This year we've seen the second attempt at a sequel to the classic horror film The Blair Witch Project in the form of the somewhat confusingly named Blair Witch. The film opened a couple of weeks ago and, much likes its predecessor — a sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) — it has been met with largely negative criticism from both fans and reviewers alike. After not one, but two failed follow-ups, you have to ask yourself: Was a sequel to The Blair With Project ever going to work?
In July of 1999, a documentary-short aired on the Sci-Fi Channel called The Curse of the Blair Witch. The very convincing program (that is now available to watch on YouTube), detailed the legend of "the Blair Witch," an entity dwelling in the woods surrounding the town of Blair, Maryland. In the documentary, residents of the town (now called Burkitsville) describe the disappearances and murders of Blair residents, and blamed these terrifying happenings on the Blair Witch, the spirit of a woman who was accused of being a witch and unceremoniously cast out of the town hundreds of years ago and left to die in the wilderness.
The documentary included interviews with citizens of the town as well as excerpts from newspapers and local news reports about the disappearances, most notably those of three filmmaking students. One newscaster reports on the nature of the case, describing the soon-to-be world famous footage as unsubstantial:
"Frederick County police officials declared today that the found-footage was inconclusive and all possible leads on the case have been exhausted"
The interest of many viewers was piqued, and they were able to seek more information on a website dedicated to the mythology and lore surrounding these eerie happenings. Two months later, an independent film named The Blair Witch Project was released, purportedly made of footage found among the equipment of three students who were filming a documentary about the Blair Witch around Burkitsville.
People were fascinated, horrified, morbidly curious — what happened to these people? Was it just like the documentary said? Were people right about the Blair Witch? The speculation and build-up earned the film an impressive box office haul, with people lining up out of cinemas to ensure they could get a seat and try to solve these mysteries. Posters and advertisements were placed around college campuses and film festivals, to the extent that IMDb even listed the main characters as "missing, presumed dead."
Now, 17 years later, we know that this build-up was all part of the hoax, and we've yet to see any marketing that even comes close to the carefully planned misdirection and total fabrication of myth that surrounded the production and release of The Blair Witch Project. How could a sequel compete, especially one released so many years later? The use of internet marketing for the film and the in-depth, incognito scaremongering was just the icing on the terrifying cake. These days, however "new technologies" aren't new to us anymore, internet marketing isn't so much ground-breaking as it is a vaguely annoying commonplace. Movies often have their own websites, sure, but a hype-creating marketing campaign like this even gives Disney a run for its money:
It seems odd that now we know the actors' fates were indeed staged, that Blair Witch would still pursue the storyline. If you've debunked a myth, it seems a little odd (and less scary) to go right back to it, right?
Well, they didn't go right back to it.
In 2000, only a year after The Blair Witch Project came out, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released. Hoping to piggy-back on the success of the original, Book of Shadows was quite different from The Blair Witch Project in terms of its cinematography, leaving behind the popular found-footage technique and instead opting for a bigger budget Hollywood vibe.
Essentially, a far more glammed-up crew go into the Black Hills because they are really interested in the Blair Witch mythology — subsequently they lose their minds. Who knew? The film was met with largely negative reviews from both critics and audiences, with one critic concluding that "devotees of the original will be sorely disappointed."
So, after the crash and burn of Book of Shadows, why try another sequel? Some movie sequels, of course, are spectacular; but often, they just can't live up to the original. Maybe directors thought that keeping truer to the style and story of The Blair Witch Project could erase the memory of Book of Shadows and take the franchise back to its roots. Possibly. Or, it could be an un-learned lesson in the "once bitten, twice shy" school of thought.
It's no secret that this past year has seen something of a horror renaissance in cinemas. Movies like The Conjuring 2 (see, I told you sequels can work!), Don't Breathe, and Lights Out have been sweeping cinemas the world over to great reviews. Horror, it seems, is reaching an even wider audience than ever before. Look at TV shows like American Horror Story or Stranger Things — they have taken what half a decade ago was a much less universal genre and propelled it into the public eye (and the public's nightmares).
More people than ever before are watching horror films and loving them, so you can't help but wonder as to why it was this year that Blair Witch hit our screens. In a quieter year, maybe Blair Witch could have done better — of course it would still be compared to the original — but at least it could have avoided the comparisons to so many competing new releases.
Overall, I think it is safe to say that this do-over of a sequel to the seminal cult classic The Blair Witch Project was almost doomed to fail, especially with the "direct continuation" of a firmly debunked story. I think Ben Kendrick's review sums it up more succinctly than I could:
Don't worry, Ben — I wanted it to work, too.