Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Love Letter to The Blair Witch Project and a Scathing Review of Its Successor [Contributor: Melanie]

Image result for blair witch

It’s hard to figure out where to start with this. I already wrote about my scathing feelings on the possibility of a Blair Witch sequel when it was first revealed in July that the upcoming film The Woods was actually a thinly disguised PR misdirection. But now that I’ve dragged myself to see this incredibly ill-advised and awful sequel, I’ve got more context on exactly why the filmmakers completely missed the point of the original indie film. I’m a complete purist when it comes to The Blair Witch Project: it’s such a well-crafted and incredibly well-executed experience for all the reasons its newest sequel is not.

In 1999 the Washington Post gave a glowing review of the original film that opened with this statement: “The Blair Witch Project is the scariest movie I've ever seen. Not the goriest, the grossest, the weirdest, the eeriest, the sickest, the creepiest or the slimiest. Not the most haunting, most disturbing, most horrific, most violent, most beautiful, most dreamlike or most vile. Just flat out the scariest.” Let’s break this down, shall we? Why is that statement true? (Subjectively speaking, of course, I know many people hate The Blair Witch Project). Well let’s start with the burgeoning of the project that became Blair Witch.

Development for the original film goes back to the early 90s when filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez became interested in paranormal documentaries. As I mentioned in that original post over the summer, the epistolary style of storytelling is not new. It goes as far back as 18th century literature (famous works like Dracula were comprised of documents telling us the story secondhand) and found footage films did exist before Blair Witch (see: 1980s Cannibal Holocaust). But that hadn’t caught on in the mainstream yet, mainly because the genre was waiting for somebody to use it exactly how The Blair Witch Project team did.

Myrick and Sanchez auditioned over 2,000 actors for their lead roles, with an emphasis on improvisation skills because the “script” was just a 35-page outline of narrative events. The dialogue of the film was almost completely improvised by actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard. Further, these actors underwent a few days of crash course classes in how to operate their cameras because they were also their own photography unit, filming everything that became the movie.

Let’s pause for a minute and look at our shiny new 2016 version of Blair Witch. The development for this film, as many sequels are, was top down. It was Lionsgate, the company that eventually bought the distribution rights to the original film, that commissioned a sequel. That’s problem number one. Obviously that’s a creative philosophical problem that pervades more than just this franchise, but it’s important to note how much the need for a cash-grab sequel can completely trample on the magic of the original. But we knew that already.

Simon Barett, writer of Netflix cult films like V/H/S and Contracted, as well as bigger name films like You’re Next, pitched his idea for the sequel to the original creators. In crafting the script for the film, Barett wanted to analyze the scares and the possible reactions from the audience to make it feel authentic. Well that didn’t really work. As for the casting situation? Well these are all actors who have previous credits including Psych, Veronica Mars, Machete Kills, Twilight, and Homeland. These aren’t obscure, no-name actors responding to an audition ad in Backstage magazine. And that’s a huge problem when you’re trying to pawn your film off as the successor The Blair Witch Project.

The original film utilized the actor’s real names, essentially casting them to play fictionalized versions of themselves as film students creating a documentary about a local legend in the rural town of Burkitsville, Maryland. That would become hugely important later in the marketing of the film. But Simon Barett talked about wanting the film to feel authentic (in comparison to the entertainment value in his work on V/H/S) and, well... it already doesn’t feel authentic when you’ve got a clearly scripted film with somewhat established actors. The Blair Witch Project started the found footage craze right out of the gate and dialed it up to 110; this film is barely at a 45.

So filming for the original film was, famously, an arduous experience for the cast. With no crew making direct contact with them, they ventured out into the woods and were given instructions each day via messages on milk crates, which they had to find using a GPS. These instructions included directions to get to their next location and individual instructions for how to play scenes as they improvised. The crew would harass them at night, without warning, and even deprive them of food to create a complete scene of real panic, confusion, and discomfort. By today’s standards, that probably wouldn’t fly in a big-budget film. But an indie film with a budge of $60,000 could get away with it.

Now, let’s fast forward. Blair Witch has a budget of $5 million, clearly had an omniscient camera crew, and actors who felt exactly like actors. Even attempts to mimic daily scenes from the original (like drinking the night before in a hotel room) felt completely scripted and fake. The arguments in the woods were played for a film screen, while the arguments in the original film were real — the result of sleep and food deprived actors wandering the woods under anonymous orders and getting at each other’s throats. What’s worse is that this iteration of the film utilizes CGI and sound effects. The original was created simply by crew members stomping around in the woods at 3 a.m. and vandalizing the actors’ campsite.

Now let’s talk about the marketing, because The Blair Witch Project’s status as a unprecedented work of film is mostly because of how they chose to market it. In 1999, the Internet was new and this was the first time any film sought to utilize it as its main form of marketing. In fact, this film might even be able to take credit for the later coming of online creepypastas in the mid 2000s. Marketing for the film included a fake documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch, fake police reports about our “missing” actors, and fake newsreel interviews. To this day, people still will question whether or not this movie was real. This latest iteration? A pure Hollywood product using a brand to get attention. It’s unfortunate to see the original diluted, especially since this film’s attempt at clever marketing was simply to use a dummy name for the majority of the time before revealing what it was really about.

Another frustrating factor here was the level of care that went into crafting the characters and their motivations in the original. Heather ultimately decides to keep the camera on as a way to stay sane and convince herself nothing is really happening. The reason our cameras are still on in this one? Because apparently the nifty GPS in the Bluetooth only works if the camera is on and recording. Josh kicks the map into the river in frustration and nihilistic fear of their chances of getting out alive. A fair amount of the original film is psychological horror brought on by isolation in the wilderness; it’s never actually confirmed that what’s tormenting them is supernatural. For years, people have theorized the possibility of someone playing a prank on the unsuspecting crew or that Mike and Josh were somehow in cahoots to lure Heather to her untimely demise at the end. In the 2016 version, we get our Slender Man/Gollum Blair Witch concoction throwing trees on people, throwing tents, and breaking girls’ bodies in half. All on camera, and in your face.

Humans have always been and will always be terrified of the woods. I talked a lot about folklore and the rule of proximity in my post on The Witch over the winter. The original film played with those fears, of not seeing what was stalking you in the night, of being out of your home and element and surrendering to the wild. This new version was about trying to recapture lightning in a bottle in the laziest way you could have gone about it.


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