchise continues.
My Grade: B+
#2: V/H/S (2012)
Synopsis: “When a group of misfits is hired by an unknown third party to burglarize a desolate house and acquire a rare VHS tape, they discover more found footage than they bargained for.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Marvelously Malevolent: As a sort of trailblazer for found footage films, I find V/H/S really, really interesting. Like V/H/S/2, it’s an anthology film, but with five segments loosely connected by an overarching story about a bunch of incredibly stupid dudes running around doing incredibly stupid things. One of these stupid things involves them breaking into a house and stealing a VHS tape that is apparently worth a lot of money. As they search for said VHS tape, they happen upon five other tapes—all of which are creepy, but some more so than others. I love the premise, and I think horror in a condensed form like each of these segments can be very effective. For me, the best segment by far is the very last one, which involves a group of guys going to a house for a Halloween party and finding a much more terrifying environment than they expected. The pacing is great, and there are a lot of scares. However, V/H/S isn’t for everyone. Sometimes it tends to drag a little, and in pretty much all of the segments the camera is annoyingly shaky—almost nauseatingly so. And nearly all of the segments are jam-packed with language and gore. Oh, and expect a fair share of nudity, too. Still, given how unique this idea is, I really like V/H/S. Every segment has some solid moments of horror, and all of them end with pretty shocking and/or disturbing twists. I’ll be watching to see if horror anthologies become a trend in the near future; I think the potential is endless.
My Grade: B+
#1: Paranormal Activity (2007)
Synopsis: “After moving into a suburban home, a couple becomes increasingly disturbed by a nightly demonic presence.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Marvelously Malevolent: This film divides a lot of horror fans. Some love it, some loathe it. I happen to be on the side that loves it. A few fun facts: this film was shot in seven days in director Oren Peli’s home, and it had a budget of $15,000. It ended up grossing nearly $200 million worldwide. Sold to audiences like a true story, this simple, clever horror film never fails to creep me out. The first time I saw it I was a sophomore in college, and the heck if I didn’t come back to my empty dorm room and sleep with the lights on. The premise is not complicated: a couple experiences paranormal activity, so the boyfriend decides to film what happens with a handheld camera. He carts it around the house and sets it up each night to record them as they sleep. The filming style is so realistic, and it reaches such a frightening crescendo that if you’re not prepared, it can leave you shaken. It does have its missteps—the beginning and several scenes in between the scares tend to lag, the boyfriend is arrogant to an absurd degree, and there’s a very over-the-top scene involving a Ouija board. But the gripping, terrifying finale makes up for any of its flaws. The three unfortunate sequels make the mistake of going back and trying to explain the entity, but in the first film it is largely a mystery, which makes it infinitely more chilling. This horror might not be scary to everyone, but whenever I rewatch Paranormal Activity, it leaves me wide-eyed and nervous in the dark.
My Grade: A
So those are my Malevolent Mockumentaries! Hope you enjoyed. But hey, if mockumentaries aren’t your style, no worries—Spook Series isn’t through yet! Coming Soon: 10 Crawly Creature Features. I’ll leave you to consider the horrors…mwahaha. I’m going to list my mockumentaries below. How about it—thumbs up? Thumbs down? Thumbs…chopped off by scary things? Would love your feedback, particularly if you have any other horror mockumentaries to recommend!
#1: Paranormal Activity (A)
#2: V/H/S (B+)
#3: V/H/S/2 (B+)
#4: Cloverfield (B+)
#5: The Blair Witch Project (B)
#6: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (B)
#7: The Last Exorcism (B)
#8: Grave Encounters (B-)