The Bitch is Back:
8 Ways “Blair Witch” Got the Scares Right
By KARL R. De MESA
Photos courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures/Pioneer Films
“This is Burkitsville, formerly Blair. It is a small, quiet Maryland town…” is a spiel that still rings inside my head even after all this time, from a movie that came out in 1999.
For me, The Blair Witch Project was a double-edged sword of filmmaking genius: it was a big “fuck you” by indie filmmaker Eduardo Sanchez to the Hollywood hype machine that routinely required millions of dollars to produce a film of epically crap proportions; and it was a truly ground breaking way to make a horror movie through what’s been called, in hindsight, as hyperrealism.
Both blades of said sword cut through the competition like so much wheat under a scythe. The movie grossed an official box office amount of $248.6 million (from a reported budget of a measly $60,000), and Sanchez’s auteur style of handing his non-actors only excerpts of script at given points and having them run around the woods like headless chickens as he scared them shitless night after night after night for authenticity birthed what we now know as the “found footage” genre.
Because I was a twentysomething with too much imagination, I found the artful omissions in the movie, the lack of actual catharsis and payoff of confronting the monster as denouement (a staple of so many horror clichés that routinely disappointed) as a great thrill ride and a masterful manipulation of the medium. The less imaginative (or the more Apollonian in thought) saw only shaky camera work and wanted to vomit.
If you cannot see the horror, your mind will supply the worst case scenario. Hooray for the primogen of user-generated terror.
Now that “found footage” has become the drooling gonzo idiot younger brother of the horror genre’s taller, older brothers, Sanchez’s work on TBWP has now lived long enough to see its once mighty demon become a clockwork toy of bad selfie puns and hyper-aware, trying hard hipster gore filmmaking—especially in the shadow of the truly horrible mess that was Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows and the slew of just as bad video game spinoffs.
So now, it’s time for a reboot (of sorts), and Blair Witch (with sleight of hand marketing, first titled The Woods) is an excellent place for previous fans and new aficionados to get to know the bitch who toyed with filmmakers Heather, Josh, and Mike out in the Black Hills Woods in 1994 and eventually killed them all.
It’ll be hard to make a compleat review of this movie without giving too much away (and the movie does rely on twists of the garden and meta variety), so I will say that two things I really liked about the movie are:
1. It’s sensitivity and hyperawareness of how “found footage” has been abused and exploited to justify bad filmmaking, so the crew behind this one have taken pains to not only solve the premise of why the characters have cameras, but also to make sure the people who are shooting the footage aren’t hyperaware that they’re on-cam.
2. It reveals more of the ecology, powers, limits, and mythos of the Blair Witch without undue reliance on information dumps, thus allowing the story and the revelations to occur organically, sans stupid moments of “Oh yeah, we should totally do this because I just remembered reading that blah and blah can’t…” You get the picture.
A caveat: like the first film, Blair Witch requires you to bring some imagination to the theater and not expect all the scares to be handed to you. That said, I think all fans of the original should go check it out.
Meanwhile, here are eight more ways the old witch and a quartet of new victims will get your guts on the roll.
Four filmmakers go into the woods…
It’s been 20 years since James Donahue’s sister and her two friends vanished into the Black Hills Forest in Maryland while researching the legend of the Blair Witch, leaving a trail of theories and suspicions in their wake. James (James Allen McCune) and his friends Peter (Brandon Scott), Ashley (Corbin Reid) and film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez) venture into the same woods each with a camera to uncover the mysteries surrounding their disappearance and, for James, to uncover more clues to his sister’s vanishing.
At first the group is hopeful, especially when a pair of locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) offer to act as guides through the dark and winding woods. But as the endless night wears on, the group is visited by a menacing presence. They begin to realize the legend is all too real and more powerful than they could have imagined.
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett.
Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett were one of many fans of TBWP shooting found footage ripoffs in the garden after they saw the original movie. They’ve since taken their love of the genre to gore and exploitation scarers like V/H/S and their previous independent horror movie You’re Next. Which was excellent, by the by.
Expanding the first movie.
Elly Kedward, the woman accused of witchcraft and left to die in the Maryland woods in 1785, is the first recorded story of the Blair Witch legend, and in the late 1940s, Blair woodsman Rustin Parr abducted eight children from town (luring them with promises of candy) and took them to his mountain house in the woods, because (he said) the voice of the witch urged him to do so.
Parr brought the kids down in pairs to his basement; he had one stand in the corner while he killed the first child by disemboweling them and carving symbols into their skin with knives.
The Blair Witch Project, created a lasting lore around our fear of being alone in the woods. And now whatever evil is in the woods has only gotten stronger since the first film. “I wanted to create something that felt like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not in terms of the violence, but in terms of the relentless intensity that movie gives you,” says Wingard. “You’re constantly running from something into a scenario that’s even more frightening.”
Rebuilding the Witch House.
Using photos from the original Blair Witch Project set, the filmmakers also painstakingly recreated the house in the first film, brick for brick.
“The original filmmakers (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez) were blown away by returning to that universe because we immaculately recreated the house and in particular the basement,” says producer Keith Calder. “I don’t think they were expecting that level of detail.”
Recalibrating “found footage.”
“One of the problems with found footage films is you’re hyper aware of the cameras,” says director Adam Wingard. “We wanted to make sure that was thrown out the door, so when the horror happens, you are 100 percent invested.”
While much of the fear behind the first Blair Witch Project relied on what wasn’t shown, the sequel relies on revealing more of what lurks after dark, and to create a better kind of horror that didn’t go over tired ground, filmmakers swapped the first film’s 16-mm. black-and-white camera for discrete head cams (with GPS) and a drone cam.
Commitment to no CGI.
The filmmakers insist that there is no CGI in this film in terms of anything you’re seeing that’s creepy in the woods. “We built everything; what you’re seeing in the film is actually all there,” explains director Adam Wingard.
A huge part of the first movie was the surprise of those initial screenings when people weren’t sure if it was real or not. “Keeping this a secret in the era of oversharing and excessive marketing on social media, especially of horror films, felt new and original for the time,” says Simon Barrett.
To effect such an enormous logistical challenge, screenwriter Simon Barret created versions of the script that were widely different; and hence the misleading first title: The Woods. “The cast auditioned with fake pages,” he says in the film’s production notes, “and the actors didn’t know what movie they agreed to be in until their deals were finalized.”
Diving into the mythos of Blair and Rustin Parr.
To hold true to the Blair Witch mythos, screenwriter Simon Barrett familiarized himself with every hint of information the first film contains, from old message boards and Facebook groups to graphic novels and young adult books that were published only in Europe.
“We wanted to take the mythos further and explore how outsiders approach the haunting and how locals see the legend,” says Barrett.
“Blair Witch” opens September 14 in Metro Manila cinemas.
What were the scariest moments in the film for you? Share with us below!