Collins’ Crypt: BLAIR WITCH Is Back, And So Is My Obsession With It
A few months back, I wrote about how I was done caring about future installments of the Friday the 13th and Halloween series, as their endless production cycles (it's been seven years since the last installment was released for either franchise) had burned through all of my optimism and interest - as much as I love those guys, I just don't have the time or patience to concern myself any further with where they go from here. At the time, I wondered if I was just getting "too old for this shit", and if the long delays for those films didn't have as much to do with my indifference as the simple fact that I didn't have a license when the series were in their prime and when the next ones come I'll be possibly wondering about a mortgage payment. Luckily, I am just as smitten with other horror properties where the prospects are less dire - and I drove my own car to see their premiere installments. One is Saw, which will be coming back next year (at least that's the plan, but it's got a director, a script, and a location permit, so they're way ahead of those other two theoretically happening movies), and the other is The Blair Witch Project, which is beating them all to the punch by putting out a new film in less than two months.
You read that right. As most horror fans probably know now, the upcoming film The Woods is actually titled Blair Witch, the simply titled and long-awaited third entry in a series that began with a 1999 indie sensation that is either the scariest film ever made or an unwatchable piece of shit, depending on which hyperbolic horror fan you want to listen to. Unlike the first sequel Book of Shadows, which took the meta approach and shared only the polarizing reaction with its predecessor, this will be a traditional followup, the sort of film Artisan (now Lionsgate) probably wanted in 2000. Not only does it retain the found footage approach (Book of Shadows, save for some brief sequences, was a traditionally shot film), but it's a direct continuation of its narrative, focusing on the brother of Heather Donahue's character, who believes his sister may still be out there in the woods.
That simple plot description brought so many memories of that summer flooding back into my mind. I remember folks being concerned that the film was real and that a studio was releasing what was actually a snuff film into theaters (and HOW DARE THEY!), which always made me chuckle. Even if you believe the footage is all real and not staged, a big part of a snuff film is, you know, seeing the person get killed - and one of the main criticisms of BWP is that you don't see anything much at all, let alone their "deaths". Josh disappears, Mike plays his final scene standing against a wall, and Heather just falls down (while holding the camera, so you don't even see her skin her knee or whatever superficial injury she may have received in her tumble). If some shady asshole bought a snuff film that showed as much as this film does, he'd probably be asking for his money back. The sequel's plot device probably would have worked better if it was set in the mid-90s like the original, sure, but the fact that the film offers zero explanation for what happened to the characters allows Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett to (hopefully/presumably) have fun with the idea that they're still out there somewhere (not to mention if - and it's a big if - there are any surprising cameos they will be appropriately aged).
Like some folks, I had suspicions that their film was tied into the Blair Witch mythos, a rumor that's been floating around since last year when the film was in production - but I didn't pay much attention because I didn't want to get my hopes up. I like Book of Shadows, but I probably would have liked it more if it was just one of many installments in a long-running series - not the movie responsible for the fact that the franchise has been in limbo since the year 2000. That film's failure soured the brand's potential (a period prequel was rumored for a while, but nothing came of it). I've wanted to know for 17 goddamn years now what happened to those three filmmakers, and while I don't know if the new film answers that, it will certainly add more pieces to the puzzle than I had any reason to believe we would get until four days ago. What I DO know is that screenwriter Simon Barrett knows about all the off-screen mythology as well as (presumably more than) I do, and that excites me, because he and Wingard are likely to include some of these things in their film. Even if they're just passing references to make sure that the film stays accessible to newcomers, it will probably rile up that Blair Witch geek part of me that's been neglected for far too long.
