Tony Black on the return of the Blair Witch franchise…
Of course the first question worth asking is this: is Blair Witch a horror movie? That now depends on which Blair Witch you’re talking about. Amongst all its glittering comic book movie reveals, Comic Con 2016’s biggest surprise turned out to be that Adam Wingard’s upcoming found footage horror picture, The Woods, set to release in September, has long in secret been a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. You’ve probably seen that one, the 1999 micro budget film which practically invented the found footage genre (or at least rocketed it once more into the public consciousness) and sent people at Cannes into paroxysms of fear in a manner few had seen since The Exorcist twenty five years earlier.
It’s been described by many as a seminal piece of horror to reflect Generation X, the pre-millennial terror of the camera capturing the primal fear of being lost in the woods, but as we prepare for the next chapter in the Blair Witch saga, it’s worth looking back on the beginning of what could now finally become a franchise, because there’s a great deal more to it than just a horror film. Indeed there’s a strong case to be made that The Blair Witch Project isn’t even a horror film at all.
To me it’s always been a survivalist drama, tinged with an edge of mystery and mythology. Horror, by definition, has often been mischaracterised over the years; it’s about the confrontation of your worst nightmares, of the literal visitation of something horrific by its very nature. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams & Joshua Leonard certainly encounter in the Burkittsville woods something they would consider horrific, something terrifying, something beyond explanation… but we never see it. We think we do. When I first watched The Blair Witch Project, at the point Heather & Mike are attacked in their tent by spooky unseen forces, I was convinced when they ran away I saw something on the frame in the woods, and I was equally convinced in that infamous, terrifying final shot I saw a foot of some kind, but on multiple viewings I’m almost certain I didn’t. The mind was playing tricks, even on a piece of film for a piece of fiction.
That, to me, is the power of The Blair Witch Project. The immersion. It’s why every time I watch, I feel I’m with those guys lost in the woods, haunted and driven into pure terror by whatever stalks them, messes with their heads & maps & compasses, and ultimately drives them into the heart of darkness. It’s never felt like a horror film because it’s not horrific. It’s loaded with pure, ephemeral, unseen terror. What the mind imagines is always always, in The Blair Witch Project, scarier than what the eye could be shown.
None understand the power of this better than original creators, writers and directors Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez. The story of how they made The Blair Witch Project is now legend; giving the trio of actors a GPS & basic daily instructions, and making them camp for real; no script, and the crew would improvise scares & play weird noises in the middle of the night. They sought a total psychological degradation of their actors, to push them to the very brink of believing this to be reality and not fiction. The performances they consequently tease out of Donahue in particular are magnificent; fraught, paranoid, tense, exasperated and absolutely akin to how you or I would act in their situation.
What people often forget equally is the careful sense of mythology and greater world building which helps TBWP stand out. In the first few minutes, Heather & her assistants interview the townsfolk of Burkittsville and discover the legends behind the haunted woods; the men who vanished at Coffin Rock, the terrible crimes of Rustin Parr etc… and while they take them solely as local folk stories, we’re invested with enough audience understanding to know these are likely more than just stories.
A documentary, The Curse of the Blair Witch, which aired on the Syfy Channel around the time the movie was released, and subsequently can be watched on DVD/BluRay releases, is to my mind scarier than the actual movie; a faux investigative documentary about the discovery of the film found in the woods, it contextualises everything those townsfolk say and plenty of what the three film students unwittingly discover. That insider knowledge only adds to the terror. Few movies are able to craft such a weight of fascinating mythological backstory, certainly those made on a shoe string with hand held cameras, intended to be an almost real documentarian account of a modern urban legend.
Much as The Last Broadcast pre-dated TBWP by around a year, a found footage pioneer less haunting or powerful but certainly underrated, Blair Witch laid the foundations for an entirely new sub-genre, reviving the video nasty aesthetics of such horror pictures as Cannibal Holocaust and fusing them with the kind of slow-burning, creeping, real life terror capable of scaring a modern audience out of their wits. Paranormal Activity was its main successor eight years later, and while it launched a franchise of diminishing creative returns, the first movie is a masterclass in spooky home invasion terror. Not all found footage pictures work of course – for every original Spanish language [REC] you get an English language Quarantine – but those which do hold an eternal debt to The Blair Witch Project.
That said, the biggest debate is to whether or not these films are scary at all – I’ve met many many people who laugh at TBWP and found footage in general. Some can throw it away as cheap and silly. Others, like me, are willing to accept the terror and that’s where I suspect those detractors differ. Some people are afraid of fear itself, of being scared. Horror films are so beloved precisely because most of them aren’t scary. Bloody? Yes. Sickening? Sure. Truly chill your bones terrifying? Rarely. The Blair Witch Project is one of those rare films which can transport you into absolute primal fear, and leave you afterward still not sure you ever want to go into the woods again.
Most people don’t remember its own sequel, the Joe Berlinger follow up Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 that appeared in 2000, and for good reason. A trite cash in that attempted to break the fourth wall and present the original as a film within a film, nobody bought the hype or the revisionist, post-modern attempt to invert Blair Witch in on itself. Too few people have played the dated but genuinely unsettling trilogy of prequel video games, Blair Witch Volume 1: Rustin Parr, Blair Witch Volume 2: The Legend of Coffin Rock & Blair Witch Volume 3: The Elly Kedward Tale, which have an early Resident Evil/Silent Hill sense of quiet, sudden heart jumping terror.
For many years, people have wondered if the franchise would continue, especially given Myrick & Sanchez never really escaped the shadow of their pop culture defining creation. The new Adam Wingard third film–or as many will consider it, true second film–is therefore a confection, but only if he respects and holds true to the original’s fusion of creeping terror and powerful, haunting mythology. Advance reviews suggest he’s done just that and consequently, for all the Marvel and DC and Star Wars you have on the horizon, hunting the Blair Witch back in the woods could end up being the most exciting cinematic experience of the back half of 2016.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.