Everyone who knows my obssession with horror movies and horror culture knows that two of my personal beloved horror subgenres are slasher and found footage horror. Today, we will talk about found footage horror and phenomena that started it all, Blair Witch trilogy and the impact it had on me as a fan and the horror scene in general.
In Spring 2000.I saw the documentary called Curse of Blair Witch and it was released on tv prior to the first movie being distributed in cinema and becoming grand blockbuster from 30 000 dollar indie little horror to 140 millions hit and launching the directors and screenwriters Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez to horror scene stardom. This documentary was just awesome, especially the part when they talk about Coffin Rock and massacre of the search party who went to the Black Hills woods to search for the missing child. The documentary was so convincing that most of my buddies and me decided that we just had to go to the cinema and see the movie. It was a blast! I was so awed by the movie that I couldn´t sleep from being scared although I was a 22 aears old kid back then, not some little snotty mewling child.
I learned of course that it was all a marketing hoax, but what a grand plan, what a grand screenplay and it proves that with a great idea, you can manage almost anything. There never was real Township of Blair, but Burkittsville became pretty popular and hordes of fans and paranormal enthusiasts went there to find out where all three missing students Heather, Josh and Mike were and where the witch was. The name of the woman who is supposed to be the historical witch is derived from known alchemist Edward Kelly like an anagram and also the supposed hermit turned serial killer in the 1940-s Rustin Parr is in fact an anagram derived from Rasputin, as the authors stated later in one talk with the journalists. Some of the Burkittsville residents profited from that hysteria, some were just plain angry because they thought all those people destroyed their privacy.
The first part of the movie is quite boring when three of our main characters get to Burkittsville in order to make a documentary about the local legend concerning a witch in the Black Hills Woods. They are asking local residents about the legend(all of them fakes, none being the real resident of Burkittsville) and that part of the movie is not so interesting. The action starts when they get to the woods and little by little they get lost, strange things begin to happen, up to the very quick, murky and sudden end. What I love is the gradation of anxiety and horror that authors managed to create with the movie, from merry bunch of kids who enter the forest, accross starting to be disoriented, but still happy, to becoming hysterical, hungry, miserable, frightened and hunted. The actors were just awesome in their roles and I certainly managed to sympathize and connect with all three characters, especially Heather with the moving part when she talks to her Mom with only a little handlight being sorry about everything and you just know something terrible will happen. So, it was a tense experience to see the characters becoming more and more doomed.
The second part why I love this movie are scary parts. No monsters, no zombies, no gore scenes, but only sound effects during the night in the woods. All those rock heaps, figures made from wood, part of bloody shirt in the bundle was enough to make my skin crawl with goosebumps. The part of the movie I remember and was most impressed is when our students heard children laughing, running and shouting in the forest dead of the night. Then, their tent starts to shake and we hear distant children´s laugh that was enough to remember this movie forever. The ending was tense, but a bit disappointing with lots of running, we are not really able to see what is happening and all of that just gives the viewer some food for thoughts and all of us can imagine and create our own ending in our heads, the authors gave us directions how it ended and every one of us created in our heads the perfect scary ending. That were some found footage horror subgenre defining postulates. First, setting the task in the movie introduction, whether the protagonists go to film a documentary, explore the abandoned hospital, investigate alien abductions etc. Then follows the traveling to that place where the story is situated and talking with survivors/witnesses/random people etc etc. Then nothing happens really until the last twenty or thirty minutes when usually the movie ends in a mix of running, shouting, screaming, sound effects, and occasionally some final glimpse of horror caught in the eye of the fallen camera or something similar. Those are the postulates for found footage, and I saw at least hundred of them and some were plain bad, clones, but some where awesome and I still love this subgenre the most in horror, but this one started it all and I will always love this one. I saw it yesterday, twenty years after it is made and it withstood the test of time.
The most important for found footage horror in my opinion is having a good story/fake or real urban legend that you can work your tension and story on. If that is not the case, you are failed and the movie is doomed from the very beginning. Myrick/Sanchez did a mighty fine job and this movie is for sure one of all time horror movie hall of famers.
The second movie, entitled Book Of Shadows was a big let down. Riding on the money wave made by the first movie, Artisan decided to make a sequel. Myrick/Sanchez didn´t want to do it, because they wanted to wait for some time for all the hype to settle down. So, the Company recruited new director, Joe Berlinger, otherwise the director of real documentaries, who also wrote the script for the sequel along with Dick Beebe(House On Haunted Hill remake, some Tales From The Crypt episodes…).
