6WH: Week 2.5 - The Blair Witch

One of the big surprises of the year was that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's new movie, which was teased as "The Woods" for a long time, was actually a new Blair Witch movie. As someone who loved the original, I thought it would be an opportune time to revisit the franchise before watching the new movie.
  • How the Blair Witch Project Should Have Ended (short)
  • The Witch (trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VIII: Easy-Bake Coven
  • The Blair Witch Project - A trio of documentary filmmakers disappear from the woods near Burkittsville, MD whilst making a documentary about local legend, the Blair Witch. Years later, their footage was discovered in mysterious circumstances. I've always loved this movie. Back in the day, when I ran my campus movie theater, I actually organized a camping trip after a showing of the movie, and it was one of the highlights of my campus activities career. It's not the sort of thing I trot out every year like some other favorites, but I've seen it several times since its release, and I feel like it gets better every time I see it.
    Heather in full on documentary mode
    While there are complaints to be had regarding the camerawork and maybe how annoying the bickering in the second act gets, both elements nonetheless remain effective at conveying the situation. They are superficially annoying, but they get under your skin and work on you in ways that are not immediately obvious. The film has such a sense of verisimilitude that it's hard to fault it for that stuff, even if it would be considered a detriment in other movies. Everything about the movie feels real, such that you can see why some people were fooled into thinking it was genuine footage discovered and reassembled by unscrupulous filmmakers.
    Heather is so scared
    I'm generally not in the bag for improvised dialog and most mumblecore movies (which often rely on similar tactics as this movie, see Baghead, which works, but not as well as it could) drive me up a wall, but it works perfectly here. Everything about the construction of the Blair Witch's history, everything about the interviewed townfolk, everything about the filmmakers' reactions feels earned and genuine.
    Stickfigures are creepy
    When I first saw this, I found it terrifying. "The fear generated by this film is not the kind that has you jump out of your seat, but rather, it has you slinking back in your chair in the hopes that no one will notice you." Upon subsequent rewatches, this feeling has perhaps mellowed out some. But familiarity has only increased my ultimate respect for the film. I can see why the ambiguity and lack of conventional action would turn some people off, but it hits my sweet spot. It's influence is certainly undeniable. It may not be the Ur example of found footage, but it's definitely the film that codified the tropes. Few attempts at found footage have succeeded anywhere near as well as this originator, though there have been some interesting spins. I remain convinced that this is a classic. (Incidentally, can you believe that review I wrote in 1999 holds up in any way? Most of the stuff I wrote from that era is cringe-inducing and while my thoughts at the time weren't particularly deep or insigtful, I find my feelings mostly unchanged. (He says, as if this quick overview of the movie is any better written. (What, nested parentheticals are fine. (Just ask David Foster Wallace. (Oh great, he's comparing himself to DFW. (Ok, I'll stop now.)))))) ****
  • Suspiria (trailer)
  • Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows (trailer)
  • The Blair Witch Report (short)
  • Curse of the Blair Witch - One of the things I find frustrating about most found footage films is the lack of context. Who found the footage? Who is assembling it? What are we to make of whatever mysterious happenings that are portrayed? Could it be a hoax? And so on. It's not so much a fault in found footage films as it's surprising that there hasn't been a movie that attempts to combine found footage with a more mock documentary approach (since I've not seen every found footage film, I suppose there could be, but I have not seen one). In the case of The Blair Witch Project, I'm certainly glad they saved the mock documentary talking head bits for this TV special, a neat little marketing ploy that actually managed to underline and reinforce the verisimilitude of the movie.
    The talking head skeptic
    This aired on the Sci-Fi channel (now SyFy) and features present-day (circa 1999) interviews with family members, local officials, and historians, interspersed with clips from the found footage. And it's really interesting! The premise of the footage is explored, then the history of the Blair Witch is covered, and various talking heads comment and explain what's going on. Even more interesting, they include a skeptic. Someone who looks at the historical incidents and pokes holes in them. Not holes so wide that you have to discount all the stories, but enough to provide doubt while still preserving the inherent ambiguity of the story. Again, I'm glad they relegated these talking head bits to the marketing, but I think this movie proves there is fertile ground for a more traditional documentary approach to found footage. Regardless, it's well worth checking out. ***
  • Witchfinder General (trailer)
  • America's Most Tragic Home Videos (Robot Chicken)
  • The Last Broadcast (trailer)
  • Blair Witch - Where to start? Ostensibly about Heather Donahue's brother, who has found a video posted online that may indicate that Heather's still alive, it's basically just an excuse to get a bunch of kids back in the woods in MD (and not a particularly convincing one, but ok, I can go with it). It's not long before weird stuff starts happening, and then things get really bizarre. Long story short: I did not like this movie. There are isolated moments that work, sometimes really well, but it's too reliant on the original movie while also negating a lot of the original's strengths. A few interesting ideas are tossed out there, but never really coalesce. The updated technology proves to be pointless and the camerawork (and editing) is even more annoying than the original (but without the original's saving grace of verisimilitude). The characters don't feel real and do all sorts of stupid horror movie things, like trotting off on their own in the woods. The filmmakers rely on cheap jump scares and audio stingers far too often. Their framing and frequent use of closeups, while perhaps meant to imply claustrophobia, only really serve to put you on guard for the numerous "Boo!" moments.

