Friday, July 17, 2009

Every Witch Way But Loose

Ten years ago, as the '90s were coming to an end, the genre was dominated by archly ironic, post-modern slasher films spawned by the success of the Scream franchise. In the last years of the last decade of the millennium, as the world fretted over the looming threat of Y2K, horror was being served with a self-aware wink to the audience. Some of the films of this era were entertaining on their own terms (yo, Idle Hands!) but yet it seemed wrong that serious scares had become so unfashionable. Into this atmosphere came The Blair Witch Project, a film that immediately joined the ranks of the original Halloween, Evil Dead, and Night of the Living Dead as an independent horror film that was a watershed moment for the genre.

The genesis of TBWP is well-known and the film's innovative marketing campaign, which blurred the line between fact and fiction, has similarly become the stuff of legend. Despite its polarizing effect on viewers, TBWP was a game-changer whose impact is still being felt today with the continued popularity of 'hand-held horror' films such as Cloverfield and [REC]. And the democratization of filmmaking, thanks to digital technology, has only made it more possible for those outside the establishment to follow TBWP's DIY example.

That the film's directors - Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez - and its stars - Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams - have yet to recapture the same success as TBWP, would seem to encourage the argument that TBWP was nothing more than a fluke, rather than a 'real' movie. However, I maintain that as a film - not just as an internet marketing phenomenon - TBWP is genius. My own experience with seeing it for the first time was ideal - months before the film came to theaters I had a VHS dub which I watched alone late at night. I knew all about the story behind the making of the film and had no illusions as to whether this was real footage or not but yet the film rattled me just the same.

Initially I had put in the tape simply as a quality check but after just a minute I was compelled to keep watching. By the time Mike and Heather approached that Godforsaken house in the middle of the woods during Blair Witch's final moments, I was in a full-on cold sweat and in trying to sleep afterwards I experienced something I never have with horror films - a genuinely restless night. There was something about the movie that I couldn't be blasé about. It wasn't the hype - the first trailer hadn't even premiered and I didn't have a computer at the time so I was out of the loop when it came to the film's internet campaign - it was just about the movie itself.

For some people, TBWP will always be bullshit. Some people just don't find it the least bit scary and that's fine. For those like me who find it terrifying, its effect is something that can't quite be explained. I think the movie is like a psychic Rorschach blot and some people see something vividly frightening while others just see some spilled ink. I do find that people who disregard the movie tend to take the perspective of "that wouldn't happen to me". You know, "...all they had to do was follow the river" or "why didn't they just climb a tree" or "I would never go into the woods without a gun" and that kind of practical, pragmatic talk. And to me, that's the denial stance of people who are, deep down, spooked by the idea of losing control - of facing a dilemma that will not respond to reason. The situation the characters in Blair Witch face is like the Kobayashi Maru - it's a no-win scenario. And I think that - more than the film's jerky camerawork, and more than the bickering between the lost trio - is something that some people can't wrap their heads around.

Whether they win or lose, the last survivors of a horror movie usually earn the right to look even the most implacable monster in the eye - there's an opportunity for some comforting last-minute exposition, a way to Understand It All. But in Blair Witch, Mike and Heather descend into that terrible basement understanding nothing but their own fear. Everything else is darkness.

17 comments:

Blue Seven said...

Nice post, Jeff. I love TBWP very much. It truly scared me when I saw it back in 1999, and I too was well aware that it was all make-believe. I was even frightened off and on for weeks after seeing it, which hadn't happened to me for decades prior! Most people I know hate the damn thing, unfortunately, but it still creeps me the hell out. To me, it truly defies arguments as to how dumb the people were etc. as they were screwed from the very start - and that's what's really freaky.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Blue. Glad to hear from another BWP fan! There's definitely a few of us still out there who continue to swear by the film's effectiveness.

Bob Ignizio said...

Yeah, I've never understood the people who outright dismiss this movie. I can understand not liking it, and in particular I can't fault those people who simply didn't care for the filmmaking techniques used, especially the shaky hand-held stuff. Personally I like the movie a lot, and it's one of the few films to really tap into the fear of the unknown. Like Robert Wise's 'The Haunting', we never really see anything, but we can imagine all kinds of horrible possibilities, each according to our own phobias.

knobgobbler said...

I love the movie too.
One thing that scars it for me is the guy who, right after I'd watched it for the first time, felt the need to stand up and yell, 'That's bullshit... worst movie I ever saw'.
Yeah, thanks for that...
Most of the complaints I hear about it are about how you don't ever 'see anything'(and no one ever remembers the little package of teeth that Heather finds).
It's become something of a litmus test for me when I run into other horror fans... because I know that if they don't get why Blair Witch is scary then I'm not gonna have a lot of common ground with them regarding other films either.

J.D. said...

You're right about this film being a "game changer" of sorts. It proved, yet again, that some of the best, most effective horror films are low-budget, independent ones that come out of nowhere to deliver genuine scares. As you so rightly point out, this film's influence is immense and for that reason alone it deserves respect.

Nice write-up!

Jeff Allard said...

Bob, Knob, J.D. - thanks for the comments! Lots of BWP love here! As for the anti-BWP camp, I think what you get out of BWP is largely about what you bring to it and for a lot of people, movie watching remains a passive experience.

