Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The Films of 2016: Blair Witch

[Beware of Major, Major Spoilers]

More than fifteen years after its debut, The Blair Witch Project (1999) remains one of the most important titles in horror film history.  Although one can always point to historical antecedents like Punishment Park (1971) or Cannibal Holocaust (1980), The Blair Witch Project is undoubtedly the film responsible for popularizing the found-footage sub-genre.

More than that, the Edward Sanchez, Daniel Myrick film established so many parameters of that popular formula, from the talking confession to scene the night vision scene, from the “let them eat static” visual interference to the timeless central setting itself: the dark, sinister woods.

I count The Blair Witch Project as not only a significant title in film history, but one that -- naysayers aside -- is extremely well-made. What the film truly seems to concern is the fact that the more technology we possess, the less we actually see. 

There are many cameras and other recording devices present in the original film, and yet they do nothing to prove or disprove the existence of the Blair Witch. The cameras add absolutely nothing to the investigation, but they do add, significantly, an important filter on reality.  

The film’s protagonist Heather (Heather Donohue) is able, for example, to hide behind the camera viewfinder and pretend that what she believes to be happening isn’t really happening.  The footage isn’t quite reality, as her friend, Josh, points out.  In some way, this is a critique of our culture, and the mass media.  When we see something terrible on CNN, over and over again, we can comfort ourselves that the tragedy arrives through the filters of a camera, editing, time, and distance.

Or contrarily, perhaps the footage seen in the film is actually as “real” as human  life gets: showcasing no answers, and no real closure.

But The Blair Witch Project is a high-water mark for the found footage film because it juxtaposes two ideas brilliantly. The first is that we have all the technology we need to capture (on film or videotape), something previously hidden…a monster, for example.  

And then it runs that conceit up against another one: a monster that can, apparently, reshape reality to its liking, making all such technology utterly worthless.

What works so beautifully (and perpetually) about The Blair Witch Project is the frightening notion that there are mysteries and monsters in this world that cannot be recorded, quantified, diagnosed, comprehended, or beaten...let alone seen.  

Although some audiences were outraged about the film’s lack of an onscreen monster, The Blair Witch Project understood better than just about any movie ever made that once you show the monster, fear has left the room.  Permanently. More recent found-footage films such as Paranormal Activity (2007) have kowtowed to audience demands by giving demons from Hell crowd-pleasing close-up focus, but only at the sacrifice of true terror.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) did not recapture the magic of The Blair Witch Project in a meaningful way, perhaps because at that juncture the culture was still processing exactly the reasons why the original film worked as well as it did. I will be reviewing the first sequel here on the blog on Thursday, but it is very much inferior to the original.

Now, in 2016, we finally have Blair Witch, the second follow-up film to the 1999 original, and a film that works relatively well in many ways, but also fails to live up to the original in others.

Blair Witch follows on brilliantly from the original film in terms of diagramming the witch’s unusual and mind-blowing abilities.  The sequel falls apart, however, in its debased desire to please general audiences.  I still recommend the film and rate it positively.  I merely wish that it didn’t feel the need to include a surfeit of ineffective jump scares.  Call it the Conjuring effect.  Now every horror movie is more likely to feature a jump scare than it is a culturally-relevant subtext.

The Blair Witch Project didn’t need a new jump scare every five minutes to keep audiences immersed in the drama, but I suppose attention spans have dropped off precipitously since 1999. 

Still, Blair Witch is very much the sequel I hoped for in one crucial sense. It depicts -- frighteningly and memorably -- the cerebral terror of the unseen but titular monster.  If you love the first film, or even want to understand it better, this sequel is very much worth your investment of time and money.

Fifteen years after his sister’s disappearance, James Donohue (James Allen McCune) sees a video on YouTube that he believes includes an image of Heather.

While his friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) shoots a documentary of James’ story, James, and two other friends, Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid) head to the Black Hills of Maryland -- and the town of Burkittsville -- to see if they can find the house in the woods that everyone saw both in Heather’s original footage, and now, again, in the online video.

At the Black Hills, the team reluctantly teams with Lane (Wes Robinson) and his girlfriend, Talia (Vaolire Curry), the people who found the new video in the Black Hills. Lane wants to make a documentary about the Blair Witch too, and demands to accompany James' group.