    I'm not sure what happened here. Director Adam Wingard and cowriter Simon Barrett have done great work in the past - I'm a big fan of You're Next and The Guest, and even their bits in the V/H/S and ABCs of Death anthologies are really good. This movie was initially known as The Woods. It was only revealed at Comic-Con this summer that it was actually a Blair Witch movie (in an admittedly effective marketing ploy). Since I'm a fan of these guys, I think I can see the outlines of what they were going for and there's some interesting ideas here. It's just that the execution is totally off and frankly, I would have much rather had this be completely independent of the Blair Witch franchise. I'm not sure if it matters, but I'll throw out a Spoiler Warning for the remainder of this post.

    So there's a bunch of exposition basically explaining the Blair Witch phenomenon. It's entirely redundant to the original movie, but I'm guessing that because this movie is being made 17 years later, they wanted it to work as a standalone. And I guess it kinda does, but the exposition is pretty clunky and if you had seen the original, it feels inferior to what you already know. They introduce the idea that time works differently in the woods, which is really neat, but it's not really explored well. They overleverage the infamous Blair Witch stick figures and rock piles, and they even add the notion that the stick figures are kinda like voodoo dolls, but they discard that idea as soon as its introduced. This being 2016, they have lots of new technology (digital cameras, GPS, drones), but it doesn't really add up to anything but better video quality. Indeed, I kept wondering about why the fictional filmmakers supposedly reassembling this footage would include so much of the shaky startup movements of the camera - there's not benefit to it at all. The drone seemed like an interesting idea, but they almost immediately lose control over it and then it's used for one of the more implausible set pieces later in the film. The most egregious problem is that they actually go ahead and show the Blair Witch. Or, at least, a long limbed monster of some kind (maybe they were going for some sort of alien abduction thing - lost time is a common feature of those narratives and there's these bright lights that show up at the end of the film that seem otherwise out of place - but they don't really do enough to establish that... and it would be pretty silly if they did). I mean, really? This whole movie seems like it was made to placate the people who hated the first movie because they didn't see the witch and because it was ambiguous.
    Crawling down a tunnel
    There are some things I like about the movie, but they're isolated moments or ideas that aren't fulfilled. The look Peter gives when he sees the Confederate flag. The time distortion and time loop concepts are interesting. The sound design, while a bit bombastic, is really well done. There's a great sequence where our heroine is crawling through a tunnel. Her performance is really fantastic there and throughout. Indeed, the last half hour of the movie is pretty tense, even if it's a dumb idea to show the witch. Other performances are pretty good too and you generally like the characters (er, at least the ones you're supposed to like).

    Ultimately, none of that is enough to win me over. This movie eschews most of what made the original special and doesn't manage to replace what was lost with anything of consequence. I know I tend to be difficult on sequels and remakes (partly because it's genuinely hard to do them really well), but I found this one especially disappointing because I had so much faith in Wingard and Barrett. I'm hoping this will be an aberration and that we'll see more great stuff from them in the future. But this Blair Witch movie is simply not worth it. *
So there you have it. Up next: Tobe Hooper!