Lost and Found: A ‘Blair Witch’ Postmortem

As the latest Blair Witch exits cinemas, PopMatters asks what was the aura of the first Blair Witch Project, and has it been lost?

Blair Witch, the 2016 American film remake / sequel of The Blair Witch Project (1999), debuted on more than 3,000 cinema screens six weeks ago and is presently playing on fewer than 200 screens (domestically). The movie will soon enter the short limbo between theatrical and home releases. In total, the foreign box office grosses ($22 million) slightly exceed the domestic ($21 million). For a film with a production budget of $5 million, these numbers indicate a successful theatrical run.

As a business product, the film compares favorably to first Blair Witch Project sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), which on a production budget of $15 million received eight weeks of domestic release and a worldwide gross of almost $48 million. Neither sequel achieved the box office power of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’ original film, which in 1999 enjoyed 17 weeks of domestic release and a worldwide gross of nearly $249 million.

But these are just the numbers. To compare aggregations of critical responses would be likewise telling on a surface level, but ultimately fail to explain what the films do, how they do it, and what distinguishes the innovative original installment from its sequels. What was the aura of the first, and has it been lost?

Upon its release in 1999 and in the years since, I’ve considered the degree to which The Blair Witch Project is a plot in the tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. While the sort of internecine misery and madness of that play is evident in the conflicts of doomed student filmmakers Heather, Josh, and Mike, there are intra-textual layers of The Blair Witch Project that contribute experiential aspects of narrative not present in the form or content of Sartre’s stage play.

The mythology created for the entirely fictional original Blair Witch Project was executed in a way that trapped spectators within a single text, using specious evidence on “outside” platforms to corroborate the truth of the inner fictional tale. The groundbreaking viral marketing of The Blair Witch Project presented a single overriding narrative as an experience from which there was no way out, aligning viewers with the characters in more ways than one. The writer who best described the effect is Paul Wells, who wrote in 2000 that the collected / manufactured evidence supporting the mythology of the film “refuses an ‘exit’ from the circuit of publicity / authentication for the overall text.” (The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch Wallflower Press, 2000)

Joe Berlinger’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is not remembered for being groundbreaking in any way, but its notable narrative approach was to switch perspectives and include a mode of intertextual storytelling. Specifically, the tormented characters of the first sequel are members of that trapped audience from the first film and thus highly aware of the original text and simultaneously under equipped to fight the unknown forces outside of the artifice. This is a creative premise, but the execution was muddled.

With all of this in mind, Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch, written by Simon Barrett, is a film dually influenced by both preceding installments, though its plot ignores the events of Book of Shadows. From The Blair Witch Project, Blair Witch borrows nearly every significant narrative event, merely heightening the haunted forest milieu with more characters and image acquisition formats, but preserving the lost path toward a haunted house and the desolation therein. From Book of Shadows Barrett and Wingard borrow the aware observers, canny characters who assume they know enough about the original kerfuffle to avoid making the exact same mistakes, but not knowing enough to fight the threat posed by the mysterious forest and its “witch”.

Blair Witch is attuned to what young moviegoers who like horror films might expect from a modern horror remake-as commercial product. The acting of the cast is arch and conspicuous, never approaching the improvised being of the original cast. The visual approach is also more colorful and more expansive, including drone videography, which becomes part of the plot.

There’s a funny bit of dialogue in the film about the merits of digital video tape recording versus more modern methods. Though the precise framing across formats, in conjunction with a series of telegraphed jump scares, undermine the raw and risky formal choices of the original. The sound design is tremendously effective in enveloping the viewer in a horrifying sound world of storm and void. This is a different technique than the original film’s concluding masterstroke of dislocated screams, but the modern adjustment works.

As a film narrative, Blair Witch takes so few risks relative to its source material that it’s hard to imagine anyone being offended by the form or content. At best, the film might retroactively introduce new audiences to the seeds of filmmaking and marketing innovations that The Blair Witch Project represented and are now de rigueur for both the “discovered footage” genre and film promotion in general. At worst, the film is another example of the overestimated vitality of retread ideas in a marketplace averse to the risk of original content, and a cinematic exercise inferior to some of Barrett and Wingard’s own original work, such as The Guest (2014) and You’re Next (2011).

The chief flaw of Blair Witch was and is the marketing campaign that publicized the project to viewers. The means of promotion for Blair Witch, most embodied by a preliminary trailer announcing the film as The Woods, undercut the series’ legacy of textual manipulation and defined expectations for the film that proved to be utterly disconnected from the finished product. Distributor Lionsgate released the trailer for The Woods in May 2016:

The initial impression the advertisement makes is a story world like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with a God’s-eye view of the forest and an atmosphere of tranquility, paired with a haunting music number, temporarily holding off the chaos of the plot. Though it might be argued that the treetop imagery is a nod to shots from the Book of Shadows trailer, every other element in the introduction to the trailer for The Woods has the effect of tonal misdirection, pointing away from the Blair Witch Project lineage.

