The Best Faux-Documentaries You've Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we explore movies that pretend to be true despite clearly not being true unless they're actually true?!)

Documentaries are snapshots of real life and narrative films tell stories (true or otherwise) in fictional form, but resting somewhere in between the two sits the faux-documentary. They come in all manner of shapes, sizes, and genres, but the overwhelming majority seem to be comedies. From This Is Spinal Tap (1984) to Best in Show (2000), reality gets mocked quite a bit – hence the term mockumentary – but there are serious ones too including Punishment Park (1971) and Death of a President (2006).

There are also horror-themed ones including Noroi: The Curse (2005) and The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) though they're often lumped incorrectly in with found footage films. Incorrectly because while found footage is exactly that – footage that's been supposedly discovered and presented as is (hence the usual long, dull build-up to the final minutes where something frightening actually happens) – fake docs are properly edited for official release, include interviews, and feature music scores.

Keep reading for a look at six great "documentaries" you probably haven't seen.

Ghostwatch (1992)

A respected news program devotes one of its weekly live episodes to an exploration of the paranormal, and the evening doesn't quite go as expected. While the host leads the show from the studio, their lead reporter enters a family's home to discuss their claims of supernatural events transpiring over the past several months.

This was aired on Halloween night by BBC1 in 1992, and like Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, it led to a massive response from concerned citizens. 30,000 people called in the space of an hour, some to complain and some to settle their concerns that it was actually real, and the film went on to become something of a pop culture legend in the UK. Adding to its mystique was the delay in its availability – it was never rebroadcast on TV and took ten years to reach home video. The film went on to inspire other works of ghostly fiction, including an episode of Doctor Who and it itself is loosely based on the Enfield Poltergeist which also inspired The Conjuring 2 (2016).

Its power comes from the believability of the presentation beginning with how dry it all is. From the uniquely British host (Michael Parkinson) to the matter of fact introduction of the other on camera talents, technical preparation, and more. It feels every bit like a more sedate take on Geraldo Rivera's epic live opening of Al Capone's safe – anything can happen! Or nothing at all! And that mentality carries over to when things do start happening. Because it's a "live" show, there are no music stingers to the scares, allowing them instead to just happen naturally, and the show even delivers some creepy imagery that viewers may not catch (consciously anyway) on a single viewing. It's a fun watch that builds to a frenzied conclusion that's familiar to genre fans but must have been a real stunner for unsuspecting TV audiences in the early '90s. (Just keep your snickering to yourself when the terrifying doorway beneath the stairs is identified as the ol' Glory Hole.)

Ghostwatch is available to rent on Amazon or watch on Shudder.

Forgotten Silver (1995)

You might not recognize the name Colin McKenzie, but every film lover owes him a debt of gratitude. Several debts, actually, as the long-forgotten filmmaker is responsible for inventing numerous innovations that elevated cinema including the tracking shot, color film, and "talkies." This doc follows the discovery of lost footage and films revealing his previously unheralded contributions.

Peter Jackson's meticulously crafted film premiered on New Zealand's TV One and was billed as a legitimate documentary. Locals were baffled and thrilled by the discovery and delighted by this new source of national pride, but Jackson soon conceded its entirety was a fictional concoction. In addition to brilliantly conceived "fake" footage mimicking the style and look of period films, we're treated to interviews with the likes of Jackson, Sam Neill, Leonard Maltin, and noted rapist Harvey Weinstein offering straight-faced words of recognition and praise for McKenzie's talents. All of the talking heads give their best deadpan performances, and their seriousness is as believable as it is funny (once you're in on the joke).

While notable for its ridiculous feeling of authenticity the film also delivers as a smartly written comedy. McKenzie's accomplishments are heavily praised, but almost to the last they're shown to be the unintentional result of accidents, missteps, or bad calls on the filmmaker's part. Newly found footage reveals a man whose successes outweigh his efforts with spectacular results. The "fact" that he was then forgotten is just icing on the man's silver nitrate cake.

Forgotten Silver is not currently available.

Lake Mungo (2008)

Sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer drowned on a family outing near a lake in Australia, and like many families who've lost loved ones, the Palmers found it difficult to move on. The documentary begins as they've begun seeing something strange in the days and weeks since – Alice is showing up in photos and videos taken after her death.

It's safe to say this is probably the most popular and widely seen of the films on this list, but I'm including it anyway on the off chance even one more person decides to give it a watch. There's a terrifically low-key creepiness to it all as the interviews lull us into a calm sadness before chilling our bones with the teenager's reappearance. It's far from a traditional haunting – there are none of the typical ghostly encounters we're used to – as our connection with the supernatural comes almost exclusively from the photos, and to that end be sure to watch into the end credits for some of the film's most chilling images.

As terrifying as it is – and again, it's supremely creepy at times – the film also holds your attention through its display of grief and some engaging story turns. This family is suffering, and while their inability to let Alice go presumably leads to her return, it also opens up unexpected story turns. Alice, like many of us, has secrets, and we learn about her as the family does, for better and worse. Were she not dead, this would still be a solid drama, but with her tragic end comes reveals and revelations guaranteed to haunt your heart.

