As an avid horror fan, I decided to ruin my warm summer Saturday night by chucking on a lovely macabre 90 minute scream-fest. With hopes of finding something I hadn’t previously watched, I browsed through the Horror section on Netflix, skimming over the usual remakes, 80s B-line movies, and desperate sequels to see if anything promising had been released in the library, other than the two or three actual decent horrors added this year. To my (lack of) surprise, this came to no avail, so I got on IMDB and had a look at releases from the past year to see if there was anything that took my fancy. After a similar struggle, I came across Blair Witch (2016), to which I thought, “well the original was an instant classic, even with it’s the simple plot and lack of visuals; surely they can’t mess this up too badly?”
Oh, how I was wrong.
As any good horror film should do, I felt the familiar knot of dread slowly growing in my stomach as I became more invested into the story. However, it wasn’t the usual sensation of creeping fear at the grisly scenes unfolding before me; it was the gradual realisation that one of my favourite paranormal classics has become yet another notch in the belt of Hollywood’s repetitive horror franchises. Over the past few years, the horror genre has been littered with more and more disastrous remakes and rehashes of horror classics, with examples such as Halloween (2007), Poltergeist (2015) and Nightmare on Elm Street (2010); all of which have been churned out as rushed money-spinners, focusing more on packing in as much CGI gore and jump scares as possible rather than paying any attention to the quality of the stories which had been carefully and tastefully constructed by the heroes of classic horror. Part of me likes to believe that the long-awaited sequel to The Blair Witch Project (1999), “Blair Witch”, attempted to try and stray from this trend, but in this case it just did not make the cut in my eyes, for a number of reasons.
Let’s start by looking at why the original worked so well. The key factor in the film’s success was the element of realism. Seen as one of the pioneers of the “found-footage” genre, The Blair Witch Project (1999) was one of the first films to be released in the style of a documentary, alongside an impressive collection of supporting TV docs, faux missing person’s reports and an incredibly vast and convincing collection of (spoiler – like you didn’t already know) made-up mythology across the internet. On its first mainstream cinema release from Haxan Films, the picture made international headlines due to audiences falling into the film’s believable trap – reports of viewers passing out in cinemas, vomiting and leaving theatres out of pure fear – a feat many horror creators have been trying to achieve since Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
Aside from the astounding efforts put into promoting the film to make it more believable, the striking performances from amateur actors Heather Donahue (Boys and Girls), Joshua Leonard (Bates Motel, The Town that Dreaded Sundown) and Michael C. Williams (The Objective, Altered) who play themselves in the movie, cemented the film as real in many viewer’s minds. Why were they so convincing, you ask? Because they also thought it was real (well, to an extent).
90% of the film was improvised; filmed over 8 days, the 3 actors were supplied with GPS drops each day, containing incredibly brief instructions on how their character’s story should develop (without sharing with the other actors). They had little-to-no contact with the rest of the production staff; only entering the woods under the belief that the mythology behind the Blair Witch was real, but what they were shooting would be staged. However, they had no idea of what terrifying trauma the director and producers would be putting them through each night. For example, in one spine-tingling scene, the campers wake up to the sound of children playing, screaming, singing and crying outside of the tent. These sounds were not edited in to the film during post-production; the producer actually snuck three boom-boxes outside of their tent during the night, and blasted out a recording from a local school playground at 3am to the actor’s surprise – so the fear you see on screen is completely genuine. Similarly, the actors were also gradually underfed more and more each day, with a meek diet of a banana and a power bar per actor for each of the last few days of shooting. This cruel tactic was used as a device to build tension between the characters, which definitely pays off as you can watch the actors grow increasingly frustrated which each other as their energy levels slowly dwindle away with their lack of nutrition and sleep, resulting in some genuine exhaustion-fueled fights. As you can see, the original film uses a combination of impeccable improvisation and ingenious production tactics to make a fantastic attempt to convince the viewer that these people have been scared to the brink of insanity. So, after creating such a ground-breaking yet simple project, how did the sequel manage to stray so far away?
