Blair Witch, 2016

© Lionsgate

What started it must now end it. I’m not saying the genre didn’t give us the heebie-jeebies. Neither am I saying it did not give handsome returns and still is. I’m just saying it gave me even more headaches.

Well, talk about starting off on the wrong foot(ing), the filmmakers behind the Blair Witch remake initially released the film at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con as some ‘found footage’ film known as The Woods. The posters, the promotional material prior to the viewing was all designed to send the audience off on a tangent. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, 2011) and his team of marketing personnel tried to tread carefully, very carefully, on forbidden territory; The Blair Witch Project, 1999, by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. The duo had reinvented the genre thirty-one years ago. I say ‘reinvent’ since Ruggero Deodato had already made a film, which was so realistic (shaky-cam, found footage, excursion gone wrong on tape) that Deodato was arrested at the Canadian border and asked to produce the actors, who were made to sign a disclaimer, which stated that the performers will not appear in any TV or film production for a set period of time, adding to the realism, the dark mystery of his film, the proverbial found-footage film, Cannibal Holocaust, 1980. A film that was banned in most countries and part of the BFI Video Nasties‘ list, until recently, when it was re-released as part of celebrating films of the Eighties and turns out, the most popular genre on the BFI’s list of films was the Video Nasty.

This part still scares me, thirty-one years on.

The Blair Witch Project, 1999 went to the extent of launching a massive internet campaign before the film was released to packed theaters. Director, producer, writer, and storyteller, Kevin Foxe became an executive producer in May 1998 and brought in Clein & Walker, a public relations firm, and the film’s official website was launched in June 1998, featuring faux police reports as well as ‘newsreel-style’ interviews, and fielding questions about the ‘missing’ students. They even stuck up ‘Missing person’ posters all over the place with pictures of the three main leads, who are called by their real names in the film; Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.

These tactics intensified the films found footage device and the ancient internet forums were overcrowded with people debating the authenticity of the filmmaker’s claims. Filmmakers and promotional media that went as far as handing out flyers at The Sundance Film Festival, asking viewers to come forward with any information about the missing students. And get this; the IMDb page also listed the actors as ‘missing, presumed dead’ in the first year of the film’s availability, whose rights were handed over to Artisan for proper distribution and screenings in forty different universities, not cinemas (initially).

USA Today reported that The Blair Witch Project was the first film to go viral in the history of post-modern cinema. It all worked like clockwork, with critics and audiences first getting very scared and uncomfortable and then calling the film a moc-doc (when all was revealed a year or so later). A film that kept everyone in the dark for such a long time that most were convinced of the three students’ disappearances. Another thing which was not shown was the titular villain, once again proving that the audience’s imagination can be as scary as anything onscreen, just like how it was in It Comes at Night, 2017 and numerous such features where the boogeyman is off-screen, like say, The Witch by Robert Eggers, one of the scariest pictures ever. The Blair Witch Project‘s found-footage technique received near-universal praise and everyone who mattered wanted everyone who mattered or not, and who had not watched it, to catch it in the theaters pronto.

It was thought to be the first widely released film marketed primarily by the Internet, which was also relatively new in 1999, and then there was the brilliantly timed faux-marketing, persuading the potential viewers that there were indeed three students who went missing in the woods in  Burkittsville, Maryland – film promotion, prior to the release of the original.

Although not the first film to use this method (Ruggero Deodato was way ahead of his time), the film was declared a milestone in film history due to its massive critical and box office success. Roger Ebert (not at all an easy critic to please, just like Pauline Kael) of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a total of four stars and called it “an extraordinarily effective horror film“* Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called it “a groundbreaker in fright that reinvents scary for the new millennium”**. Just keep in mind that when it comes to it, these guys can shred a film into 5000 pieces and throw it in the trash and put it on fire and these guys showering such praise is certainly a rare moment. American film-critic, Lisa Schwarzbaum, while writing for Entertainment Weekly said: “As a horror picture, the film may not be much more than a cheeky game, a novelty with the cool, blurry look of an avant-garde artifact. But as a manifestation of multimedia synergy, it’s pretty spooky“.***
However, even then, the shaky-cam was a point of contention amongst many, who preferred their films to be artistic but conventionally shot with traditional techniques and their actors to be alive and well, off-screen. I’m only saying that the first Blair Witch made a whole lot of people very uncomfortable and everyone resisted some way or the other (with surprising exceptions), calling it a “Sundance Scam“, “(a) heartless home movie“, and “its shaky camera work and fuzzy images get monotonous after a while, and there’s not much room for character development within the very limited plot.” But here’s the thing, the film was not plot-driven, nor was it motivated by any sort of an earnest narrative. The entire Project was a marketing promotional tactic that worked its way into the movie-goers psyche and forever.