The premise of the second movie was interesting, because they wanted to go more with the human factor behind all the mythical and paranormal. The sequel is also not a found footage hand held camera horror, it is conventional horror movie done like so many other cinema horror movies and it is everything what the first one was fighting against. The budget was also a lot bigger, some 15 million dollars, it made some success with income circa 46 or 47 million dollars, so it was not a total bust.
The other thing is, the fans buried it with a vengeance, critics also, but they don´t really matter. Blair fans felt betrayed, I also had the same feeling watching the new movie. Starts promising, with interviews made with the citizens of Burkittsville who are either confused, happy or angry with all the fans of the movie invading their town and privacy. It was supposedly filmed with real Burkittsville citizens and Berlinger was supposedly booed and chased away there when he explained to them what he wanted to film in their town. So, our protagonists led by Jeff who organizes Blair Witch tours come to Burkittsville and Black Hills forest and judging by some flashbacks Jeff being in the psychiatric hospital, we can assume that not everything is right with this picture. I loved the idea of movie within a movie, but it was just not explored the way it should be. The protagonists crew is very varied, Jeff, gothic girl Kim, Wicca witch Erica portrayed and written totally wrong from the real Wiccan religion and Tristen and Stephen, a couple expecting a baby. In the first part of the movie, they arrive to the ruins and foundation of the Rustin Parr house(hermit turned serial killer in the 1940s in the Blair mythology) where the tapes from the first movie were found. They camp there, drink and party, meet the other tourist party led by two guys for a few minutes and then wake up confused about what happened and where they lost couple of hours, equipment is destroyed and only tapes are left. Tristen loses a baby, they all rush to the hospital where the doctors clean her up and let her from the hospital in too quick time, that is another failure from the Berlinger/Beebe screenwriting team. They all go to some abandoned factory/warehouse turned Jeff´s house in the woods, where they start to lose their minds and tragedy strikes soon…
The characters are too shallow or too obnoxious, so I just couldn´t relate with any of them and sympathize. The children´s ghosts in the woods are cool, I am a sucker for that and it scares me, but bad make up, bad use of the ghosts in parts of the movies where they just don´t belong ruined that idea. Kim banged the van lightly, but later on we see the van practically ruined and afterwards the screenwriters just forgot about it. Who smashed the van? The deaths, dramatic parts and the great finale in the police station when the survivors and supposed mass murderers are questioned by the police are just done so amateurish and so unconvincing that the last third of the movie just sinks into total oblivion. I saw it again these days, for the third time and it still leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. This sequel is one of those that should not have been done and sometimes greed for money can be lethal for the horror movie franchise. That was the case here and the franchise was left dormant for many years after this failure.
Come 2016.and the mysterious new horror called The Woods. That was another marketing trick for making third Blair Witch movie under fake name to avoid all the internet hassle and theories about it. This time Adam Wingard, young horror rising star was chosen as a director, known for his work on The Guest, A Horrible Way To Die, V/H/S and You´re Next. Also, Simon Barret(Dead Birds, A Horrible Way To Die, Temple, The Guest) wrote the script for the third installment of this franchise. This one was made to be the direct sequel to the first movie, avoiding and not mentioning the debacle with the Book Of Shadows.
The story revolves around James, brother of Heather from the first movie, who gathers a new crew and they all go to the Black Hills forest to find Heather after seeing video which convinced James that Heather is still alive and lost there. Upon arriving there, strange things start to happen and something picks them off one by one.
What I love about this movie is the return to found footage style and being much more action filled and more tense than the second one. But, also, the sound effects that were so scary in the first movie are here over the top and just too much of them like all of the woods walking at once. Also, the characters are much more hysterical and more screaming and running through the woods. Some modern times novelties are here, like the crew is not only armed with cameras, but also with drone and old mysteries like time lapses, loss of hours, Rustin Parr´s house are here.
That last twenty or twenty five minutes of the movie is just perfect. When James and Lisa arrive to the old Rustin Parr´s house and the rain relentlessly falling which adds to the drama and the inside running like first character horror game with something chasing them and tension is just great until the end which gives some answers but provides more questions for a possible continuation of the series. The attic scenes are great, but what is with that lights, like alien movies? I didn´t get that! Also, in some scenes, at least one we get a possible witch for a few seconds and see at last how she or it looks like. The acting is okay with James Allen McCune(Jimmy from The Walking Dead) as James and awesome Callie Hernandez(Alien Covenant, La La Land) being above all of others from the cast, giving me actual feelings for them in their panic, fear and desperation. The third one is way better than unfortunate Book Of Shadows but is in fact only reboot of the first movie with some interesting moments.
In the end, Blair made me worship found footage horror. My list would be: first and legendary, third one and then the weaker second movie.
Who knows? Maybe one day the fourth movie arrives and we get more answers.