Sunday, October 12, 2014
BLAIR WITCH @ 15: WHEN FOUND FOOTAGE DIDN'T AUTOMATICALLY SUCK
I've been a horror fan for most of my adult life, though I didn't start out that way. The reason I became a fan was to try and redeem myself after seeing my first real horror movie, Damien: Omen II. I was staying over at my friend Ryan's house, and it was on HBO. For most of the film Ryan and his Dad were ripping on me for burying my head in a pillow when all the intense horror was on screen. Vowing never to endure that kind of humiliation again, I set out to become an aficionado of the genre.
Since that time I've watched classics, Z-Grade films, direct to video, silents and everything in between. Out of all of them there's only one film that gave me the experience that all horror fans long for. Only one film left me so terrified that I got zero sleep. Every time I would close my eyes I'd see the finally haunting image from this film, and it would feel just as real as it felt when I was watching it on the screen.
The film? The Blair Witch Project.
The Blair Witch Project turned 15 years old this year. Those 15 years have been crowded with endless variations on its theme: "Hey, we found this footage, it's the only record of something mysterious". Today found footage films are a dime a dozen, and sadly the genre has not improved. Blair Witch established the formula, but every film after it used it as a crutch. At some point you could almost always hear a character explain that they have to keep filming, because it's all they have left (because when they are facing certain peril the camera just kept rolling, despite better judgement) and the film almost always would end with the camera person getting attacked and the screen either going black or the camera laying on the ground still filming.
The Blair Witch Project suffers from the same issue that other trailblazing projects, like This Is Spinal Tap or Twin Peaks, end up with. After decades of other (usually lesser) projects regurgitating their formulas and ideas, the originators are viewed as something less than they are. Newcomers don't realize that this is where it started, this is where the groundwork was laid, and the importance is lost on them.
It's hard to remember just how groundbreaking this film was. Not only was it the first film to effectively use the Found Footage concept, but it was also the first film to really maximize viral marketing at the dawn of the internet age. Take a look at their original website. The filmmakers were smart enough to realize that the film could be viewed as if it were real, and they set up a site that treated it as such. There were missing persons posters, crime scene photos, and photos of the actors throughout their lives treated as if they were truly the missing characters of the film. The realistic website combined with the realism of the shot-on-video film was effective, and word of mouth turned The Blair Witch Project into a phenomenon.
When it first came out, The Blair Witch Project was only playing at one theater in Minnesota. You had to drive to The Uptown Theater in Minneapolis if you wanted to see it. Tickets were impossible to get, and that was for a huge theater that was screening it virtually around the clock. My sister scored me tickets a week before the screening, and me and a friend drove up to catch a midnight showing. Even for a midnight showing, the lines were around the block. The place was packed and anticipation was high.
To this day I don't think I've had another film experience like my first Blair Witch viewing. It was a packed theater filled with people screaming with genuine terror at what they were seeing. When the film ended you could hear a pin drop. Folks streamed out into the night buzzing with excitement, and the next audience in line got an idea from them of what they would soon be in for.
That was the night I couldn't sleep. I had never been so scared by a film. This didn't stop me from dragging a couple carloads full of co-worked up for another midnight screening long after that. They all had the same experience that I had, and it was thrilling.
I bought into the whole cottage industry that surrounded the film, and I would build endless displays at work of the various books about the film. One of the things that amazed me most about the film and its impact was how many people truly believed that it was real. It was not uncommon for me to have a customer in the book store coming in to find books about the actual Blair Witch, and they wouldn't believe me when I told them it was fiction. Not even the fact that the actors were appearing on talk shows could make them believe that Heather, Josh, and Mike didn't all die mysteriously in those woods out by Coffin Rock. It was kind of awesome.
All this endless rambling was to draw your attention to a really cool video that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences did about The Blair Witch Project. It talks to all the principles and gets into the background of production and its impact on cinema. It's a short seven minutes, but an informative seven minutes.
For an additional treat, look for "The Curse of the Blair Witch", a faux documentary that ran on the Sci-Fi Channel around the time of the film's release. It presents the full mythology of The Blair Witch, as well as notorious child murderer Rustin Parr. Really good stuff.