The Blair Witch Project: A modern day classic?
There are films that are released with little to no expectation but for whatever reason, they go on to shape their respective genre in some way. The classics like Nosferatu, Dracula and Frankenstein are too obvious to put in that box. While they did huge things for the film world, more so than most others in the genre but they were all made during the golden age of cinema. A simpler time when technology had to be pushed or even invented to accommodate the vision of the filmmakers who were attempting to bring these literary characters to life.
Obviously there were many stories committed to celluloid prior to the three I mentioned above but you get the idea. Films that have changed the genre from which they were routed...
When we look at more modern entries onto this list, we have to look at films that shaped or changed the sub genre they belong to, films like Night of the Living Dead. A true masterpiece of cinema which gave birth to the version of the “Zombie” that most people envision when that word is mentioned. Obviously modern interpretations include more “Rage” infected beings who don’t slowly lurch towards their victims but chase them down with animalistic vigour. Granted, there are plenty of “zombie” movies to be considered prior to the release of the late great George A. Romero’s 1968 classic but his is widely regarded as the first to show the re-animated cannibalistic creatures we all know and love.
Moving swiftly on. Another film which deserves special mention is Halloween. While the 1978 slasher film was not the first of it’s kind, it was most certainly the most commercially successful and ultimately one of the most imitated; with its signature blend of suspense, brilliant use of its score and jump scares.
John Carpenter definitely laid down the gauntlet with his entry. Following on from the success of Halloween, it spawned its own franchise which continues to this day with a new Halloween slated for release later this year (2018) as well as influencing numerous franchises like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and a whole host of other slasher films from the 1980’s which can all thank Halloween.
Jaws! How could we talk about genre changing films without mentioning the real life fear of a man eating shark. The film itself boasts a host of inspirational attributes making leaps in cinematography and special effects but one of the most important things about this film was its marketing and advertising strategies.
I am not sure if you could definitively call Jaws the FIRST Summer Blockbuster but it is certainly one of the most memorable.
Another strong inspiration on the horror genre was Alien. Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-if horror is still as powerful today as it was 40 years. It’s premise is fairly text book, an unseen presence in a claustrophobic setting.
Scott turned that standard on its head by inviting viewers into possibly the most isolated version of that premise imaginable. Complete with an amazing tag line, “In Space, no one can hear you scream”. The sci-fi horror world has a lot to thank Mr Scott for!
Moving quickly forward to 1996. The slasher genre had seemingly had its heyday, with the aforementioned slasher craze of the 1980’s, many would be forgiven for calling time of death on the genre when franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street were churning out their 6th instalments and beyond.
Then, a true master of horror having given us Freddy Krueger in the first place revitalised the genre and injected it with all the modern day plagues and single handedly redefined the slasher “rules”. Scream was a huge success and proved so at the box office, remaining the highest grossing slasher film in history taking $173,046,663 worldwide to date (Correct as of 2018 - Source: Boxofficemojo.com)
I’ll be right back!.........
There are many, many more films that could have made it into the opening of this piece but for the sake of time, I am going to move on to the subject at hand.
In 1999, a film was released which would not only change peoples opinions of horror, it would both divide hardened fans of the franchise and modernise and popularise the genre we tentitively refer to as “Found Footage”.
I don’t think anyone could have imagined when The Blair Witch Project was released that it would go on to have the impact that it had. Reported to have a production budget in the region of $60,000, it is pound for pound, one of the biggest earning films in history. As of this date, it has taken worldwide earnings of $248,639,099 not including home cinema release! A whopping 4,143 times it’s initial outlay!
The key to it’s success had to lie in its marketing strategy. It couldn’t have come at a better time. In 1999, the internet had evolved into an unwieldy behemoth, one which would only increase as the years passed by but 1999 was a simpler time; before Facebook, twitter and a host of social media outlets now at our fingertips. Back then you had to actually search for things. Asking Jeeves random questions before settling on a page for it’s interesting articles or informative content.
The Internet played the biggest role in making this film infamous before it’s release. With a campaign that led the world to believe that the film was actually showcasing the real tragic events that befell three student filmmakers who went Missing, presumed dead. I believe IMDB even listed the cast as such for a period of time on the films initial release!
The Found Footage genre is one that can find much earlier roots, Cannibal Holocaust can probably claim to be the first of its kind but where that film was notorious for many other reasons, Blair Witch got the mix just right. Countless “copy-cat” or obviously inspired films are churned out every year by opportunistic film makers all searching for a repeat of what Blair Witch somehow accomplished some 20 years ago!
I am not sure if there are many films which can say they have divided opinions quite as much as The Blair Witch Project... I won’t go too far down this track as everyone is entitled to their opinions. Mine is firmly in the “This film is a piece of cinematic magic”! Enough said on that subject....