Matt-suzaka said...

Great post Jeff...I too am a huge fan of the film and I cannot believe it has been ten years since it came out in theaters.

Like you, I did not have a computer at the time, so I didn't get to enjoy all of the Internet hype they built up for it (but boy, would have I eaten it all up!). I mostly followed the film through Fango and the TV marketing that followed the Internet campaign.

I loved the Curse of the Blair Witch TV special that played on Sci Fi and watched that numerous times even before the movie had come out into theaters. And of course, when I saw the film for myself, I was restless for the rest of that evening much like yourself.

I've since seen the movie a shitload of times and I completely agree that it is a game changer for cinema to follow. In fact, it's probably the biggest game changer since Pulp Fiction had come out in 1994. The influence is probably stronger today than it was when Blair Witch had come out with the vérité style being used in numerous films like the mentioned in your post [REC], and Cloverfield. Then there are the (unfortunately) yet to be released Paranormal Activity and The Poughkeepsie Tapes that share the same style and technique used in Blair Witch.

I still consider it to be a very effective horror film that shows what can be done with no money and a lot of drive. In addition, it is probably the only film that (during its climax) gave me the chance to see a girl go running out of the theater!

Oh, and I actually like the sequel Book of Shadows too...a film that may divide horror fans even more than the original. Well, me and the three other people that like the film and the rest of the horror community that hates it.

Jeff Allard said...

Yo Matt!
I loved Curse of the Blair Witch, too - although I'm glad that material ended up on its own rather than being incorporated into the film as they originally planned.

As for Book of Shadows - I stand almost alone on my love for a lot of movies, too, but outside of the hot goth chick, BOS didn't do much for me. Just the same, I wouldn't mind giving it another look - after almost ten years maybe it's aged ok.

kindertrauma said...

I love TBWP

My first viewing was much like yours Jeff, months before the hype on a bootleg tape. I actually brought the tape over to a pal's house and we told his girlfriend it was authentic while we watched it.. She believed every second of it. so not only did I get to creep out myself a bit, I got to witness this poor girl loose her mind. (eventually we did tell her the truth, there was probably a bruise on my arm for a long time afterward.)

TBWP works like a great campfire story and just like a campfire story, how scared you get is basically based on how well you can use your own imagination. I think it is brilliant that way.

I have several friends who HATE it but I just think that they watched it defensively, trying to prove that they could not get scared...what a waste!

(I should admit though, that as someone with zero sense of direction I had no problem relating to the panic felt by the characters.)

great post!

Jeff Allard said...

Unk, I almost don't blame people who had to see BW after all the media attention being like "that's all?" By that point, I think it was hard to react to the movie on its own terms. Still, some people definitely brought a defensive attitude to BW and that's hard for any movie to overcome.

Arbogast said...

The reason The Blair Witch Project rubbed horror fans the wrong way is that it took the genre back to first principles. I hate how horror has become embroidered with so many unnecessary add-ons... that whole badass-manque style of black clothes, tats and piercings that tries to make an emotion into fashion, and in its own way tries to enforce conformity on what should be chaos. Of course, there are Goth types who did like the movie and foursquare button-down Beaumonts who didn't but generally speaking I think BWP messed with people's perceptions about what's supposed to happen and it made them churlish. For me, the movie was a tonic; more than that, it was a colonic, pushing out the accumulation of a decade (at least) of impacted franchise horror.

The sequel was a great idea that was just poorly executed. Why go out of your way to expressly irritate your audience for an hour and a half just so you can pull the rug out from underneath them at the end. The sting in the tail would have worked if I had liked just one of the characters, but I couldn't muster any love for those contrivance bearers.

Jeff Allard said...

Arbogast, don't even get me started on the whole sub-culture of fans that embrace horror as a fashion statement - fueled by magazines like Rue Morgue that basically act as a buyer's guide as to how to accessorize one's trendy horror lifestyle. There's nothing that can be done to stop it but I think it's done more harm to horror than all the shitty remakes and sequels in the world.

As for Book of Shadows, I do think that director Joe Berlinger had good ideas but they just didn't come together. And it's probably not the wisest idea for the last line of your movie to be "this is bullshit!" - unless you're really sure no one in the audience is going to take it as a cue to shout out "...You got that right!"

Arbogast said...

You know, I was going to name-check Rue Morgue but I thought it would be too catty. Thanks for picking up that spare!

13th comment!

Bob Ignizio said...

Regarding 'Book of Shadows', I believe at least some of the problems with the movie were the result of the studio tampering with it. Berlinger goes into some detail about that on the audio commentary. It definitely falls into that "interesting failure" category.

Arbogast said...

The characters were irritating in a One Tree Hill way... that's not the studio's fault.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, I don't think all the mistakes on BOS were Artisan's doing - even if I think they shouldn't have tried to rush a sequel into production the way they did. Maybe with a little more time, a better film from either Berlinger or Myrick and Sanchez could've been made. Still, even though it's kind of a mess, BOS has managed to win a few fans.

Blue Seven said...

I came across an old copy of The Curse of the Blair Witch and just creeped myself right on out watching it. My love for TBWP actually kept me from ever watching Book of Shadows, but I'm going to track that down next. Not that I'm expecting a whole hell of a lot, of course...