And when I say geek, I mean it when it comes to this particular franchise. I've written about my appreciation for the film itself here in the past, and how it still holds up in my eyes (it's still one of the very few that use the POV element accurately; nothing feels staged and the camera doesn't always show things characters are commenting on), but I realized the other night for the first time that I've probably spent more time (and money) on Blair Witch stuff than I even have for Halloween at this point. For that series I basically just stick to the movies and their production info; I don't buy much of the merch, or hunt down scripts, and skipped the YA novel series entirely. But for Blair I went all out, buying the books (and even read them, back when I had time to read what I bought), the trading cards, the video games, some clothing (including a shirt I STILL wear on occasion), posters, you name it. I scoured the official website on a regular basis, watched the Curse of the Blair Witch documentary, and (albeit not until 2002) even took a big detour to Patapsco Valley State Park to see if I could find the house that was used for the finale (spoiler: I couldn't*). And, like many other fans, I made a parody film that year - sample gags include my character's "apology" scene being interrupted by Heather's, aka "the people in the tent next to ours", and the characters fretting over repeatedly passing the same leaf on the ground. Comic genius, I say.
The reason I dug so deep with this one is simple: there was really nothing else like it in horror, and there still isn't. Lots of movies (including one or two from the same guys that made this one, mainly Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) have had viral marketing or DVD extras that open up the storyline a little more for the folks who were interested, but I can't think of one that's as extensive as what the Haxan team created in order to build buzz for the film. The movie only briefly mentions Rustin Parr and what he did - but if you want to know more, you can either read up the sections pertaining to him in The Blair Witch Dossier, a mini-encyclopedia released around the same time as the film, or you can check out The Secret Confession of Rustin Parr, a 150 page book that digs even deeper into his backstory and what really happened to the seven children he is thought to have murdered. All this for something that has no bearing on the film beyond some context for why Mike is standing in the corner at the end (and, less directly, whose house they're at in the first place - neither Mike or Heather seem to make the connection, but we can infer that it's Parr's home). I know more about Rustin Parr - a "character" who is discussed briefly in a single film - more than I do about Katie from the Paranormal Activity movies, and she appeared in almost all of them!
Parr isn't the only one who got his due in other media. Elly Kedward, Coffin Rock, etc. all had their stories fleshed out in these books (in addition to the official site, though the books, naturally, went much deeper), and have even less payoff in the film itself - Coffin Rock is something they come across early on and never mention again, but that whole saga, briefly described by the two fisherman Heather interviews, could be a movie itself - and it's already all plotted out for whatever filmmakers eventually tackle it. Hell, even THOSE guys get a little more rounding out in the Dossier - we learn there that the older one is actually the other guy's father-in-law, which makes their bickering even more amusing if you ask me. There aren't a lot of in-film payoffs like that for those like me who opted to buy anything they would sell us, but I actually like that - it makes the story of Heather and the others seem like one piece of a very big puzzle, instead of the puzzle itself. If you want to get into the Blair Witch mythology, in other words, you can get plenty and walk away with a pretty sizable history without ever even seeing the movie, and I think that's pretty incredible.
This sort of thing taps into my usual approach to movies I love (and I do love BWP - I'd have to sit down and think for a while to be sure, but it might even be in my personal ten favorite horror movies ever), which is to think about everything I'm not seeing on screen. If the movie is just fine I don't care, but if I LOVE it, I amuse myself on future viewings by thinking of everything else going on around it. Like in Halloween - what was an average day for Sam Loomis like? Why did Annie giggle about Ben Tramer, and what did her boyfriend Paul do when she didn't show up as planned? The stuff the Haxan team did for BWP took those sort of questions and ran with them, creating in-canon material that you could ignore or pore over, and it was all entertaining in its own right - it didn't just serve to embellish a movie, nor did the people who ignored it ever feel like they were missing something. Indeed, the filmmakers actually went back and shot a new scene of someone explaining Rustin Parr's tendency to put his victims in the corner of the room before murdering them, as they realized the ending (with Mike in the corner) didn't land as well without the audience having that bit of info, and they couldn't assume everyone had read about that part on the website. I'm glad it's in there, but if it wasn't, it would have been a great "A-Ha!" moment when I - who HAD read it on the website - saw it happen onscreen without the in-film setup. It was the same sort of thing that drives me to read a novelization (hoping for some added backstory that got excised out of the film's final cut), but on an exponential scale.
