It’s rare for a movie to genuinely trick its audience, but it can (and does) happen sometimes. Usually, films that pull off some huge deception get talked about so much that future viewers are not likely to be surprised. This happens with huge plot twists – for example, people generally know who Darth Vader is before they ever watch Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
Beyond plot twists that trick an audience, the same can also be found for movies that deceive an audience even further: by tricking them that what they’re seeing is real. This can happen by passing off staged footage as real or convincing viewers that what they’re about to see is based on a true story … when that’s not the case at all. Because of how much buzz most of these movies caused, they’re not likely to trick any new viewers, and indeed, most came out before the internet made urban legends easier to criticize or debunk. But in one way or another, these films tricked some of their viewers into thinking more of the film was real than what ended up being the case.
‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999)
One of the defining (though not the first) found footage horror movie arguably remains the best of its kind. The Blair Witch Project has a reputation that precedes it nowadays, being a horror film about three young filmmakers who venture into a forest to cover a local legend, only to disappear mysteriously.
The film’s gimmick was that these people went missing and that the footage shown as part of the movie was recovered from their abandoned filming equipment. There were websites, fake interviews, and even IMDb pages for the people in the film that were supposedly missing and presumed dead. With the internet in its infancy, this kind of marketing worked among a group of less jaded, less skeptical online users, even if there was only a short period when the deception genuinely worked. The fact that it worked on anyone at all is quite impressive.
Fargo is one of the very best movies of the ’90s. Directed by the Coen brothers, telling a story of a group of incompetent crooks whose stupidity leads to bloodshed and death before a hyper-competent, heavily pregnant cop comes in and resolves the situation almost single-handedly. It’s also well-known for its opening text, which falsely states: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.”
It was likely included as a joke by the Coen Brothers, but a new urban legend popped up surrounding one woman who took it so seriously that she went looking for the briefcase of cash that gets buried (and never collected) in the film. How true this is may never be known for sure, but if it’s believable enough to catch on as an urban legend, there’s a good chance other viewers saw the text in 1996 and assumed it was a depiction of true events (especially viewers who might not have been aware of the Coen Brothers’ sly sense of humor).
‘Forgotten Silver’ (1995)
Forgotten Silver is an early film directed by Peter Jacksonseveral years before he went on to direct The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a TV movie / mockumentary about a filmmaker who made films in New Zealand in the early 20th century, only to be unfairly forgotten by history.
He was not forgotten because he never actually existed. But the historical footage and documentary format was parodied so effectively that allegedly, some viewers in New Zealand believed it was a real story about a genuine historical figure. It shows that whether he is backed by huge amounts of Hollywood money or a tiny TV movie budget, Jackson is a master at making viewers believe what they see on-screen.
‘I’m Still Here’ (2010)
Over a decade on from I’m Still Here’s release; it’s still a difficult movie to explain. At least one thing that people know for sure is that it is a mockumentary – and intended to be comedic – whereas, in 2010, there was even less certainty to do with anything about this strange, surreal film.
This is because it follows famed actor Joaquin Phoenix During a transitionary period of his life, as he announces he’s retiring from acting and will become a hip-hop artist instead. Phoenix’s numerous acting performances post-2010 will ensure no current viewers believe it, but Phoenix was so dedicated to staying in character in public and during interviews (not just on set) that there was a time, around this movie’s release, where some viewers genuinely entertained the idea that I’m Still Here was a real documentary.
‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980)
Cannibal Holocaust was one of the earliest found footage horror movies, presenting itself as a film assembled from footage captured by a group of American filmmakers who disappeared while making a documentary on a tribe of cannibals deep in the Amazon rainforest.
It may not have been the entire film that tricked viewers, but some of its intensely gory and realistic special effects did, as the film’s director even had to prove how some special effects were done to an Italian court. Otherwise, he risked being charged for genuinely murdering a few of the real actors in the film. Unfortunately, though, much of Cannibal Holocaust’s violence against animals was not faked, as there are numerous graphic scenes of animals being killed and eaten in gruesome detail.
‘Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’ (2006)
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is a mockumentary about a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan who documents his journey to America. Along the way, he hopes to learn about what makes America great and meet Pamela Anderson in the process.
Including this, among other films that tricked audiences, should come with a caveat. It’s not that it fooled its eventual audience when the real movie was released, but it’s notable for fooling (or appearing to fool) almost everyone seen in the film. Sacha Baron Cohen never breaks character, and he consistently convinces those he meets that he’s actually a journalist from Kazakhstan, which makes the movie as hilarious as it is awkward. Those people always knew they would end up in some kind of movie … they were just tricked into what kind of movie it would be and were likely unaware they’d end up being ridiculed so extensively.
‘Faces of Death’ (1978)
Faces of Death finds itself in a similar boat to Cannibal Holocaust, as each contains disturbing, controversial, violent content that mixes real and faked footage. While Cannibal Holocaust has more special effects than genuine footage, Faces of Death is split quite evenly between showing horrific, violent sights from reality and showing fabricated, staged footage of similarly gory events that are said to be genuine.
There are many scenes within this shock documentary that were once thought to be real and have since been disproved, but other parts that remain genuine. It’s a film that combines fact and fiction but mostly to shock and disgust, failing to make a true societal critique like more carefully made disturbing documentaries (like 1981’s excellent The Killing of America) sometimes manage to do.
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