Lake Mungo is currently available to rent on Amazon.

A Necessary Death (2008)

Three college filmmakers join forces for a documentary about suicide that follows a subject through their final days and the act itself. They interview numerous applicants before settling on a man dying from a brain tumor, but as they document his journey, the limits of their intentions make themselves clear.

Director Daniel Stamm went on to make more traditional horror/thrillers in the form of The Last Exorcism (2010) and 13 Sins (2014), but his first feature remains the most harrowing due to its effective portrayal of someone's devastating emotional state. We watch as their subject discusses his situation, says his goodbyes, and comes closer to term with his decision, and the performances work to make it land with real power. Were this a real documentary – think The Bridge (2006) or How to Die in Oregon (2011) – it would hurt. As it stands, it uses fiction to explore some very real issues to the point that a person could easily be convinced that this is a real doc (for most of its running time anyway).

The drama of the man's decision sits at the core of the film, but other human themes circle around it starting with the filmmakers' ambition. What drives them to want to document another person's death? There's an exploitative factor to their actions and to the film itself, and it serves to challenge the purity of the emotion felt elsewhere in the film. It's also balanced by the film's honest approach to suicide – while the students may be wrong in wanting to capture it, the man contemplating it is given real humanity and an attempt at understanding his mental and emotional reality.

A Necessary Death is currently available to rent on Amazon.

Hell House LLC (2016)

In 2009, a popular Hell House attraction opened its doors in an abandoned hotel outside New York City. The fun lasted for a short while before something occurred in the basement that left several people dead, injured, or traumatized. What exactly happened has never been made clear... until now.

This is the most purely horror-oriented title to make the list, but while I occasionally see it show up on found footage lists (despite not being a proper found footage film), it doesn't get mentioned nearly enough. It's a killer flick that generates some truly terrifying moments and sequences including the one captured in the still above. Clowns are creepy enough as is, but adding one into the mix here is just plain cruel. Interview subjects discuss the incident, some as observers and some as witnesses, and their thoughts are intercut with footage from the night in question recorded on multiple cameras by multiple people. The terror grows steadily with bursts of really frightening scenes before reaching a climax that lands beautifully.

This is a solid double feature with The Houses October Built (2014) as both films use real haunted house experiences as their base, and while the real ones aren't truly scary in practice – too many people, too predictable, etc – the environments themselves are nightmare fuel. Uncomfortable dwellings, cramped quarters, human figures that could be dolls or could be real goddamn people, and the simple terror that comes with silent, masked presences all work to create an atmosphere where every movement (or lack of movement as the case may be) works to terrify. The "doc" builds the story naturally and believably as an investigative feature by teasing events early on and then unspooling the lead-up with increasing urgency.

Hell House LLC is currently available to watch on Amazon Prime.

Population Zero (2016)

In 2009, three friends were murdered in Yellowstone National Park, and shortly after they died a man exited the park and confessed to the crimes. There was no discernible motive, but what should have been an open and shut case instead saw the suspect acquitted due to a little-known loophole in the U.S. Constitution. Five years after the incident, a documentary filmmaker received an email suggesting there was more to the story.

The beauty of this "doc" is in knowing that the so-called Zone of Death at the heart of the story is a very real stretch of land that could, in theory, play a role in this legal scenario. The murders are unsettling enough, but the existence of a spot that prohibits finding a jury of twelve peers – a guarantee enshrined in the Sixth Amendment – is a startling curiosity. It's a real conceit, and the film milks it for both shock and disgust as its reveal is followed by the killer's release.

The film is fascinating enough while it focuses on the loophole, but the plot develops in unexpected directions as the filmmaker digs deeper into the lives of both killer and victims. Connections arise between the men and, surprisingly, with the documentarian himself. It makes for a constantly engaging tale, and while the film gives away its narrative bones a bit too early thanks in large part to the fictional filmmaker featuring far too much of himself, it's a minor flaw in an otherwise fascinating film.

Population Zero is currently available to rent on Amazon.

Kung Fu Elliot (2014)

Elliot Scott is a rare Canadian action hero, and while his first two films were minor attractions, his efforts to produce a bigger, better third feature are enough to catch the eye of a documentary filmmaker. The film follows Elliot's exploits and efforts, but it quickly becomes clear that his claims, intentions, and sanity are all questionable at best.

I'm adding in this seventh title as a bonus because, while I feel comfortable calling it a fake doc, the filmmakers themselves continue to claim it's 100% true. I get it, it's good for marketing, but I'm not buying it. The details of Elliot's "professional" career are just too easy to verify in advance, and his exploits mark him immediately as a man who's not only not to be trusted, but also not to be allowed within twenty feet of a woman. He's a bad dude.

All of that said the film is utterly fascinating, frequently hilarious, and constantly revealing. There's a sad desperation to Elliot that shifts nebulously from endearing to threatening, and as the film progresses he moves from innocuous liar to dangerous fraud. He remains a charismatic center for the film even after we've stopped rooting for him as an underdog and start recognizing him as a simple dog.

Kung Fu Elliot is currently available to watch on Amazon Prime.