In fact, I'm still bummed there was no traditional novelization for the movie, because how great would it have been to be inside Josh or Mike's head for a bit? (We got some of Heather's inner monologue thanks to her journal, which was and still is available on the website.) But that would be the usual thing to do, and Haxan didn't do anything the way it's usually done - the aforementioned Dossier was more of a sequel than anything, with police reports and interviews about the search for the missing students, as well as some more of the historical backstory. The making of specials were usually not about the film itself, but of the history of the Blair Witch (think Unsolved Mysteries, not Inside Look). Hell, even the damn soundtrack couldn't just be a bunch of rock songs that probably didn't appear in the movie - it was released as "Josh's Blair Witch Mix" and purported to be the mix CD that was found in his car once the authorities located it (indeed, the only music we hear in the film is playing on his car stereo). There was also a series of YA novels dubbed The Blair Witch Files, where Heather's cousin (author Cade Merrill) would relate other Blair Witch-connected cases he came across during his obsessive (and, naturally, ultimately unsuccessful) search for his cousin. There were eight of those, though I only bought the first five; I honestly can't recall why I gave up on the series.
And it's crazy, at least to me, how much of this information I've retained. I haven't read any of those books since I first got them in 1999/2000, but I still remembered all those side-stories and general ideas behind the YA novels. I threw the movie on the other night after the announcement and still recalled all the little tidbits (like the above about the fishermen) that I haven't thought about in well over a decade, and rolled my eyes at all the moments that I lampooned for my dumb parody movie (mine was only about 25 minutes shorter, so almost every scene was accounted for in some way or the other), though I remain proud I nailed my 2.5 minute "apology" in one take - Heather's was all chopped up! And I thought, once again, about trying to play the other two PC games that have been sitting on my desk for fifteen years now (I'm not joking, they're right above my monitor) as I only played the first volume and found the Resident Evil-esque gameplay to be an overly difficult chore with a keyboard and mouse and thus never bothered with the others. I also loaded up the official site for the first time in who knows how long, poring over things like Heather's journal and smiling at its lo-res origins (there's a slideshow of photos that was clearly designed for some 800x600 displays).
In short, the announcement reminded me of how much I loved not just that movie, but of all the mythology and mystery that props it up. I wasn't at Comic Con, so I didn't see this new Blair Witch (Devin correctly noted that the title is problematic since that's how we usually just refer to the original) but I've read a few negative tweets/comments - and my knee-jerk reaction is to assume that person probably doesn't know Elly Kedward from Mary Brown (the MORON!). Maybe it's not as accessible as I assume and it's really only going to work on the die-hard fans, which is fine by me, at least to some extent. I don't know if I'll like it or not, but I pray that I do - not just because it's from a filmmaking team that's never let me down, but because I want to "get back into" this stuff for good, re-reading those books when I have the time and maybe even picking up those ones I missed. It provided me with so much entertainment in the period between the two movies (and a bit beyond - the Book of Shadows DVD gave us a legendary commentary and "ESREVER"), but the lack of new material made it difficult to retain my interest. If the new film is a success, there's no reason to believe Lionsgate will just let this viable property die, and hopefully they continue in the same manner, embracing all other forms of media to flesh out this uniquely interesting mythology. My wallet is ready to be opened!
*It's possible/probable that it had already been torn down by then, though in 2002 I had a 50/50 chance based on what I could find out on the internet. Oddly, and fitting with the film's mysteries, the actual date of its demolition is unknown; perhaps it WAS there when I went, but no one seems to know when, exactly, it was actually destroyed for good. It's possible that the fans stole so many pieces of it there wasn't anything left for them to actually tear down officially.