No, it’s not Halloween but it might as well be Christmas for me as the unexpected Blair Witch sequel directed by Adam Wingard will drop September 16th to a hungry public. Not that I’d consider myself a Blair fanatic, I was too young to partake in the hype during its initial run but I’ve enjoy Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett’s previous work, the home invasion blood bath of You’re Next and the stylistic, ominous thriller of The Guest. I have faith in a team that has kept with the genre and not jumped ship to do some Marvel movie to make a passionate sequel to this iconic property. I look forward to entering this new movie as blindly as possible (no trailers please!) but thought it worth while to reexamine the 1999 film as well as its lesser known follow up, Book of Shadows.
I can’t believe how well this film holds up. For a low budget horror that turned into a blockbuster sleeper hit and immediately became over exposed in pop culture, you’d expect diminishing returns. Yet still, watching it in my room on a television during a quite Friday night, I was genuinely creeped out. What constantly gets overlooked is that this isn’t a movie about some Maryland urban legend, it’s about being lost in the woods. It’s what happens when three people who don’t know each other that well (how close are Heather and Josh anyway?) lose there way, are without food or guidance and have the slightest inkling that they might not be alone. With this watch I found myself particularly afraid of Mike with his angry outbursts and maniacal laugh as he reveals he kicked the map into the creek. He’s just sound guy being hired for this weekend gig, they didn’t do a background check or know what he’s like besides a lover of UTZ (and who isn’t.) As a woman, I felt completely weary of Heather’s safety as she doesn’t know what that man is capable of.
It’s still mind boggling to think a psychological thriller such as this could be a massive hit. There’s no jump scares or gore, it’s on you to project what could be lurking in the shadows. Is it a witch, is it the ghost of Rustin Parr or should these kids be afraid of each other? The ending, which is fantastic, you don’t see any apparition. You can’t even differentiate where noises are coming from as that scene is so disorienting as the film cuts back and forth between Mike running with the video camera and Heather following with the 16mm. Since only the video camera records sound, it throws the voices of characters so that you can’t distinguish where anyone is and you’re taking in this dilapidated house speeding by you. The final moment being Mike in the corner and the camera dropping to the ground is an unsettling hard out when you’ve barely had time to catch your breath. The film has racked tension all leading up to this point and even though so little happens, it amazingly pays off.
Part of the reason it was so successful was that it came during such a dead period for horror movies. Aside from Scream in ’96, the 90’s were dismal for the genre as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels were taking their final gasps, flailing at the box office and you were inundated with sleek Scream rip offs like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legends. Blair Witch is so counter cultural to these as it adversely has the unsexiest of teens and no blood splatter in sight. It’s one of the least exploitative horror movies ever. This is almost a fluke with it’s perfect timing for release but also that it’s an experiment in filmmaking. Send three twenty somethings into the woods, leave them directorial notes, have them improvise most of the dialogue then edit it together to create some kind of plot and suddenly Myrick and Sanchez have made a ground breaking horror movie that we still talk about today. It deserves all its praise and has earned its rightful place in the horror cinema hall of fame.
Contrary to Gordon Gekko, greed is not always good. One of the purest forms of greed I encounter is that of a sequel. Rarely are sequels warranted. They shouldn’t be if your film is a cohesive and contained story. It shouldn’t need to be “completed” by another two hour, three act structure but studios want to make money and if they feel an audience is in place and will choke up their hard earned cash to see the continued narrative then they’ll find a way to make it happen. After the unprecedented success of The Blair Witch Project, Artisan who had distributed the film after Sundance wanted to keep that money train barreling onward and get a sequel in theaters faster than you can ask “where’s the map?” They had their sights set on a Halloween of 2000 release (the first film came out July ’99). It’s not unusual for a studio to demand such an expedited turnaround to capitalize on a successful property (see Friday the 13th Part 2 A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge or Hellbound:Hellraiser 2). Horror is cheap to make, filled with no name actors and if there’s gore and tits, teens will go. That seems to be the thought process of Artisan even though following that formula would negate the entire appeal of the first film.
