McGinnis: Remembering ‘Blair Witch’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
With the “Saw” series officially finished (probably), Halloween has a new king of annual horror. “Paranormal Activity 3,” the latest installment in Paramount Pictures’ supernatural fright franchise, grossed an estimated $54 million dollars over the weekend of October 21-23, making it the biggest opening ever for a fall weekend.
The series launched two year ago, sired from a very low-budget yet genuinely scary film by filmmaker Oren Peli, which would go on to become one of the most profitable films ever made. The movie, presented as a documentary pieced together from found footage, shows the attempts by a young couple to capture the threats a supernatural force is making against their life.
While “Paranormal” brings its own flavor and unique style to the genre, it is far from the first film in the past decade to take advantage of the “mockumentary” form. Indeed, horror films and thrillers have been inundated with more “found footage” than one would discover in a film buff’s basement. “Cloverfield,” George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead,” “Quarantine,” “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” “The Fourth Kind” and so on have all tried to capture the same feeling of real people, really filming fantastic events.
But with even the mockumentary’s recent popularity, I feel an important point in its evolution is being forgotten. One which can really be seen as the marker which led filmmakers down this path, one that became a cult phenomenon, one which demonstrated how much can be accomplished with a little imagination and a lot of guts. Yes, “The Blair Witch Project” — a film that, in my opinion, has been unjustly maligned in recent years.
Although there had certainly been horror mockumentaries before, when “Blair Witch” was released in 1999, it felt like a revelation. The concept and structure were simple: This was supposedly the last surviving footage of three young filmmakers who disappeared while researching a famous local legend. It was supposedly ambiguous as to whether or not the footage was legitimate, which led to much debating and excitement prior to the film’s release.
Slowly, the film saw limited distribution, selling out every house it played in. Eventually, it would be released wide, where it would eventually gross over $240 million dollars. But as it became clear the movie was indeed fictional, a lot of moviegoers suddenly turned on it, acting as though they had been duped. Soon, public opinion had turned against “Blair Witch,” and the sequel, released the following year, flopped at the box office. (It didn’t help that the sequel, made by a completely different director, was a terrible movie which openly attempted to undermine the original.)
The problem is, the first film never really tried to claim it was real. Yes, the actors use their real names (as did the ones in “Paranormal”), but even a cursory glance of the film’s credits reveal numerous other crew members, as well as the standard “This film is a work of fiction” tagline. And those who did even a minor bit of research would find numerous news stories discussing how the movie was made. It wasn’t a secret that “Blair Witch” was fictional. But people still acted like the wool had been pulled over their eyes.
Lost in the “controversy” was the remarkable true story of the film’s construction. This was a movie made from sheer nerve. The directors, Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, came up with the concept, hired their main actors, planned the events meticulously and sent them into the woods. For the actors, there was little fake about the experience — they really were in the freezing wilderness, and really didn’t know what was going to happen.
It took genuine courage and creativity to construct the filming in such a fashion, and even more talent to whittle down days of material into a 90 minute movie. And the finished product, as it stands, remains a genuinely effective horror film. There’s no gore in sight — a rebuttal to fans who confuse bloodshed with terror. The movie, instead, builds a genuine sense of dread, playing off beliefs we all have buried in our psyche. When we are by ourselves, in the dark, of course there are horrible things making the noises we hear.
But no matter what someone thinks of “Blair Witch” as a film, it stands as a monument to what can be accomplished with an acute imagination. For about the cost of a car, two directors, three actors and two cameras changed the face of cinema, and set a path that numerous others have followed in the years since.
Myrick and Sanchez have been trying to get a new film in the series made the past few years, with little success. I hope they get the chance. So many others have made a mint off of their genre in recent years, it’d be nice for the guys who laid out the path to get their due.