There’s a good chance that you’ve already heard that Adam Wingard’s just directed a new Blair Witch film, the lazily entitled Blair Witch, and this should really come as a surprise to no-one; after recent cash-ins on the goodwill attached to names like Halloween, The Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Wicker Man, and even some cash-ins on less prestigious names (Mother’s Day, My Bloody Valentine, the brand-new Blood Feast), it was inevitable that a new Blair Witch would materialise sooner or later. The original is one of a few horrors that can’t be called films so much as phenomena – a category it shares with The Exorcist, Jaws, The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and, closer to its own time, The Sixth Sense, The Ring, and its descendant Paranormal Activity.
Some of those horror phenomena are excellent films in their own right; others – Exorcist, Amityville, Sixth Sense – are overhyped, self-important, and dull. I’ll confess, I’m not a huge fan of The Blair Witch Project either; I sat through it twice and hated it both times, finding little to like in its obnoxious characters, its budget cinematography, its lack of big scares or its central gimmick. But I sat through it a third time for the sake of my girlfriend, an avid but relatively new horror fan, who had managed to avoid it until now and wanted to catch up with the franchise in time for Wingard’s new entry. At first I was restless, eager to find distractions during the now-traditional found-footage scenes of preparations, bickering, smiles to camera and self-deprecation. These characters will be dead soon, but they always seem to kindly ensure we won’t miss them too much. But, around the time a fisherman starts to play the rôle Cabin in the Woods would call the Harbinger, something changed. For the first time, I began to see what critics had been seeing in the film for years, and which I’d been missing until now. It is rough, and raw, amateurish, and minimalist. It is also strangely beautiful, and absolutely terrifying.
In my time at mrrumsey.com I have reviewed and, by and large, hated, countless found-footages. The genre is so well-established today that to anyone young it may be difficult to appreciate what made the original so astonishing. Cannibal Holocaust is often pointed to as the first found-footage but any commenter doing so forgets that the film used a conventionally fictional framing device to get to its found-footage portions. The Last Broadcast, a similarly zero-budget digital feature released one year previously, was not pure found-footage so much as hoax documentary. Works of horror fiction dressed up to resemble documentaries stretch back in film history at least as far as 1922’s Häxan – an inspiration to directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, who named their production company Haxan Films in its honour – but are far older in literature. These ask audiences to buy into their reality to the extent that campfire ghost stories do; after all, there is nothing outlandish about the notion that documentary filmmakers might be liberal with the truth. If non-fiction represents 1 on a scale and pure fiction a 4, then we might place a documentary like 102 Minutes that Changed America at 1, Fahrenheit 9/11 at 2, Loose Change at 3, and Cloverfield at a 4. The Blair Witch Project was practically unique at the time of its release for asking us to accept that the film had no writer, no director, no filmmakers at all – it was exactly what transpired, given to us without intermediary. Of course, the extensive promotional work undertaken by the filmmakers to maintain that illusion, including setting up websites ahead of time, mocking up several documentaries exploring what transpired, and listing its three principal actors as “missing, presumed dead” on the IMDb, helped with that.
All of that stuff, seventeen years on, seems hopelessly naïve, and it’s difficult now to see the film through the eyes of a 1999 audience. Like with Psycho and unlike with, say, The Exorcist, all we’re left with is an excellent film. And it really is an excellent film. Its structuring is clever, getting right to the point with scenes of film-director Heather explaining the Blair Witch legend to us and interviews with locals filling us in on her legacy, including a series of apparently related child-murders in the 1940s. The teased detail and impression of verisimilitude is Lovecraftian, but once our doomed heroes arrive in the woods, the picture taps into the traditions of the slasher. Throughout, the steady escalation of threat is managed credibly, the principals’ attitude moving from undergraduate enthusiasm, to tempers frayed by the prospect of bad weather and loss of direction, to the terror of imminent death. The callousness with which the average slasher movie dispatches teens in the woods tends to numb viewers to the real horror of what is being proposed, and the fact that The Blair Witch Project refuses to let up in confronting us with the real nature of such an ordeal give it its effectiveness. “OK, here’s your motivation,” a self-aware Josh yells, aggressively pushing a camera into the face of a weeping Heather, “you’re lost, you’re angry in the woods, and no-one is here to help you […] We walked for fifteen hours today, we ended up in the same place! There’s no-one here to help you! That’s your motivation!”. The sequence is distressing merely to watch, something that is aided enormously by the naturalist performances given by amateur actors who are credibly cold, hungry and miserable (famously, the torment inflicted by the directors fell just short of the torment supposedly inflicted by the Blair Witch herself). A famous sequence with the actors running from an unseen threat frustrated some monster-movie fans keen to see the apparently horrifying, and oddly hairy, witch as described by a townsperson early on; similarly unglimpsed monsters in Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity have also frustrated. But the criticism misses what’s so frightening about The Blair Witch Project – it isn’t that we’re scared of the Blair Witch, because who’s honestly afraid of witches? It’s that we empathise with doomed, increasingly hopeless Heather, Josh and Mike. If other found-footages have failed to replicate its acclaim, then it is because they have focused on its guerrilla style and shock tactics rather than its human factor.
Earning equal criticism for similar reasons was its frustratingly fragmentary ending, in which Heather and Mike stumble upon a cabin that Josh might be inside; Mike elects to investigate, while Heather reluctantly follows, and in a rushed, confusing sequence, captures Mike’s death as he stands facing a wall (a detail resembling the 1940s child murders of the backstory) before being attacked herself by something unseen. It is an act of cruelty to the audience as much as it is to its characters, something that I only came to appreciate on rewatching. Really, a satisfying ending to the film could only have been unsatisfying, whereas the mystery we are given gnaws at us, remains in the back of our heads.
Additions to the “phenomenon”, including comic books, novels, videogames, a McFarlane Toys line of action figures, the pseudo-documentaries “Curse of the Blair Witch”, “Sticks and Stones: Investigating the Blair Witch”, “The Burkittsville 7”, and “Shadow of the Blair Witch”, expanded the backstory but in so doing diluted the inexplicable horror of the original film. Joe Berlinger’s non-found-footage sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was utterly conventional, deriving most of its enjoyability from its lapses in logic, acting, and editing. The film utterly killed off a franchise that had flourished impressively within only one year, but putting it to rest was likely for the best. Enough time has passed now that the legacy of the original remains strong, and positive early reviews combined with a strong previous filmography from new director Wingard mean it’s safe to keep hopes high for Blair Witch. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the woods…