Horror cinema is a cyclical business, going through boom times and bust. We’re in the middle of a pretty solid boom period right now, with returning franchises like Child’s Play joining unique offerings from debuting directors and new distribution methods on streaming services like Netflix. But back in the late 1990s, horror was in a bit of a downswing, until a strange, low-budget indie film suddenly became one of the decade’s biggest hits. Let’s journey back to July 14, 1999, when The Blair Witch Project hit theaters and rejuvenated the fright flick world.
Into the Woods
In the early 1990s, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were just film students at the University of Central Florida. They both loved horror, but after immersing themselves in documentaries about real-world paranormal phenomena they started to question the effectiveness of the time-tested scare tactics. After seeing 1991’s deeply stupid Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, the duo became convinced they could do it better. The basic conceit — that the viewer would see everything unfold through the lens of a documentary film crew — came quickly.
Their original idea was fairly conventional. The crew would discover a spooky old house in the forest filled with Satanic paraphernalia and scary stuff would ensue. But over the next few years, they’d pare it back, drawing on the history of the Mid-Atlantic region and the Salem witch trials. The crew were now in search of evidence of a folkloric witch who haunted the Maryland woods preying on the unsuspecting. Sánchez called her the Blair Witch after the high school his older sister went to.
Myrick and Sánchez put together a detailed outline for the movie — not quite a script, because they wanted to give the actors freedom to improvise as much as possible to keep it feeling authentic, but instead an hour-by-hour breakdown of where the trio of young filmmakers would be in the woods, what they were doing and what they would encounter. They cast a trio of actors with improv and camping experience and were off to the races.
The cast and crew gathered in Seneca Creek State Park for a grueling eight-day shoot. Each of the actors was given different amounts of information about the scenario, so their conversations would seem more natural. They were given instructions via film cans located through GPS coordinates that also contained rough instructions for each of them for the day. The directors harried the actors, making them travel long distances by day and building dread at night with strange noises. Myrick and Sánchez got a little over 20 hours of footage, which they edited to a tight 82 minutes and submitted to film festivals.
Turn the Camera
Buzz for The Blair Witch Project started when the film screened at midnight on January 25, 1999 at Sundance. Myrick and Sánchez distributed missing flyers for the three leads and deliberately blurred the lines as to where the footage actually came from, and it worked: Artisan Entertainment snapped up the rights to the flick for $1.1 million. The studio then began a publicity campaign that is widely regarded as the first one to primarily leverage the Internet over traditional media.
In addition to creating a website that presented the film’s story as if it were real, they took pains to cover their tracks. The IMDB pages for the lead actors listed them as “missing, presumed dead” for a year after the movie came out. Additional footage was shot with actors playing police officers and private investigators discussing their disappearance. It was a carefully orchestrated hoax designed to build an urban myth around this indie movie.
It was wildly successful. When The Blair Witch Project opened theatrically on July 14th, it immediately became a hot topic of conversation. By its wide opening on July 30th, it could be considered the first viral movie. By the end of its theatrical run, the film had grossed $348 million internationally — a huge return on its microscopic $60,000 budget.
Imitations and Sequels
The cinematic style of The Blair Witch Project would soon get a name — “found footage horror” — and other filmmakers would soon try it out for themselves. This wasn’t entirely an original concept — Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 Cannibal Holocaust featured a similar setup, as a group of filmmakers head into the Amazon to document a reported tribe of cannibals, only to have their footage found by an anthropologist and exhibited. Deodato didn’t hold a grudge against the tremendous success of Blair Witch even as his film was banned in multiple countries.
After the success of the first film, Artisan wanted to squeeze more from the franchise. Myrick and Sánchez weren’t interested, though, so the studio brought in documentary director Joe Berlanger to move the story forward. In his film, a group of people obsessed with the original movie travel to Burkittsville to delve deeper into the mystery, only to end up murdering each other as part of a message on media consumption and violence. 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was widely considered a disappointment, with the director and producer claiming that Artisan significantly re-edited the film after they delivered it against their wishes to add more shock scenes. It made a profit but was savaged by critics and fans.
Soon enough, the found footage horror boom would begin in earnest. Several low-budget flicks would rush to market in the aftermath of Blair Witch like The St. Francisville Experiment and Kōji Shiraishi’s The Curse.
The biggest second wave found footage hit would be Oren Peli’s 2007 Paranormal Activity, which inverted the concept in a clever way. Instead of the cameras being carried by the protagonists, they were placed in static locations in a young couple’s home to capture evidence of otherworldly manifestations. The flick followed the same slow-burn strategy, with tiny hints of the supernatural building to an abrupt and unsettling climax. With a $15,000 budget, it became the most profitable film of all time for distributor Paramount. Peli was in a better position to capitalize on his success, serving as producer for five sequels and creating a TV project, The River, that was heavily indebted to Cannibal Holocaust.
By the late 2000s, found footage was everywhere, from giant monster flick Cloverfield to slapstick teen comedy Project X. Once considered a curiosity at best, it transformed into a storytelling mode that let filmmakers dispense with much of the technical expectations of a feature, as well as bringing the viewer into a more intimate relationship with the characters. The nausea and motion sickness felt by early Blair Witch viewers became less of a thing in the age of YouTube and phone cameras. From humble beginnings, a thriving genre of filmmaking was created that endures to this day.
From Screen to Meme
Probably the biggest effect that the Blair Witch franchise had on the digital world was enabling the distribution of a new kind of horror, one that blurred the boundaries between folklore, reportage and fiction. It would come to be called “creepypasta,” and some of the genre’s most famous tales owe a big debt to the narrative structure of the original movie. These stories were often written in first-person perspective and posted anonymously, as in the case of 2001’s “Ted the Caver” which chronicled a series of expeditions into a mysterious cavern and ended abruptly. These stories began to proliferate and gain popularity at the same time as found footage horror, and soon enough they’d cross over.
By the time the Paranormal Activity series was hitting, creepypasta was all over the web on sites like Reddit and Something Awful. It’s undeniable that a generation raised on Blair Witch would adopt the elliptical, frenzied, and opaque storytelling of that movie to create its own horrors. And with shows like Syfy’s creepypasta-derived Channel Zero, those stories are now making their way back to the screen. It’s rare that we see a paradigm shift of this level hit mass media — maybe once in a generation — so it’s amazing to see how one little movie’s influence has affected so much of the world.
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Published at Thu, 11 Jul 2019 13:55:28 +0000