It helped the Blair Witch Project become one of the most profitable horror films of all time and it's remained popular to this day, but has the "found footage" horror genre got any life left in it?
A quick glimpse at the crop of new horror releases suggests studios believe there are still fresh scares to be found in the fake documentary stye. 2012 will see the release of no fewer than four films utilising found footage.
The Chernobyl Diaries, The Helpers, Sinister and V/H/S will all be released before the end of the year and risk boring the notoriously hard-to-please horror audience.
The Blair Witch effect
In 1999 many horror cinema fans were jaded and bored with what seemed like a relentless series of cookie-cutter films with a serial killer slicing his way through young women in skimpy clothing.
After the glorious late 70s and early 80s which gave birth to classics such as The Exorcist, The Omen and The Wicker Man, it seemed like the genre was losing steam and in need of something new.
Then a trailer was released of scratchy, shaky footage from what appeared to be a camcorder held by a crying woman running through the woods. Text on the trailer explained that this was footage from a camera that was discovered after a student documentary crew went missing in the hills of Maryland. The footage was barely comprehensible but nonetheless hypnotic.
Thus The Blair Witch Project phenomenon was born.
Audiences flocked to the film, many under the impression that what they were watching was real documentary footage. The filmmakers soon revealed that the events were all fictional, but nonetheless the style of filming gave the movie a powerful atmosphere of reality.
The film cost just $750,000 to make, as its low production values and lack of speical effects would all support its pretence of reality. It went on to gross almost £250m worldwide.
With numbers like that, it's no surprise that studios sat up straight and started planning their own low-budget money-makers.
The system works
The found footage style spread across the film world like wildfire. Spanish directors Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza created a new horror series in 2007 with [REC], a cunning mixture of Blair Witch-style camcorder filming with 28 Days Later's zombie outbreak.
The monster film was given a new lease of life with Cloverfield in 2008, as director Matt Reeves was able to revisit the plot of Godzilla, but give it a 21st-century spin by filming everything from the perspective of a few terrified civilians.
Meanwhile there was a new moneyspinner created in the form of 2007's Paranormal Activity, which revolved around a single camera in a couple's bedroom and managed to terrify audiences who spent extended periods of time watching practically static images.
Most recently, in 2010, the found footage genre was given a new twist in Norway with Troll Hunter, which followed a young film crew who discovered that the fairytale creatures were real.
The found footage camera became an exercise in misdirection. Suddenly directors were utilising sounds, the edge of the camera frame and naturalistic performances to add kinetic intensity to their films.
2012 risks being the year the found footage style finally exhausts its audience.
In June comes The Chernobyl Diaries, which follows the journey of six tourists through the site of the nuclear disaster zone as they discover they are being hunted. As can be seen in the top trailer, the film is shot from the point of view of one of the tourist's video cameras.
In September comes The Helpers. (Warning video contains violent images)
Although the trailer is less than a minute long, it showcases the film's style, as a crazed clan, who call themselves The Helpers, attack and torture a group of twentysomethings. The film does appear to put an orginal spin on the concept by transforming the film's villains into the cameramen.
Just one month later, the considerably bigger-budget Sinister is released, starring Ethan Hawke.
Although Sinister appears to be a far more typical horror film, with the added gloss of an A-list star, its plot revolves around the discovery of a series of old films. Judging by the trailer, it is these films, made to look as realistic as possible, and the dark spirit that escapes from within, that will provide the biggest scares.
Then, if the horror audience has any appetite left for found footage, November brings the release of V/H/S.
(Warning: Footage contains violence and bad language)
V/H/S revolves around a gang who are hired to break into a house and steal a particular videotape. When they gain access to the house they find a huge collection of tapes. When they start to watch the tapes they discover something horrible.
This will certainly be the year in which the boundaries of audiences' acceptance of found footage is tested. Each new release takes some of the sheen off something that was once original.
The style initially captivated audiences because of its originality and the belief that what they were watching could well be real. The effect obviously risks being diminished through repitition.
The audience starts to ask questions. Why are these characters still filming while they are being chased? How long are their batteries lasting?
Before long what was once an absorbing style could have the very opposite effect.
It could be argued, however, that each of these new releases (perhaps with the exception of The Chernobyl Diaries) is utilising found footage in a different and original way.
There is also the argument that the best horror films and their style reflect the fears of their generation. In the modern world there is a feeling that just about everything that occurs is recorded in one way or another. Within minutes of hearing about major events, such as the death of Muammar Gaddafi, any person could find footage of his bloody body online.
It would seem that the trend of found footage horror reflects a new modern fear - not only that something terrible might happen to you, but that there might also be someone filming it.