So to the film itself. Could there be a simpler film? Not sure… 3 student filmmakers set out in search of the Blair Witch of Burketsville. Things go bad, the kids never returned from the woods and we see the footage that was recovered following the search. There, thats it!
We follow Heather, Josh and Mike as they make their way to the woods. A few quick interviews with some of the locals beforehand, then they set off with their gear and cameras in hand.
In all honesty, the film itself is just as simple as it’s made out above. Nothing great in the way its filmed, there are no visual effects other than those created by the hand held camera’s themselves and the acting is not really acting at all. It would later be revealed that the actors actually filmed most of the movie themselves during an 8 day filming period where they were actually camping in the woods, only contactable by walkie-talkie.
The simplicity of The Blair Witch Project is really what made it so brilliant. It may not have had the cultural impact it ultimately had if it hadn’t been for the simplicity and simpleness of it.
As I mentioned before, the film has split opinion from its day of release and people still argue over it to this day. One thing that no one can deny, is the impact The Blair Witch Project has had on the horror genre. If you doubt this impact, please refer back to it’s gross earnings to date as mentioned above!
It was almost inevitable after its success that a sequel wouldn’t be far behind. Sure enough; just one year later, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released. While this film didn’t carry the same weight as its predecessor,
I enjoyed it. Book of Shadows follows a group of tourists who having seen the Blair Witch Project, travel to its locales in an attempt to discover some of the evidence and scenery for themselves.
With the hype of The Blair Witch Project, people have been flocking to the woods around burketsville in the hope of solving its mysteries or catching a glimpse of the fabled witch for themselves. Jeffrey Patterson, played by Jeffrey Donovan has capitalised on the hype and influx of interest and runs a tour called the Blair Witch Hunt. The tour takes its paying adventure seekers deep into the woods to see first hand the locations featured in the found tapes of the previous ill fated travellers.
In case you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to give anything away!
Book of Shadows was more of a traditional movie. It ditched the found footage angle and stuck mainly to by the numbers filmmaking. Because of this, it was able to branch out slightly into the special effects spectrum. Less practical effects and more standard horror techniques were employed. This did cheapen the experience slightly but only when viewed in direct comparison to its predecessor.
It may not have been received very well by critics but it performed quite well at the box office and I would be comfortable in saying it has a fairly strong cult following. Some very interesting Easter eggs and intense imagery help make this a more than adequate sequel but not one that ever had any chance of living up to the hype of the original.
16 years, teasers and a lot of rumours were to come and go before we were finally treated to a third instalment.
Blair Witch uses a lot of the same ideas from the original but in a modern setting, we are treated to all the mod cons that come with a film being made in 2016. Improved camera quality, high definition, mobile technology and even a drone, which was a very nice touch.
The film sees James, the brother of Heather, one of the student filmmakers who went missing in the original film. After he sees a video on the internet, he firmly believes he has found the key solving the mystery of Heather’s disappearance. His belief is so strong that he is adamant that wit his new information, not only will he be able to solve the mystery but he will also be able to find Heather alive and hopefully bring her home!
With this confidence, he sets off with a group of his college friends and heads towards Burketsville.
The group track down the video’s origin, a young couple called Lane and Talia had uploaded some footage to the internet. After some convincing, the couple agree to help the group. In exchange for their assistance they must take them along on their journey through the woods. The group reluctantly agree’s and under the impression that the young couple know where they’re going, they set off!
Things quickly go down hill as the group are tormented by a seemingly endless run of bad fortune, or is it the curse of the Blair Witch!?! With things looking bleak, the group begin a similar cycle that befell the original trio. Getting lost in the vast woods, going in circles and encountering strange occurrences. Not even all their modern technology can help them!
Adam Wingard (V/H/S, You’re Next) creates a worthy accompaniment to The Blair Witch Project with an extremely capable follow up. Some may not agree but I immensely enjoyed Blair Witch.
The characterisation which is built over the short course of the movie is good enough to conjure up empathetic feelings when things aren’t going so well. The characters themselves are ably played by a good and relatively unknown young cast of actors. All in all, Blair Witch may not have lit the world on fire, if it’s IMDb rating is anything to go by but from my perspective, it was a thoroughly enjoyable film with some good innovative techniques and a very good ending.
Perhaps the fact that I inadvertently had my own personal screening of the film having pre-booked on a convenient night for me to watch it. It just so happened that no one else fancied a trip to the cinema on that night and so I sat, alone, in a large cinema screen watching this film! I loved it!
What do you think of the franchise as it currently stands? Three films in, all dividing opinion... Not quite old enough to call it a classic and not quite revered enough to call it a cult classic. Some may agree with my opinion, the Blair Witch Project is a brilliant movie in its delivery and execution. Its follow up was a poorer sibling but still had its moments and the third instalment breathed life back into the story. What ever side you're on, I'd love to hear from you....