Warning: Spoilers for the first two Blair Witch movies below.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) is a horror film that truly did something new. Not only did it, for better or for worse, start the "found footage" style of filmmaking, it also featured a groundbreaking viral marketing campaign — the first of its kind — that blurred the lines between reality and fiction. It was followed up by the sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. With the impending release of Blair Witch (2016), which looks to be a direct sequel to the original and will likely ignore Book of Shadows, I thought it would be fun to have a look back at the first two flicks in the franchise. Take my hand, things might get creepy.
The Blair Witch Project
The marketing campaign for this film was a true spectacle, and I remember getting caught up in the conversation at the time. The trailers, much like the film itself, posited that the footage was real, shot by a trio of twenty-somethings who had gone missing after a trek into the forest outside of Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch.
The three stars (pretty much the only characters in the film) did no press until after the movie came out, so as to uphold this "realism." Websites were launched that featured missing persons posters and police reports. Before its release, the general public really had no idea whether or not this was a horror film or a real documentary.
The film tells the story of Heather Donahue (Heather Donahue), Joshua Leonard (Joshua Leonard), and Mike Williams (Michael C. Williams), who, after spending some time in Burkittsville (formerly Blair) interviewing locals about the myth, depart into the woods with a map, some food and camping supplies, and a couple of camcorders. Very quickly, things begin to go wrong.
They find themselves lost, and they can't find their map (the reveal of how it was lost is probably the most ridiculous moment in the film). They begin to squabble amongst themselves. They knock over what seem to be ritualistic cairns, and stumble across bundles of sticks and twigs that resemble voodoo dolls.
One night in their tent, Josh disappears, and Heather and Mike awake to find some of his teeth wrapped in a bloody piece of cloth. The final act of the film shows them trying to find and rescue him.
The Blair Witch Project is certainly not for everyone, and has earned its fair share of detractors, but the finale is rather heart-stopping, with Heather and Mike tracking Josh’s tortured wailing to the ruins of a dilapidated house in the woods.
Mike descends into the basement while Heather looks upstairs, and both are in hysterics. Mike is seemingly taken out of play, and this is where the film's most fascinating moment happens. We follow Heather and her view through her camera. Mike's camera has a microphone attached, Heather’s does not. So, while we're seeing everything through her eyes — running from the top floor to the basement — we hear her screaming from far away (being recorded by Mike’s mic in the basement, and she gets louder the farther down she goes). I have no idea if this was something the filmmakers intended, or just a happy coincidence, but it functions to completely disorient the viewer, and works beautifully.
Finally, Heather makes it into the basement and finds Mike standing and facing the wall (an aspect of the witch's folklore). Heather is knocked down by some unseen force, her camera losing focus while simply shooting the floor, and the film ends.
Filming The Blair Witch Project
The movie was filmed entirely by the three main actors. The directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez equipped them with cameras and sent them off into the forest. Myrick and Sanchez would leave the actors little packages with some food, as well as instructions for what each of their characters would need to do for the day’s shoot. Additionally, the directors (who were often out in the woods as well) would play scary sounds (like clacking rocks and laughter), or physically attack the tent as the actors were sleeping. All of the dialogue was improvised, and, with Heather, Mike and Josh all being actors and not professional camera operators, not everything worked out.
We Never Actually See The Witch
That's unfortunate, because it was supposed to happen. There is a sequence where they run away from their campground with Heather screaming “what the f*ck is that?!” In that moment, Heather was (as my boy Chris Stuckmann, who is likely completely unaware that he's my boy, reports) supposed to pan her camera over to show a woman (the witch) running alongside her. She didn't, and they didn't reshoot the scene. Oh Heather, you had one job!
Yes, the footage of the whole film gives a new description to the term “shaky cam” (hey, it was filmed by amateurs), and we never actually see the witch. Some people didn't find it scary at all. I did. The claustrophobia of being lost in the woods and the ambiguity of it all had me feeling spooked, if not outright terrified. The shaky camerawork also made me nauseated, but that's a different story. The Blair Witch Project is not a brilliant horror film, but it's creepily effective as it positions itself as a true story, and the witch herself as a real entity.
Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2
The Blair Witch Project was a huge success. Costing $22,000, and making $240.5 million at the box office, obviously a sequel was going to happen. But did it have to be garbage? No, it didn't, but here we are. Sequels are rarely as good as the original films, and that's even when the studio takes a couple years to develop them. Blair Witch 2 came out the year after the original, and yeah, it shows.
Blair Witch 2 goes meta. It's the story of a group of beautiful people who fell in love with The Blair Witch Project (continuing the idea that the first film was real) who decide to take a tour of the actual locations where Heather, Josh and Mike filmed their movie. Their tour guide is Jeffrey Patterson (Jeffrey Donovan — yes, this film continues the conceit of the characters having the same names as the actors who play them, though, in this case, family names are changed), a dudebro who previously spent time in a psychiatric institution and now lives in an abandoned factory in the woods. What could go wrong?
They go out into the forest, and spend their first night partying after running into another tour group and tricking them into looking elsewhere by saying they saw something very creepy at Coffin Rock. They awake with no memory of the evening (booze and drugs will do that — just say no, kids!) and find their cameras destroyed and their documents shredded. They return to Jeffrey’s factory (which has cameras installed everywhere to document everything that happens) and things unravel from there.
The gorgeous redhead wiccan Erica (Erica Leehrsen) who claimed she went on the tour to commune with the witch (I would argue she was there entirely for eye candy), disappears, and the group start turning on each other as everything gets more bizarre and it becomes unclear what is really happening and what is a product of hallucination.
The climax of the film shows the group realizing that Tristen (Tristine Skyler), the formerly pregnant wife (she has a miscarriage earlier in the film) of Stephen — who was on the tour because she wanted to write a book with her husband — is either possessed by the witch, or is somehow the witch herself. She sneers and goads the group until they hang her off a precipice.
The finale of the flick shows the remaining members of the group in police custody. The cops have gathered the footage from the cameras that Jeffrey had placed all over his factory, as well as tapes found in the field. The footage clearly shows the group performing a ritualistic murder of the other tour group they met in the woods, after which they shred the documents and shatter the cameras. Furthermore, we see a sobbing, sniveling Tristen innocently begging for her life before they hang her unceremoniously.
This video doesn't show everything I've mentioned, but you get the point.
The film (I'm uncomfortable calling it a “film”) is a turd. It's awful. Having written that, it has a couple good ideas going for it. The twist that Tristen was innocent worked very well. While The Blair Witch Project suggested that the witch was a real, supernatural entity, Book of Shadows suggests nothing but psychosis and mass hysteria. It is a bad film, but it was refreshing to see a sequel that was essentially the opposite of its predecessor.
One major gripe is the fact that the book of shadows isn't in the movie. We don't see the book of shadows. It isn't referenced. The title of the film has no relevance to the film whatsoever. Woof.
Nobody knew this movie was coming. We live in a world of plot leaks, script leaks, casting rumors, etc., and somehow, Hollywood kept this one quiet, even after releasing a trailer under the pseudonym, The Woods
It was not until San Diego Comic-Con in July of 2016 that the film was revealed to be the second follow-up to The Blair Witch Project, titled, simply, Blair Witch. The film was screened at the con, and so far, the reviews are quite glowing.
Director Adam Wingard, is known for V/H/S, and The Guest, neither of which I've seen, and the film is being released on September 16th (my birthday, where I will be turning, oh, let's go with 19), and I'm looking forward to seeing it. Found footage has become a tired trope (but sometimes still works — see my review of Creep here), and I'm hoping this will be a return to terrifying form. I'll be seeing Blair Witch the day it comes out, so check back for my review.
In the meantime, did you like The Blair Witch Project? Did you bother seeing Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2? Are you excited for the new film? Hit the comments below and let's discuss! As always, thank you very much for reading!