Of the many, many news items that came out of this year's San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), the one that really got my attention was the preview for Blair Witch, the upcoming sequel to the 1999 "found footage" hit The Blair Witch Project. This sequel, which was directed by Adam Wingard, is slated for release in September; up until now, this sequel has flown under the horror fan radar by going under an alternate title, The Woods.
Even though it will be the third film in the franchise, Blair Witch will be a direct sequel to the first movie because of the main character's connection to a major character in the first film. The characters and events of the second film, Book of Shadows (2000), won't be involved in Blair Witch at all. Yet based on what I've seen and read about this sequel so far, it seems like it will follow the same plot beats as the first film: people go into the woods, people become trapped in the woods, people vanish in the woods. Wingard may do a great job in directing this movie, but is this the kind of story that will succeed in moving forward from what the first film started?
This post takes a look at the original Blair Witch Project, what sets it apart from other horror films even to this day, and why making a sequel to it is much harder than making a sequel for other horror films. Read on ...
I'll be honest: I love Blair Witch Project. It's one of the few horror films that genuinely scared me when I first saw it, and I've only come to appreciate it more since then. (On the other hand, I was in the process of moving at the time when I first saw it, so coming back to an empty apartment after a late night showing of Project probably wasn't a good idea. I kept waking up and expecting to see someone standing in a corner.) Not only is it one of the rare horror films that gets away with never showing the monster, but I particularly loved Heather's final message shortly before the film's ending. Not only is it one of the most poignant monologues in horror film history, but the actress who recited it (Heather Donohue) did so in such a raw and unrestrained manner that it expertly captured how closely her character was to losing her sanity due to a lurking, inescapable terror.
I've noticed over the years that whenever Blair Witch Project is brought up in the company of horror fans, it inevitably gets compared to Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Blair Witch popularized the idea of using found footage as the focal point of a horror movie, but Holocaust was one of the first horror movies (if not the first) to use it as a plot device. Yet when you directly compare these two films, they’re very different from each other: Holocaust was one of a series of cannibalism-themed exploitation films that Italian directors produced in the '70s and '80s, while Blair Witch fashioned itself after speculative movies and TV shows that examine the paranormal, the extraterrestrial, and the crypto-zoological. In other words, Cannibal Holocaust is similar to movies like Cannibal Ferox and Eaten Alive!, while Blair Witch Project is similar to movies like Legend of Boggy Creek and Creature from Black Lake.
Regardless of what one might think of paranormal investigations, their subject matter (e.g., ghosts, flying saucers, lake monsters, etc.) lend themselves well to horror movies. What Blair Witch Project did was to flip the script: Instead of taking a paranormal phenomenon and putting it into a horror movie, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez used a horror movie to fabricate a paranormal phenomenon. As part of Blair Witch's marketing campaign, missing posters with the film's three main characters were distributed as promotional teasers and a website was set up to project details about the paranormal phenomenon that the characters were investigating when they disappeared.
A teaser poster for The Blair Witch Project.
Because of its approach to horror, the media, and the paranormal, the full Blair Witch experience consists of four essential parts: The movie itself, the Curse of the Blair Witch TV documentary (which is included on the movie's DVD and Blu-ray), the Blair Witch website, and The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier book by Dave Stern. Each of these items stays completely in character, as if they were artifacts from a parallel world where some consider the Blair Witch to be a paranormal phenomenon worthy of serious investigation (as opposed to what they really are: a horror movie, its publicity campaign, and its licensed tie-in book).
With the Blair Witch Project's devotion to faking a paranormal phenomenon, it’s easy to see why other parts of the franchise that followed in its wake didn't become as popular. There was a trilogy of Blair Witch video games, each of which focused a particular event in the Blair Witch's "history". These games were well done and hold together well as a three-part story, but the problem was that they were made and marketed as survival horror games. Had they been created as more of a series of paranormal history and investigation games, they would've come much closer to the film's unique style.
Paranormal panic on the PC: One of the Blair Witch video games.
Likewise, the first sequel Book of Shadows tried too hard to be self-aware by emphasizing how the Blair Witch was a hoax. Even if director Joe Berlinger had his way to direct the film he wanted without studio interference, the central idea for his sequel--an examination of how works of fiction can cause mass hysteria and blur the lines between fact and falsehood--completely misses the point of the first film. If Berlinger really wanted to expand upon what the previous film did, he would have looked more closely at how the public's ongoing interest in the paranormal is not maintained by bursts of mass hysteria, but by an ongoing supply of suggestive and incomplete media artifacts (e.g., blurry photos, grainy video, unverifiable eyewitness accounts, etc.) that pique the imagination.
Paranormal subject matters in real-world media can maintain their enigmatic allure for decades at a time by never providing any conclusive answers. Unfortunately, movie and TV series that focus on the paranormal don't have that option, and they usually resort to a succession of disappointing red herrings, dead ends and vague suggestions (e.g., The X-Files, the Paranormal Activity movies, etc.) in order to preserve their sense of mystery. It could very well be that Blair Witch Project was too novel of a concept to sustain a series of movies, that just one film that was carefully made and marketed in the style of paranormal mystery titles such as In Search of... and Unsolved Mysteries was enough. I guess we'll just have to follow Adam Wingard and his cast into the woods this September to find out for sure.