Book of Shadows exists in this bizarro space as part of it wants to be truthful to the established style and the world of the previous film. While not found footage, camera POV and video tape play a major role in the action. In an attempt to keep with the reality that The Blair Witch was a true event and that Heather, Josh and Mike were murdered while making the movie, there’s an opening title that states this movie too is based on real occurrences and we’re watching a reenactment. No thought was actually put into that as the plot is so twisty and illogical there’s no conceivable way this is a “reenactment”. It has the elements of the shitty late 90’s films I complained about before but with a meta spin. A group of twenty somethings either with mid drifts or goatees take a Blair Witch tour led by Burn Notice’s Jeffrey Donovan as Jeffrey (note all actors play characters of the same name). Burkittsville has become a Mecca for goth thrill seekers hoping to see the witch in person or debunk the lore. This isn’t a bad concept because in all honesty where can you really go when you’re sequalizing a film where A) all the characters die and B) the titular paranormal entity is never shown. It makes sense to instead play off the culture surrounding the phenomenon. Sadly with such rushed development, there’s no effort into fleshing out that aspect aside from an indeed charming montage similar to the first film of documentary style interviews with the townspeople who are selling rock mounds and twig men to inept tourist who are obsessed with the macabre. That literally being the best scene which is no surprise, director Jim Berlinger is an award winning documentarian, but post-interviews it’s your run of the mill T&A debauchery as this ill managed tour group gets wasted while camping out at the Rustin Parr ruins.
I brought up Jeffery Donovan specifically not only because he’s the most famous actor to come out of this but that he’s such a maladministered character. I was confounded at how informal his expedition operation was because rarely do tour guides partake and supply the beer and weed. He’s also the only person with a backstory set up with a flashback (a poorly placed one that muddles the opening timeline) which illustrates his past hospitalization and mental health problems leaving us as an audience to believe his sanity should be questionable. This could have been an effective angle if the plot hadn’t so quickly become about everyone going crazy. After the night of camp site partying, the group of five including a clairvoyant goth, a grad student couple and a hot Wiccan, wake up to find camera equipment destroyed, thesis papers torn up and unfamiliar markings on their bodies. Trust has been broken as the group is desperate to find out who or what caused all this. The remainder of the film is spent at Jeffery’s homestead which is an abandoned mill converted to a black market bachelor pad. Characters unravel as they have visions of a drowned Ring-like girl and hear voices that pit them against each other. Within all this Jeffery never acts out on his crazy making it even clearer that his initial character development was most likely an afterthought. Where in the original film it is purely subtext that the “Blair Witch” is toying with reality and possibly manipulating characters, Book of Shadows makes that the focal center as we learn that these youths have unbeknownst to themselves been on a mass murder spree. Poorly constructed, that’s the major reveal of the finale as the characters left alive are held in custody and shown various surveillance footage as they kill friends, rival tourists and a judgmental convenient store clerk. Dumb as that is at least it fits into Berlinger’s filmography of wrongful convictions. The West Memphis Three didn’t do it, they were possessed by a witch!
The unsatisfying twist is the least of the film’s problem. As much as I’d like to be team Berlinger, he seems to have no idea how to build tension as the script falls flat at every turn and his shot like a cheap CW drama. I won’t make him take the complete rap for these missteps as it was reported the studio demanded more violence so frantically inter spliced amidst scenes are orange hued flashes of knives plunging into flesh and a chest being bound with rope. Those pointless additions hinder an already menial story. It’s an uncharacteristic slasher because there’s no formidable threat. No one is being stalked by a man in a mask. Aside from the occasional vision, there is no threat to these characters. You never feel like it’s building up to a grand conclusion, you’re just waiting for it to end. This blunder vindicates how genius the original film is because with so little in terms of money, cast and plot they made one of the most suspenseful films of all time and then it followed up with a $15 million budget sequel that has no idea what it’s doing. I don’t think it even understands its title. There is no Book of Shadows here! It’s as opaque as the witch’s motivations. It’s a slapped on title making clear the rushed nature of the endeavor that was doomed to fail.
If anyone has taken the time to experience the lapse in judgement that is Book of Shadows then you know whatever ever is released on September 16th will be exponentially better. Could this still be a cash grab? Maybe. If so, at least the got the best team in the horror biz to make it. Though proof by Shadows it’s a difficult movie to follow up, I’ve never been more confident that they will blow it out of the woods. Check back in a few weeks to see if I eat my words.