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.

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