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Sticks and Stones and Surprise Sequels: A Cultural History of the ‘Blair Witch’ Franchise

Sticks and Stones and Surprise Sequels: A Cultural History of the ‘Blair Witch’ Franchise: Lionsgate

Lionsgate

If you saw The Blair Witch Project back in 1999, I probably ruined it for you. Sorry about that.

Because make no mistake about it, the original Blair Witch movie is absolutely, undeniably, pants-shittingly scary. Those of us who were lucky enough to see it before it was released could all agree on that. But then one of the biggest backlashes in the history of horror movies turned The Blair Witch Project into a cultural punchline.

“The scariest movie I’ve ever seen!” wrote Lloyd Rose of the Washington Post, a month and a half before the movie came out. “Reinvents scary for the new millennium!” declared Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, not long after. “You can’t help but be scared!” wrote … me.

In my summer of ’99 review for an online content syndicator, in which I gave The Blair Witch Project an extremely rare 5 out of 5 rating, I went on and on about how it was a “shock to the system” and “a groundbreaking horror movie.” Worse, I spent the month before the movie came out telling everyone how the movie made me want to bolt from the theater—just flat out flee—by the end. And it’s true: Sitting in that preview screening in a little theater in West L.A., I seriously considered whether it was worth looking like the world’s biggest wuss to a room full of movie critics just to not have to see what was going to happen at the end.

So when I say I ruined The Blair Witch Project, this is what I mean. All the hype from people who saw the movie early on created a ridiculous level of expectation among those who were about to go out and see it. I don’t even know what they thought they were going to see by the time we were done with them—probably they thought they were going to see the Blair Witch, and she was going to reinvent scary for the new millennium right in front of their eyes. Certainly they thought they were going to see something.

The problem is that the original Blair Witch Project is all about seeing nothing. Half an hour into the movie, the main characters lose their shit because they find three piles of rocks. By 40 minutes in, they’re screaming and pushing each other because one of them lost a map, and because there are noises. And sticks. Sticks! Tied into shapes!

I know—when you put it like that it sounds more like a crafts fair than a horror movie. And I get why there was such a huge wave of eye-rolling and shoulder-shrugging among horror fans who were basically expecting an entirely different movie. That was supposed to be scary? It’s just three annoying people lost in the woods!

But as an annoying person who has been lost in the woods, I can tell you: It’s fucking scary. That was, and still is, the source of the original Blair Witch Project’s power to freak me out. It’s terrifying to feel lost in the woods for five minutes; this movie has the three main characters going hopelessly in circles for days. It doesn’t even matter if there really is a Blair Witch—watching the characters’ mental states collapse so completely and quickly under the relentless stress of their situation is way more relatable and disturbing.

Regardless, the general moviegoing public at the time was not particularly impressed. The movie made a ton of money, with the hype generating enough curiosity to turn a $20,000 budget into almost $250 million at the box office. There were a bunch of spin-offs, like TV’s The Curse of the Blair Witch, that tried to build up the legend, but once people realized the found-footage setup was just a gimmick and that main actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard weren’t actually missing in real life (as the studio that released the film suggested in their marketing), the buzz ground to a halt. Cheap and easy to replicate, it became the most parodied movie in history, in everything from The Blair Bitch Project to The Bogus Witch Project to The Erotic Witch Project. That fall, Saturday Night Live did a sketch about how they weren’t going to do a Blair Witch parody, because it had already been done to death. The sketch, of course, turned into a Blair Witch parody.

The fact its directors couldn’t get directing jobs for almost a decade, despite helming one of the most successful movies in history, tells you everything you need to know about The Blair Witch Project’s cultural standing at the time.

The fact that directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez couldn’t get directing jobs for almost a decade, despite the fact that they had helmed one of the most successful movies in history, tells you everything you need to know about The Blair Witch Project’s cultural standing at the time. (They didn’t even direct the sequel, which arrived the next year as Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, a movie every bit as poorly conceived as its title.)

But just when it looked like the Blair Witch was over for good, 2013 rolls around. Sanchez is directing again, this time partnering with his former Blair Witch Project producer Gregg Hale. The film is V/H/S 2, the sequel to the surprise underground horror hit V/H/S from the year before. The V/H/S films are anthologies whose stories are done in the found-footage style. Grittier and gorier than The Blair Witch Project, they’re part of the mumblegore movement that has brought a whole new generation of young, adventurous filmmakers to the horror genre. By inviting Sanchez and Hale in to direct a segment for the sequel, the producers were acknowledging that The Blair Witch Project blazed a trail for found-footage films, and for 21st century horror in general.

Also working on V/H/S 2, as they had on the first film, were director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the best filmmaking team to come out of mumblegore. Wingard and Barrett started their collaboration with 2010’s A Horrible Way to Die, a twist on the serial-killer formula that shows how the subgenre is deeply rooted in small-scale, relationship-focused arthouse moviemaking—like Noah Baumbach, but with murders! The build-up is slow in A Horrible Way to Die, but the payoff is fantastic.

The duo moved on to 2011’s You’re Next, which turns the clichés of the crowded home-invasion subgenre upside down, making the predators the prey. Barrett’s talent for injecting black comedy into horror and Wingard’s can’t-look-away visual flair should have made You’re Next their breakout hit, but while it made back its small budget many times over, it never quite broke out in a bigger way. Same with 2014’s The Guest, their next film together. An action thriller about a family who takes in a mysterious stranger, the film found some ingenious ways to bend the rules of the ’80s films to which it was paying very loving tribute. Somehow, it never felt retro in the way that most ’80s-obsessed films do. Instead, Wingard and Barrett once again subverted genre conventions, instead of just repeating them.

Last year, it was announced that the duo’s new project would be a horror film called The Woods. What it really is, they revealed in July—after keeping the true nature of the project a secret for more than year—is a sequel to The Blair Witch Project called simply Blair Witch. Following a group of young people who go into the Black Hills of Maryland in an attempt to discover what happened to the characters from the original film, this is clearly the sequel that The Blair Witch Project should have had in the first place.

Wingard and Barrett, with their experience in found-footage films and ability to re-invent cultural touchstones, are the perfect team to bring the Blair Witch back, and make her scary as hell again.

It turns out that that this project was indeed born out of conversations they had with the makers of the original film at the time of V/H/S 2 in 2013. They kept it secret for all this time because … well, so people like me couldn’t ruin it for you again.

Since the new Blair Witch comes out tomorrow, September 16, I don’t even have time to tell you how scary it’s going to be. I’ll tell you one thing, though: this time you will see something.

I have to flee now.

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