The group heads into the woods, and crosses a river.  Lisa, meanwhile, is ready, this time, in case the filmmakers should get lost. She has brought along cameras with GPS indicators, and a drone, among other high-tech toys.

Before long, however, the youngsters begin to experience strange events.  At first, these are dismissed as a hoax orchestrated by Lane.  Before long, however, the Blair Witch is up to her old tricks.

Lisa and James, finally, discover a house in the woods. Drenched in pounding rain, they head inside the darkened, mysterious house -- which shows up on no maps, and which no search parties ever found -- to see if Heather remains inside, after all these years.

The case against Blair Witch is obvious, alas. The film relies, for too long, on poorly constructed jump scares.  Characters keep running into each other in the woods, and shout in terror, until, finally, one character says -- in conjunction with audience wishes --“Cut it out!”

Indeed. Cut it out.

The jump scares are repetitive and don’t work particularly well. One reason why they fail involves setting. The majority of the film is set in deep woods, at nights. The cameras are worn on the characters’ heads, and so the jump scares consist of a pivot and a jump, as people run into each other unexpectedly. 

But it’s difficult to make out who is running to whom.  

The found footage nature of the proceeding means that the precision needed to execute a jump scare successfully is simply not present. Or not as present as it should be.

These scenes don’t work well.  I understand why people complain about them.

On the other hand, this development is not a deal-breaker because Blair Witch provided me of what I wanted out of the sequel: a deepening of the mystery around the Blair Witch and her powers.  There is a cold, cerebral terror underlining every frame of this film, as James, Lisa and the others walk into a trap that they were always destined to walk into.

In The Blair Witch Project, Heather, Joshua and Michael could not find their way out of the woods. The compass led them one way, all day, and yet they walked in a circle.  Once in the woods, they could simply not escape, and one possibility was that the witch had cursed them; and was manipulating reality itself in her pursuit of them. They crossed the same river, walking in one direction, over and over again.

Blair Witch absolutely picks up on this notion, and does so beautifully and intelligently. In this film, the Witch apparently alters the basics of reality -- meaning time and space -- so that fate arrives at a pre-ordained conclusion.

In this sequel, for instance, some characters claim they have been in the woods for five days, not one, and they have grown the stubble and beards to prove the passage of time. For other characters, it has been only hours.

There is no overt explanation for this.

Similarly, when Lisa sends a drone up over the high trees, it registers that there are no houses anywhere, and no roads or homes beyond the Black Hills, either.  It’s as if the whole world is forest. Or at least the entire region. 

Or, perhaps, this discovery suggests that the witch has taken the unlucky hikers to a time period, perhaps, in which our civilization doesn’t yet exist.  This possibility, while terrifying, also allows for the possibility however, that Heather and the others are still alive.  

If time has no meaning in these woods, then James could stumble upon Heather and the others lost in the woods from the first film.

This idea recurs later. The house from the end of The Blair Witch Project re-appears in the finale of Blair Witch.  We know from franchise lore that Rustin Parr’s house has burned down, but what if this is Rustin Parr’s house after all…only from a time before it burned down?  If the witch controls time and space, that is certainly a real possibility.

Late in the film, in a harrowing scene of sustained claustrophobia (but which seems inspired by the final sequence of the brilliant Final Prayer [2014]), Lisa pushes her way through a dark, wet, earthen tunnel, only to arrive back in the room in which she departed. Like Heather, Josh and Mike encountering the same river again and again, space here is very much like a Mobius Strip; no end, no beginning.

When Lisa and James explore the nightmare house, the idea of a reality outside our consensus reality is cemented. The house is TARDIS-like in dimension, with dozens of individual rooms inside.  Each of these rooms is the final destination -- a location in Hell, perhaps -- for one of the witch’s victims.  The hallways seem to go on forever. Each a separate and individual Hell, where you shall stand in the corner, too afraid to see what might be standing right behind you.

But the best twist the final one, only seen briefly, and never commented on directly.  James goes into the woods because of a video that was discovered in the woods, and uploaded to YouTube.  It was shot on DV tape, and shows a young woman -- bloodied and dirtied -- in the house in the woods.  

