With Paranormal Activity 3 annihilating the box office competition this weekend, found footage horror flicks have carved out their own sub-genre. The Blair Witch Project in 1999 is generally the film that comes to mind when people are asked to name the first found footage flick, although the first Paranormal Activity was the film that solidified the sub-genre's legitimacy. But don't be fooled; those aren't the first. In fact, you could technically consider Orson Welles' 1939 broadcast of War of the Worlds to be the first "found footage" media, as it follows the same conceit (a fictional tale of horror that purports to be true).
But let's focus on movies. We've got four found footage horror films that came before Blair Witch.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
The original "found footage" film, this controversial and infamous flick from Italian director Ruggero Deodato aims to find out what happened to a group of documentarians who went off into the jungle in search of a tribe of cannibal aborigines. The only clue as to the crew's whereabouts comes from the footage they shot, which was all that the rescue team was able to find. Cannibal Holocaust is not 100% found footage, like most found footage films are today. The flick includes scenes of the rescue team prepping for their journey, finding the documentary team's remains, and even scenes of the rescue team watching the documentary footage. Even still, it is about 90% found footage.
Without Warning (1994)
This made-for-TV movie was structured like live news reports interrupting regular broadcasting (in this case, a murder mystery starring Loni Anderson that was specifically shot for this project). In it, meteors hit the earth in what is believed to be random yet catastrophic events. It quickly becomes clear that these crashes are not meteors, but carefully orchestrated alien attacks. Like Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, Without Warning caused nationwide fear, despite warnings that the movie was entirely fictional. Several cities - including Detroit and San Diego - refused to air the program outright.
Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998)
Another made-for-TV movie, Alien Abduction follows the McPherson family Thanksgiving, recorded on Tommy's new video camera. During the evening, the power goes out. WhenTommy and his brothers go investigate they discover a UFO, flown by aliens. Aside from the stiff acting, this is another very believable "real" video that confused audiences because, unlike Without Warning, no warnings that this was fictitious were broadcast. Even UFO researchers were confused by the reality of the program. Alien Abduction is a remake of supposedly "real" McPherson family footage.
The Last Broadcast (1998)
Created by Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler for an alleged $900 ("the cost of a nice home stereo system), The Last Broadcast follows the basic outline of Cannibal Holocaust. A pair of cable access hosts are murdered while investigating the legend of the Jersey Devil for their show Fact or Fiction, and a filmmaker takes his camera along when he decides to investigate the murders. Avalos and Weiler conceived of the idea for The Last Broadcast in 1996 as a way to capitalize on digital technology that had recently become affordable for a consumer market. The Last Broadcast enjoyed a brief theatrical and festival run before settling on to DVD.