The story follows Heather’s younger brother played by James Allen McCune (the Walking Dead, Shameless US) who after reviewing the previous film and some recent YouTube footage, believes his sister is still alive and living in the Burkittsville (previously Blair) woods, and so gathers a group of friends to document his rescue mission. As soon as the plot was established, I already began to lose faith – honestly, what did he think? She’s just survived for 20 years on a diet of berries and twigs while she patiently waits on the porch of an old abandoned house in the woods for her rescuer to arrive? It is glaringly obvious that the Lionsgate has seen the success of Haxan’s original (it made nearly $250m in the box office, an astounding profit for a $60k budget), and decided the cash cow needed milking again, so have grasped at a tenuous link to the previous story and squeezed it into the first 10 minutes in order to hurry up and get some actors back into the woods for some run-of-the-mill jump scares.
From my point of view, the film is too obvious for a few reasons. A large portion of the blame falls onto the poor quality of the writing, which is reflected in the equally weak delivery from the actors. In scenes where the characters find themselves in the clutches of the Witch’s tormenting mind games, the forced dialogue stands in the way of bringing any real fear to the viewer as the actors clearly feign their terror. The original’s unexpected scare tactics and genuine fearful reactions, prompt a much more honest reaction from viewers, which is essentially incomparable with the strained and unnatural panic of the characters in the sequel.
Furthermore, many of the understated subtexts from the original are now thoroughly rubbed in the faces of the fans at home, removing any aspect of mystery for viewers to work out for themselves. For example, the footage from the original film is claimed to have been found under the ruins of an old burnt down house in the middle of Blair Woods. Only those keen-eyed viewers who paid attention to the local folklore at the beginning of the film will have realised that this particular house is the same one which belonged to a worshipper of the Witch who kidnapped children on her behalf, and was burnt down when he was caught in the 1940’s (therefore suggesting an element of time travel in the cursed woods), the sequel, however, hands this information to you on a plate, in a scene where the campers reunite with other witch hunters they parted with hours before, who claim it has been 4 days since they split up. The film swiftly sweeps over this mystery, leaving little for the viewer to work out for themselves.
Even more insulting is the delivery of the film’s main antagonist, the Blair Witch herself. The original movie purposefully never shows the actual witch, only the path of terror she guides her victims with, leaving you to make your own decision on whether she is a malevolent unseen entity or a physical being, with either option being just as devastatingly daunting. But yet again, the sequel leaves little up to the imagination, showing us glimpses of an eerily tall and skinny figure who stalks the campers. To the credit of the production team, this monster definitely has an unnatural and disturbing look to it which is undeniably sinister and menacing, however revealing the Witch removes the infinite possibilities the mind can conjure up on her true identity, spoiling the subtlety of the original.
Overall, the film definitely hasn’t received the same success as it’s predecessor, making less than a fifth of the originals’ box office profits at $45 million, however looking back at it’s forced plot and dialogue and cheap scares, it isn’t too much of a surprise. This is far from the first time that a sequel of a classic has been turned into a devastatingly-delivered money-spinner as mentioned before; and let’s not even get started on those rehashed box office disasters.
Is this the new normal? It seems that there is a blatant pattern of repetition in Hollywood in recent years, which has grown so common now that it has been generally accepted as a standard going forward. Looking at the year ahead of us, it’s disheartening to see the biggest horror highlight of this year will be yet another remake, this time of Stephen King’s IT, rather than an original creation (also its scarier to imagine what way Pennywise the clown will be be brought back to life – will he be able to compete with Tim Curry’s horrifying clown, or will he become another forgettable throwaway antagonist?). There is, however, hope for the horror genre, with the likes of Jordan Peele (Get Out) and James Wan (Insidious, Sinister) creating original and groundbreaking pieces which have rewritten the rules of horror and revitalised the genre from an era of remakes and spin-offs. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for the future that more shining stars like these break through the murky swamps of repetition in which the horror industry is currently attempting to dig itself out of.
Blair Witch is available on DVD and Amazon Prime to rent.