The other two thirds of the trailer are misdirecting in erasing nearly all traces of the “discovered footage” / found footage approach to shooting and narrative motivation. There are obvious handheld shots in the preview, but none are beyond the stylistic deployment of handheld cinematography and necessarily indicative of the discovered / found footage approach. This is a major omission, as the credibility of any film within this subgenre is directly tied to there being no outside reason beyond the condemned subject-filmmakers for this horrific footage to exist.

In other words, if the images from the story can be slickly presented as a conventionally shot horror film, then does that suggest the movie would have worked without the discovered / found footage approach? That the distributor was worried about audiences being weary of these sorts of films or of The Blair Witch Project itself, which for many moviegoers is synonymous with the subgenre? When viewed with these questions in mind, the trailer for The Woods plays as an excellent proof of concept for a film that never materialized.

The most egregious elements of the trailer for The Woods are the quotations from critics about Blair Witch. All of them read as hyperbole in light of the film that ended up being released, but the quotations from Brad Miska of Bloody Disgusting are utter distortions of the product being promoted. Miska’s quotations, which frame the other blurbs, promise “A new beginning for horror films” and “one of the scariest movies ever made”.

While the latter quotation is on some level impossible to disprove, as being scared is a subjective experience, it’s possible to compare the experience of sitting in a theater and watching Blair Witch with hundreds of other horror films in one’s lifetime and assess the relative weight. As a teacher and researcher of horror films, I would politely counter his claim by saying that the film does not even qualify as a runner up for that title. Nothing in it is distinctive or disturbing enough to deeply affect a viewer on a visceral or sensory level. No trace of fear remains after the closing credits end.

Yet his first quotation is quite easy to take issue with, for reasons related to the second, but also in view of the groundbreaking history of The Blair Witch Project outlined above. To position the movie as “a new beginning for horror films” is to break the “no exit” circuit that made the original film such a successful example of narrative and marketing innovation. After all, if the horror never ended, then there would be no need for a new beginning. As the marketing for the first installment was to sell no movie at all, but instead a credible reality, then the mere act of promoting a new beginning “for horror films” calls attention to the fact that this new one is just a movie, nothing more.

The tonal misdirection and genre deception of the trailer for The Woods arguably paid off in the form of viewer interest when Lionsgate revealed the film’s true identity in July 2016 at Comic-Con. The revelation received a great deal of attention in part because those involved with making and releasing the film had managed to keep the Blair Witch angle undisclosed in a climate of coverage that is quick to uncover and spoil popular movies’ every secret from the development phase onward. A more critical view might say that Lionsgate baited viewers with the promise of original content and then switched that out for yet another seeming reboot. But that too is an argument with no exit.

What’s most fascinating about the way The Woods‘ preview oversold the potential of Blair Witch as a new, original, horror movie is that lone outstanding narrative quality of Blair Witch intensifies something that was already present in the 1999 film, and that is the suggestion of invisible but consequential supernatural activity in the natural world. The Blair Witch Project disappointed some viewers by not showing a witch on screen, but it thrilled other viewers with that same absence, with the need to imagine a horror so horrific that the sight kills.

The latest Blair Witch both shows us a monster (not necessarily thee witch, but a Slenderman-like variation on mythological figure Elly Kedward), and presents time and space as being radically altered, individually and collectively for the characters roaming the woods. These temporal and spatial shifts were hinted at in the original, but Barrett and Wingard embrace them with a verve that makes the third act of Blair Witch worthwhile and exciting on its own terms.

However, this plot is predicated on a circuit without exit that includes Heather from the first film, as well as characters from the present film, in a time-space turned hellish, so even these inspired narrative choices are misrepresented by the trailer for The Woods, as it denies all preexisting ties in a marketing juke intended to set up a moment of unveiling rather than the film text that marketing is supposed to serve.

The Blair Witch Project isn’t sacrosanct, and when explored fully, even its official history features some ill-judged “exits” that weaken the text. The biggest example was the decision to include preposterous alternate endings on home video releases of the film. Such alternates would be impossible within the narrative of the original text, though maybe they gain a little credibility in light of Blair Witch‘s evocation of branching / recurring damnation.

Nor is Blair Witch unique as a horror film with misleading marketing materials. STX Entertainment’s trailers for Desierto, currently in theatrical release, directly undermine a key theme of the movie by whitewashing the plot with an English-language voiceover. Such choices reinforce the idea that film marketing often prioritizes selling a product over communicating a consistent message.

The home video releases of Blair Witch will earn more money for those involved with making and releasing the film. In a near future in which theatrical screen counts and box office percentages are irrelevant, the calculus for new installments will involve different pressures that affect marketing. Regardless of who is being targeted or what goals are being set, a fundamental lesson of Blair Witch as a remake and sequel is not to deny the essentiality of the original when trying to attract an audience to line up for what’s next, especially when the new spin treads such a familiar path.