Franchise Corner Entry: BLAIR WITCH
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT ***** USA 1999 Dir: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez. 87 mins
It became very fashionable very quickly to be a naysayer with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, following months of innovative viral marketing, festival word of mouth suggesting “Scariest film ever!” and a mountain of cash made at the U.S. summer box office. By the time of its late October UK release, expectations were so ridiculously high, it couldn’t fail to disappoint many. Almost 20 years on, however, it survives as a superbly crafted and vastly influential forerunner of the 21st century’s revival of the “found footage” shocker format that dates back to MONDO CANE and beyond. Crucially, it arrived just as the post-SCREAM cycle of smarmy (and, crucially, unscary) teen-pitched horror films had burned itself out, vanishing up its own overly clever arse. BLAIR WITCH returned the genre to something akin to a modern cinematic M R James story, or the Val Lewton horrors of the 1940’s, where everything is suggested and a creeping sense of dread tricks us into thinking we’ve seen more than we have.
The film created a fascinating mythology for the town of Burkitsville, Maryland – in which three bickering film students (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard, famously living the parts, armed with a 16mm film camera and a camcorder while the directors worked hard to freak them out) get lost, disorientated and terrified. The opening excerpts of their documentary project offer ominous portents of things to come while cannily parodying the inconsistencies inherent in all local myths and legends. The situations are credible, with an uncomfortably vivid sense of being horribly lost, hungry and tired in the company of equally suffering friends. The movie has the courage of its unfashionable convictions, swapping the glossy, fast-paced teen horror style of the MTV era for a deliberately patience-testing (but increasingly intense) slow-burn in which the viewer is as trapped (by the first-person vantage point) as the protagonists and major dramatic moments involve the discovery of piles of rocks or hanging stick figures. A signature scene of panic and terror consists of a blurred nocturnal image of Heather running with Josh, yelling repeatedly “What the fuck is that?” – a nightmarish evocation of all of our incoherent, irrational fears.
The naturalistic performances from the three leads were often undervalued amidst the critical / fan backlash of the time: although only the gullible were convinced it was “real” footage, it’s hard to think of many other films in which the actors have seemed so downright terrified. Donahue’s transformation from headstrong project leader to petrified victim, resigned to a grim fate, is haunting to watch – her climactic direct-to-camera address one of the most upsetting moments in modern horror and an emotional bridge to the raw terror of the abrupt finale. The movie itself remains a bold, traumatising examination of how, when we’re cut off from our modern luxuries and thrust into the unforgiving natural world, we’re at the mercy of our own fragile tempers and personal weaknesses. Our instability is enhanced by traumatising childhood and adult memories of fictional rural horrors and wicked witches : both DELIVERANCE and THE WIZARD OF OZ are cannily referenced in the dialogue. And, whether the Blair Witch is real or not, we lose it.
CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH **** USA 1999 Dir: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez. 44 mins
Broadcast on July 11th 1999 on the Sci-Fi Channel three weeks ahead of the film’s U.S. theatrical release, this faux-documentary was a crucial, and highly effective, element of the BLAIR WITCH promotional machine. It fulfils its main task of building tremendous anticipation for the film itself (from which there are various excerpts), while developing the backstory of the “Project”. Heather Donahue’s teacher, relatives and friends are interviewed about her obsession, while we learn of the origins of the “Witch” and the persecution / execution of Ellie Caldwell in the 18th century, who cursed the village and became a convenient scapegoat when Bad Stuff went down later on. Enhancing the impact of the movie’s harrowing finale, there is also well crafted footage of Rustin Parr, the 1940’s killer who lured and murdered several kids – apparently under the Blair Witch’s “command” – and forced one to face the wall while he tortured the other. Police examinations, news broadcasts and –as with Stephen Volk’s GHOSTWATCH – the key presence of a Doubting Thomas (a sceptical professor considering all of this to be a hoax) are all on hand to discuss the footage that came to be edited into THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Creepy in its own right and a suitably dread-fuelled companion piece to the film, CURSE is also among the most persuasively acted of the many “mockumentary” horror films that followed in its wake.
BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 **** USA 2000 Dir: Joe Berlinger. 90 mins
Talented documentarian Joe Berlinger (best known for the PARADISE LOST trilogy) was given the unenviable task of sequelising an unprecedented indie horror hit for a Halloween 2000 release date. He set out – smartly, in fact – to “make a sequel to the phenomenon, not the film” –recognising the redundancy of attempting to duplicate the approach and unique marketing of the original. It echoes the original’s core theme (the psychological collapse of a group of people investigating the legends of allegedly cursed Burkitsville) but deliberately experiments with horror tropes and everyone’s knowledge of the earlier film to visualise what they may or may not be experiencing. Five fans of the 1999 film – including a Wicca girl who resents that it gave people another excuse to fear and hate witches – venture into the infamous woods as part of a guided tour, and extensive mind-fucking follows. Berlinger accurately described his film as “an anti-sequel”, and it cleverly taps into the post-SCREAM trend for relentless pop culture referencing, while echoing signature moments from classic modern horror films, all in service to a story that ends up raising fascinating themes about the impact of the media on its consumers, the capability of all of us to commit extreme acts and the crucial difference between dominant technologies: “Film lies. Video tells the truth…”
Ultimately, Berlinger turned a rushed cash-in into a bold attempt to satirise a modern America in which 20 seconds of grainy video footage (of Rodney King beaten by the LAPD) can lead to widespread urban violence and a cleverly contrived independent horror film like BWP can create its own bogus mythology, convincing audiences of its authenticity. BOOK OF SHADOWS is one of the most disorientating mainstream movies of its period, questioning and undermining the box office smash that preceded it and employing characters who each represent a different, credible response to the first film. Its climax is powerfully executed, as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT movie becomes as much of a convenient scapegoat for the horrifying actions of ordinary people as “The Blair Witch” myth did for Rustin Parr. The inexperienced actors, many in their first major movie, have shaky moments and the risibly hammy Sheriff is a distraction, but the movie never deserved its critical trashing: many viewers missed the point, and in the process, overlooked its many effective moments, including the subtle but sinister visual reference to Heather Donahue’s confessional.
Berlinger’s commentary track on the DVD release of BOOK OF SHADOWS is a fascinating insight into this subversive film’s battle with the studio. Just weeks before the film’s release, Artisan demanded the addition of crude gory inserts and fractured his intended eight minute interrogation finale, reducing the power of the film’s ending. They also replaced his intended ironic use of Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” over the titles with a Marilyn Manson track and enforced a title card that he hated (but rewrote sarcastically). Even with these unfortunate changes, this remains a smart movie, and one ripe for reappraisal.
BLAIR WITCH *** USA 2016 Dir: Adam Wingard. 89 mins
Faced with the challenge of following both a hugely lucrative yet divisive original film and a widely hated sequel, director Adam Wingard’s direct sequel to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT masqueraded as a suspiciously familiar stand-alone film called THE WOODS before its true origins and title were unveiled at Comic Con in 2016. A clever dual-layer opening establishes the mission of Heather’s grown up brother (James Allen McCune): he has spotted his long-missing sibling lurking in online footage allegedly filmed at Rustin Parr’s house. Wingard brings the documenting technology up to date (including a drone used for one decent visual frisson) and exploits the expectations of both the characters and the audience, with a stickman hoax casting doubt on the whole expedition. The existing mythology is re-established and embellished satisfyingly. Sadly, the increased cast gives the film a slasher movie vibe and lessens the impact considerably: once you’ve seen one character dragged off screaming stage right a la PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, you’ve seen them all. Wingard depressingly falls back on loud, lazy, Hollywood-style fake-scares and the kind of lame clichés that the previous BLAIR WITCH films either avoided entirely or used to commentate on the genre. Perhaps reflecting the declining attention spans of the intended audience, it simply lacks the patience of the 1999 film: the terrorisation is amped up, more explicit and more frequent, but there’s no real sense of dread, and some elements are totally out of place in the BLAIR WITCH universe. There are moments of intensity, and the Blair Witch (now revealed to have a Medusa-inspired power: the trick is not to look at her) remains a potent force of evil. However, although not without interest, this belated companion piece swiftly becomes a mere footnote to the far smarter preceding films.
Reviews by Steven West