James assumes the woman is Heather, and that she is still alive.

As a fleeting shot near the end of the film reveals, that woman is not Heather. It is Lisa, bloodied and dirtied from a scuffle and her experience in the tunnel.  So, to be plain: James and the others are lured into the woods in the first place by the DV Tape that Lisa shoots once in the house, once they have actually all been in the woods.  

Time has been bent and twisted like that Mobius Strip, in this case to fulfill a dark destiny.  The tape is the bread crumb that brings the kids to the woods, but the tape was shot and made after they came to the woods.

Paradoxical and scary, right?

Rightfully so, the movie offers no explanation for this clever twist, or for the circular nature of the narrative, but it is exactly what I hoped for in a sequel.  

Not answers.  I didn't want answers.

Answers are no fun, and they subtract from the horror.  

We aren’t scared by what we know; we are scared by what we don’t know. 

In this case, Blair Witch offers us an intriguing, deeper view of the witch’s powers. Now, having seen this film, we can  go back and view the original film in another light.  Heather and the others were not merely lost in the woods; they may have been lost in time (which accounts, perhaps, for the reason they could never find their car: it simply wasn’t there).

The final, harrowing sequence of Blair Witch also works well, because the filmmakers incorporate many elements you may find familiar from mythology. For example, we learn in this film that if you look upon the face of the Blair Witch directly, you will die of fright. 

But Lisa finds a way around that edict by looking through the viewfinder of her camera; an indirect viewpoint.  This development reminds me of the Medusa legend, and the notion that to look at the Gorgon will turn anyone to stone.  To look at her reflection, however, is a different story.

Another myth this ending seems to reflect: that of Eurydice and Orpheus. As you may recall, Orpheus attempted to return his dead love, Eurydice, from Tartarus.  All he had to do to claim his lost love was not look behind him until he exited the after-life.  He was not able to do it, and he lost Eurydice forever. 

Here, similarly, we see Lisa gazing through her viewfinder, attempting to walk backwards out of the house, without looking at the witch, without looking back.  She takes a few steps, but then hears James asking for help.

You may suspect what happens to her.

Blair Witch is not gut-wrenching scary in the fashion of the original Blair Witch Project, but it is scary enough, at least in terms of what it portends for those who enter that horrible house in the woods, surely an antechamber of Hell itself.  

The fear is psychological, however.  The film is not just about being lost in the woods, but being lost in a place with no exits, no escape. And in that place a monster is preying on your psychology, fooling you, misdirecting you.  You can't play for time, because the monster controls time.

Finally, I also give Blair Witch credit for not answering the persistent demand of unimaginative audiences and revealing, for the camera, the Blair Witch.  This decision not to fully reveal the witch (except, perhaps, in silhouette during a lightning storm, and in one long-distance night shot), preserves the horror of the character and continues to reflect an important idea.

What is that idea?  We have more cameras snapping pictures today, on a daily basis, than any time in human history. And not once has a camera photographed, definitively, a demon, a dragon, a Sasquatch, or any other creature of myth and legend.

The found-footage formula is all about creating an immersive, ultra-realistic experience. If we could see the monster, we'd be in a different, less realistic kind of horror film.

Blair Witch has received mixed reviews from audiences and critics, and I can see why. The jump scares are too frequent, and not very successful.  In fact, they're annoying.  

The characters, at least to begin with, are not overly memorable or unique, either. 

Yet the filmmakers have gone to special pains here to develop the “lore” of the Blair Witch, and create another adventure in which her unusual powers imply things not known, only suspected. This is a movie about implications and suggestions; about horror that are incomprehensible, and inhuman in dimension.

I am grateful for the film’s approach in terms of psychology, even though I would be happy to dispense with the tiresome jump scares. In the final analysis, what I wanted most from a Blair Witch sequel was a return to that house in the woods, and a deeper exploration -- though not explanation -- of the witch’s modus operandi.

Blair Witch delivers on that desire cleverly and consistently. and so sixteen years later, we finally have a sequel to a classic horror film that grows the franchise instead of constricting it.

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