Why The Blair Witch Project Ruled (And Its Imitators Sucked)
Hey, friend. Did you know there's a new Blair Witch movie coming out like ... right now? I ask because, until a few months ago, this surprise sequel was hiding under a completely different name, like some kind of Witness Protection stoolie.
It probably didn't want to be associated with its shameful stepfather.
That's right: The indie hit about grunge kids getting spooked by drafty tents and twig dolls is back for more! Too bad a lot of you probably don't give two sweaty figs either way. Up until recently, Google Trends has shown less interest in this very real sequel than those sad rumors of a Blair Witch 3 back in 2009. I'm not saying this new film will blow (in fact, one of the best modern horror directors made it), but it's weird that there's such a subdued online response, considering how the 1999 original was among the highest-grossing, most intensely hyped indie horrors of all time. Would you like to drown in a sea of unknown actresses crying directly into a grainy camera? Awesome, the new Blair Witch trailer has got you covered.
I'm not even going to tell you which screencap it is.
What the balls happened to this genre? How is it that the original Blair Witch managed to remain the highest-grossing found footage film by such a huge margin, while the only other successful franchise is a Warholian anti-film about spooning dickheads?
This basically counts a GIF of this scene.
I wanted to find out. And so I went to The Numbers to actually see which found footage films did well, and which didn't. My first revelation was immediately surprising, as it turns out that while Blair Witch has been commonly credited with kicking off the found footage horror genre (if you ignore Cannibal Holocaust), it actually took eight years for another footage-y movie to reach a top-grossing spot. I know this because I took the time to chart it ...
The yellow squares are found footage films. Right away, two things became clear: We're fucking suckers for remakes, and something happened between 2000 and 2008 to suddenly make this new genre accessible. If you're wondering what that might be, take a look at chart #2:
The correlation between social media and the resurgence of found footage makes an insane amount of sense when you remember the second cinematic trend Blair Witch is often credited with inventing: viral marketing.
Let's be glad Cannibal Holocaust didn't precede them here, too.
Blair Witch was made for social media before social media was even a thing. And so, to promote the most expensive snuff hoax ever made, the directors personally created a website filled with fake Burkittsville mythology, news reports, journal entries, and interviews that meticulously built a seemingly real-world narrative surrounding the film. They took to message boards and college dorms with rumors about a group of missing hikers.
The poor intern manning the phones at the Frederick County Sheriff's Office had the best job.
It's that intense devotion to drumming up hype that made commercially reproducing Blair Witch downright impossible until social media came along. After that, anyone could potentially throw the next big ballyhoo.
And thanks to YouTube and Twitter, Paranormal Activity did with a single petition what Blair Witch had to do through a parade of boots-on-the-ground marketing.
We've gone from missing hikers to missing celluloid.
And while there's nothing wrong with taking advantage of modern technology, this was the moment that everything went off the rails. Because along with putting in the raw effort to make the marketing believable, The Blair Witch Project was also filmed that way as well. Actors were expected to improv their way through seven days of GPS-located checkpoints, while maintaining camera equipment and getting bushwhacked with late-night fear raids and the occasional bloody tooth packet. As their comfort decreased, so did the food rations being left for them -- creating a very real waft of desperation and terror among the actors.
These are tears that can only come from pooping in the woods for a week.
If Daniel Day-Lewis were a movie, he would be The Blair Witch Project -- and not just because of his labyrinthine gaze and intoxicating pine scent. It's this devotion to realism that (almost) no other found-footage film has even tried to replicate. While also improvised in seven days, Paranormal Activity was shot out of sequence in an air-conditioned California home, with a mingling cast and crew. The movie was of such low quality that the studio originally wanted to remake it, but was convinced not to after seeing the hype caused by showing it to larger audiences.
This sudden success in the face of subpar work was the moment when hyped audience reaction became more important than putting in the effort toward realism -- and the method acting aspect of found footage was all but lost. It's why so many modern horror marketing campaigns don't even bother showing you the movie anymore, and focus on "audience reaction" trailers instead. They're essentially saying, "Hey ... look how many times this film will make you reflexively jump over loud noises ... it must be good!"
The most horrifying thing about these trailers is people buying a ticket for them.
This garbage advertising habit began with the very first Paranormal Activity trailer, and has refused to die ever since. And while it might seem harmless at first, this tactic of putting top value on grainy jump scares is significantly lowering our standards of what makes a horror movie actually frightening. Blair Witch's found footage style was never intended as a cinematic grift, but boy can it be used as one when put in the wrong hands. And if lazily forcing people to instinctively scream on home video is all it takes to become a horror master, then give me a GoPro-strapped Jamaican horn and call me the next John Fucking Carpenter.
David's one-man clown act "Jakey the Jamaican Horn Maniac" is available for birthday parties and business events. Book him on Twitter.
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