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Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch is a film so unruly that it becomes annoying after a while, even though we get to see some more of the interior of the house in the woods, where Rustin Parr, the child-killer once lived. And this time we are equipped with a remote-controlled camera-droid from Revell, walkie-talkies, twice the number of kills from 1999, a build-up at the 50-minute mark, a shit-load of cameras, a chick documenting ‘human loss‘ and ending up on a Missing Person poster. Ironic.
There are the signature voodoo stick dolls and a massive dose of shaky, clunky, blurry, blurred, split camera-work. Then we have the ‘I’m sorry’ bit, complete to the lip-blood-snot, fucking with time; like how in the first one their watches show a different time of day when it’s always night – here Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) are going on in circles for about five days, without ever seeing a sunrise? And we have the watch discrepancy also. Although much better than the chaotic and confusing and uncontrolled and full of hamming performances, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which this film completely ignores, Blair Witch, 2016 offers tardy recycling of the original. This time its the keen viewer and the hardened critic who tell the film to go stand in a corner and not look back.

Witch also tells us what not to do when you’re insane enough to visit the woods. However, the bunch doesn’t listen and it makes no difference since the only time this sinnerman jumped a little was when Talia is snapped in half and when the camp goes flying in the air. It (the film) still keeps at it. Do not pair up with a bunch of local hipsters, do not go climbing trees in the knickerbockers, do not enter tunnels even if the door to the basement is creaking with footsteps, do not – for fuck’s sake – get convinced by a YouTube video and go into the Black Hills Woods. That place is creepy, it has tiny handprints and stick figures everywhere. And despite these warnings being dismissed and the group being haunted by a tall slender adumbration and entering Parr’s house, entering the damn basement only brings them closer to the calamity of it all and takes the viewer far away, from the boring familiarity to the consequential proceedings.
Had it been a full-on reinvention, like perhaps, Fede Alvarez‘s Evil Dead, 2013, it would have caused a stir just by means of reputation and introduced a whole new generation to the phenomena that started it all after an earlier phenomenon, which happened some forty years ago, where a tortoise was smashed with a rock. Cannibal Holocaust is one nasty bitch film. However, what it does is stand in a corner all along, in that dingy basement, waiting to die, waiting for instructions from Elly Kedward, who was banished from a colonial town of Blair, Maryland, in the Forties, when she was accused of trying to let blood from local children. One more thing: with directors like Michael Bay and the Russo Brothers and films like Extraction, 2020 and the heavy fireworks and the three million dollar Aston Martins DB10 being cut in half and an entire moon crashing on Tony Stark‘s head, the moderate and subtle Blair Witch remake just doesn’t accomplish anything but a few jarring scares that can easily be forgotten, unlike the original that gave its viewers (this mountain man included) nightmares for days. I remember watching the original with a friend and when it ended we were both silent and didn’t even look at each other but kept staring at the inverted camera focus angel. We were truly affected by the horror and genuinely disconcerted.

I got drunk like never before last night when I have to go into the woods and shit my pants today.”
Tent and trails from RadioShack.
Oh golly, jolly, fuck all, we’re having us some campin’ time
I wanna go home
I wanna go home
Boom!
Jumpscare.

PETER!”
You bitch…
Snap!
Jumpscare.

LISAAAaaaa
Who’re you talking to?
Jumpscare
JAAAMES
Bump, thud
Camera keeps rolling for a few more beats. Amongst all those things the film is also plenty loud and that gets in the way of a few good opportunities.

That’s about all this clunky, unimaginative, cheap-monster-flick has to offer.

Ridiculous.

*Source: Ebert, Roger. “The Blair Witch Project Movie Review (1999)”. Chicago Sun-Times; November 10, 2016

** Source: Travis, Peter (July 30, 1999). “The Blair Witch Project“. Rolling Stone; January 10, 2017

*** Schwarzbaum Lisa (July 23, 1999). “The Blair Witch Project“. Entertainment Weekly; January 10, 2017

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