According to IMDB, there are over 500 found footage films. Most of them are horror films, starting with the 1980 grindhouse classic Cannibal Holocaust. But we can blame the 1999 snore-fest The Blair Witch Project for opening the Pandora's Box of this genre. In the past 17 years, it seems everybody with a home video camera wants to make a "horror movie". And with rare exceptions (like the 1992 French film Man Bites Dog) they pretty much all suck. In 2008, Cloverfield was released, which made $80,000,000.
Sure, it's not a truly great film (and it's barely a horror film because the first half of the movie is just a going-away party), but it's still the best example of the genre. Here are nine reasons why.
1. Producer J.J. Abrams.
Abrams is now one of the most famous Hollywood writer/producer/directors, and it's easy to forget his roots. Sure, he's a popcorn-flick guy, but he knows how to make them. He was visiting Japan while promoting the first movie he directed, Mission:Impossible III, and decided that America needed its own version of Godzilla. So Cloverfield was born.
2. Director Matt Reeves.
Reeves is no amateur director. After Cloverfield, he went on to direct Let Me In and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He does a good job of taking a sparse story and turning it into a real movie.
3. Writer Drew Goddard.
Most people don't know Goddard's name yet. But they will. He wrote Cloverfield, then he wrote and directed Cabin in the Woods, then wrote World War Z. He's starting to get a real reputation now, after being nominated for an Academy Award for writing 2015's The Martian. There's not much of a story to Cloverfield, but it's well written, for what it is.
4. It has a budget.
Given the team that made the movie, they were given enough of a budget to actually make the movie as it needed to be. This is not a movie made with credit cards and set in the filmmaker's neighborhood. It looks crisp and classy, and the special effects are well done.
5. It has a semi-believable story.
In some found footage films, the setup is about a news reporter/documentary film crew/research team. For the rest of the films, you just have to accept that random people just feel like filming everything in their lives for no real reason... and they just happen to start capturing something weird. Cloverfield sets up the camera as being used by a guy to record farewell messages at a goodbye party. He actually has a reason to carry a camera around. And when the monster attacks, he decides to use the camera to record the event so he has the historical footage.
6. There are interesting uses of the camera.
There's a subplot about the camera itself, and how the party/monster footage is overwriting old tape that was already in the camera. The mayhem is slowly destroying a romantic day between two of the characters. It's completely unnecessary to the plot, but it is a nice piece of character development that most other found footage movies ignore.
Also, the scene at the end when the camera is laying on the ground and switches its focus between the grass and the dead body is a very nice and surprisingly emotional touch.
7. It contains references to other horror/thriller films without just ripping them off.
The movie obviously is meant to remind viewers of Godzilla, but instead of just copying it, Cloverfield amps it up a few notches. As another example, the little creatures are a mixture of the bugs in Starship Troopers and the face-huggers in Aliens. But one of the characters mentions how maybe the monster wants to make him its queen, which is a nice tip of the hat to the Cameron classic.
8. It looks cool.
Most found-footage films look "authentic" by being grainy and low quality... probably because they are using bad cameras. Cloverfield is crisp and clear and colorful. Do home video cameras look that good? No, I don't think so. But if we're supposed to buy the premise of the film, it can at least be fun to watch. And this one is fun to watch. The budget was used in all the right places.
9. It had an ARG.
Cloverfield was one of the first films to use a big Alternate Reality Game as a viral marketing technique. The Tagruato website gave some clever and subtle backstory to the movie. While it was not a specific part of the movie, it enriched the experience for people who were onto it. (NOTE: the website is live again, as part of 10 Cloverfield Lane)
Here's another look at the trailer: