Throwback Thursday Special: Looking at the Blair Witch Series

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Blair Witch is now out in theaters. This special edition of Throwback Thursday will take a look back at the first two films, see how the new flick fits into the themes and mythology set-up, and explore what makes this series special.

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Original theatrical poster

Take yourself back to 1999. Grunge was recently dead, and MTV was still actually playing some videos, with the ascent of teen pop led by Britney Spears. The X-Files was still thrilling us, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was building a rabid fan base in online discussion forums. The Internet was still in its nascent form and hadn’t quite graduated to all-content-all-the-time. Into this world was thrown a viral marketing campaign that led to a film with a small $60,000 budget launching into the stratosphere, with almost $250 million brought in—a rousing success by any measure. What made the viral campaign unique was that it made the film seem like a documentary, and a legitimate “found-footage” film.

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Posters like these were hung up all over the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered.

I was working for a radio station at the time and was able to see a sneak preview about a month before the film was released nationally. I hadn’t heard any background and went into it with no expectations other than it being a new film marketed as horror. However, the studio representative who was there even pushed it as a documentary and gave us all a website to visit (the first time I had heard of that being done). The website itself featured tons of local video interviews and police reports, which led to a ton of conjecture. The audience wasn’t used to being trolled online, and in the months that followed, speculation gripped them in an “Is it real or fake?” debate. A large swath of viewers apparently believed that what happened in the film was real. This debate definitely helped to propel the film to its box-office rewards and made the greenlight of a sequel a no-brainer.

But, you might be asking yourself, was the original Blair Witch Project worth the hype, and is it scary? While “found footage” films are usually hit or miss due to their plots and shaky-cam fundamentals, a low-budget independent film like this one has to have something special to it to have stayed in the pop-culture conversation so long. As an example, I didn’t believe what it showed was real, but loved the incremental heightening tension up to the “decide for yourself” ending. I went home the night of the screening intrigued by what I had seen. Coming home to an empty apartment (the roommate was gone) and trying to fall asleep while nature had its fun with me and kept the wind blowing enough to have a tree branch continuously tap my bedroom window had my imagination taking over, and I will admit to having a restless night’s sleep, constantly deciding to look out the window. For me, suspense mixed with the unknown can be very frightening, and with those achieved, I labeled the film a success. So was it worth the hype? (“Is anything?” he counters rhetorically.) No, but it did succeed in doing what it set out to do.

A sequel was quickly rushed through development and released the following year. Artisan Entertainment, presumably trying to capitalize on the previous buzz of whether or not the original film was real, made a unique choice for the sequel and hired documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger. (If you haven’t seen his documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, it is definitely worth a watch.) As Berlinger recounts in the commentary track for the film, he didn’t want to make a copy of Blair Witch, since he thought anyone could throw teens in the woods and have them go through similar experiences. Instead, he thought what would make a more compelling narrative was to focus on the reactions to the original and have the sequel be a psychological horror film with a lot less shaky cam. However, due to studio and marketing interference, the film he wanted to make ended up being perverted and turned into a straight-up horror flick—which didn’t quite work due to the majority of the footage having been set up to be psychological. It ended up feeling very fractured, and if you have 88 minutes, I highly recommend listening to the Berlinger’s audio commentary and his push for a director’s cut that would restore his ideas. That will probably never happen, though, so what are we left with? A disjointed film titled Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a name that is pretty humorous since there is no Book of Shadows in it; it was simply a title used because the marketing department liked it.

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Theatrical teaser poster for the sequel.

Still, what makes both films stand out is the idea of the Blair Witch. You can watch both and decide on your own whether the witch is real or if it is real people committing these crimes that we see and hear about. This is what makes them intriguing and allows for dissection of moments and frames of the films. Do we see something off to the side of the screen? Are those sounds in the woods real people, or something supernatural?

Now, 16 years after Book of Shadows, the third film in the series is here, simply titled Blair Witch. There is a whole lot of shaky cam back in the mix, as well as a character who is directly related to one from the first film—so anything that the second film tried to do has been jettisoned and gone unacknowledged. While there will be reviews of the film out there basing it on its own merits, I will admit to getting a little tired of the shaky cam and repeated jump scares. It’s very easy to turn a camera and have something pop into the frame to make you jump; it’s a lot harder to build suspense into a cohesive whole by the end. However, there are moments in the film that I truly enjoyed.

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Original theatrical teaser poster

(There will be some spoilers here—skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to read them.)

If you’ve seen the trailer, then you’ve probably surmised that what happens in Blair Witch is definitely pulling out the supernatural card. While I may hem and haw over the loss of ambiguity, the filmmakers jump in with both feet and make bold choices when it comes to the witch. I tremendously admire the Möbius nature of the plot, and if the studio and future filmmakers so desired, I could see them actually being able to tie in the second film, which could be a whole new type of horror film. Imagine Wes Craven’s New Nightmare mixed with Scream and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, and think of the possibilities.

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Sign posts are scary.

There are a lot of great moments in this series, and hopefully the new film will do well enough to allow for future installments. In the meantime, I will enjoy The Blair Witch Project for the pop-culture time capsule it is, Book of Shadows: The Blair Witch 2 for the near miss it was, and Blair Witch for the possibilities it opens up.

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