Blair Witch: A Legacy (Almost) Fulfilled
When I first watched the original The Blair Witch Project in theaters many years ago, it didn’t scare me all that much. It’s kind of a slow burner, with not much happening until near the end of the film. But when I got home that night, I had to sleep with a light on for the first time since I was a child. Every little creak and crick in my house had me thoroughly convinced that something was going to eat me the second the lights went out.
The Blair Witch Project scared the shit out of me like the ghost stories we used to piss our pants from when we were kids. I’ve never had a movie get inside my head like that before.
Fast forward a generation, and Blair Witch, now playing in theaters everywhere, had precisely the opposite effect: it was incredibly terrifying to watch, but failed to suspend my disbelief to the point that I might actually take a piece of it home with me.
Playing off the formula that made the original such a runaway hit, Blair Witch centers around a group of young people who head to the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland with a set of cameras to investigate the legend of the Blair Witch. They disappear shortly thereafter, and eventually their footage is discovered in the woods, far from where they disappeared. It’s a solid formula, if not a terribly original one.
But where The Blair Witch Project’s incredibly low budget forced the filmmakers to innovate in ways that proved to be as groundbreaking as they were terrifying, Blair Witch clearly had enough backing that in the game of “show and tell,” they were able to do a lot less telling and a lot more showing. While this made for an incredibly visceral experience, it wasn’t a terribly lingering one. But given how fucked up this movie was, I think that’s all right.
Take the marketing, for example: The Blair Witch Project is nothing without it. In the early days of the Internet, the film became one of the very first things to go viral, creating a huge buzz around the “controversy” of whether the “found” footage — the first of its kind to be used to make an entire film, coincidentally — was authentic.
Even when the filmmakers came forward and stated clearly that the footage was fake, many people still remained in doubt, because the marketing was that good: there were a bunch fake news reports created, a website that explored the entire legend and provided a bevy of written and illustrated context, and TV commercials that played the legitimacy of the footage totally straight. It was unprecedented, and many of the techniques pioneered in the buildup to The Blair Witch Project are used by major studios today.
Conversely, Blair Witch offers none of this. The cat is out of the bag as far as fakery is concerned, so there’s no convincing people this might be real. The background of the movie has all been laid out already, so there’s little need to rehash it in great detail with a fancy website or anything. What trailers were made for this movie were pretty standard horror movie fare. Scary as hell, but nothing out of the ordinary. Constrained by its filmic history, Blair Witch postured itself in the only way it could: as the definitive sequel to the original.
There’s even more going on to lend distinction to The Blair Witch Project beyond the marketing, as well. In addition to the actors essentially being their own film crew, most of their performances were completely unscripted, relying instead upon broad plot points and their own raw reactions to form the dialogue. To create those reactions, the actors were not informed beforehand of the scares that would be staged by the crew during filming, meaning that what you’re seeing on screen is completely genuine.
Beyond that, the daily food drops being left behind for the actors were gradually reduced without their knowledge in order to keep them lean, mean, and a little desperate, adding an unmistakable edge to their performance that comes from a very real place: starvation. Each actor signed a disclaimer allowing for all of this, by the way. Talk about “method acting,” amirite?
The legacy of The Blair Witch Project original film gave the makers of Blair Witch a lot more wiggle room (and money) to kick things up a notch, and with the pressure on to deliver the goods, that’s precisely what they did. In order to do so well, however, risk clearly needed to be eliminated: there’s absolutely a script at play, the scares have tighter staging that speaks to an informed cast, the whole thing was shot over a much shorter period of time, and a number of reshoots were conducted. It’s less authentic, less indie, but will stand the test of multiple viewings much better for it.
Once Blair Witch gets rolling, it goes straight for the jugular. The scares come fast and furious, and fully two-thirds of the movie will have you crawling out of your skin. Highlights include: a first-person shot of one character falling out of a tree and literally hitting every branch on the way down, a girl being folded in half, some funky time-travel shit that gets left totally unexplained, and a tunnel-crawling excursion that made a 300-seat theater feel like a broom closet.
None of these things are especially gory, with only a trickle of blood coming from origami girl’s mouth right before the shit completely hits the fan. Like its predecessor, Blair Witch relies extensively on innovative cinematography and editing to deliver the punches, with enough weird camera angles and jump cuts to make even the most hardcore FPS veterans a bit queasy. Hats off to the production team for this one: if this movie wins any awards next season, it’ll be for everything back of house.
But wearing fancy earbud cameras with built-in microphones and flying drones around the forest makes Blair Witch feel more like an episode of Ghost Hunters gone wrong than a bona fide horror movie, and the whole thing comes off a little too self-aware because of it. Combine this with the meta-narrative that propels the story(it’s basically movie about making a documentary about a documentary that was being made about another documentary, with a separate documentary being made within the current documentary that is being made), and the film feels contrived enough to make it easy to leave your fears behind once the credits start rolling.
The Blair Witch Project was a masterpiece of marketing innovation and filmmaking, one completely confined to the period in which was created. Blair Witch is a rollicking, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, but hardly what you’d call innovative or original. Neither beg multiple viewings, but both made for a fun excuse to chomp down a bucket of popcorn on date night. Horror movies don’t have to be original to be good. But the ones that aren’t won’t ever make you sleep with the lights on.
This post was originally featured on Pink Elephants on September 21st, 2016. For the original post, click here.