It’s been 15 years since The Blair Witch Project’s release, but the phrase “Blair Witch rip-off” keeps growing more prevalent, partly due to the changing economics and tools of filmmaking, and partly due to left-field hits like Paranormal Activity. Capping our Movie Of The Week discussion of The Blair Witch Project, two Dissolve writers discuss the merits and limitations of the found-footage horror genre, and where it could go from here.
Keith: I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Blair Witch Project: After hearing about the film all year after its Sundance première, I finally got a chance to catch it at a press screening in Milwaukee at the beautiful Oriental Theatre. This required driving more than an hour from Madison, where I lived at the time, but I was up for it. It was the middle of a not-very-scary summer afternoon, but that didn’t matter when the lights went down. I was never under the illusion that Blair Witch was anything but fiction, but co-directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, and the cast of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams (but especially Donahue) create such a convincing scenario, then follow it through to its nerve-shredding end. Walking back out into the sun when it was all over felt like getting the bends.
That was then, back before the found-footage subgenre The Blair Witch Project helped introduce to a wider audience became so commonplace. Now, found-footage films are everywhere. Though the form more or less lay dormant for years after Blair Witch, it came roaring back in the late ’00s, when digital-video technology made it easier to make found-footage films than ever. The comeback took the form of movies both large, like 2008’s Cloverfield, and small, like 2009’s Paranormal Activity. I like both of those films, but I’ve seen enough terrible found-footage horror films since then to make me shudder a bit at the prospect of more. One of the worst, Apollo 18, at least has novelty on its side: It’s about killer rocks on the moon, and it’s built around footage from an aborted-but-actually-not-really-aborted early-1970s moon mission. Far more typical is a film like Inner Demons, which starts with a novel premise—drug addict is actually possessed by a demon—and applies all the now-expected found-footage beats: fleeting glimpses of horror, flashes of CGI amid mundane scenes, camera-addressing confessionals, and “OH MY GOD WHATISHAPPENING!!??” screams over chaotic handheld images. At this point, the novel elements have hardened into cliché, at least in my experience. Am I just watching the wrong found-footage films, Scott, or is it time to pack this subgenre in mothballs again?
Scott: First off, maybe we should clarify the term “found footage”: The hook for Blair Witch—one that some dim souls legitimately believed, at least according to reports at the time—is that these three young people went into the woods to film a documentary, something happened to them, and “a year later, their footage was found.” But that definition has become a blanket term for all horror films that have a faux-documentary style. I think it’s a useful catch-all, and we’re going to use it here.
Let me start by defending the found-footage movie: We may complain about it a lot, and pray for a moratorium, but in terms of horror’s batting-average, is it really any worse than its more conventionally photographed counterparts? To me, found-footage films are a reminder of the horror fundamentals established by greats like Val Lewton, who produced classics like Cat People, The Seventh Victim, and I Walked With A Zombie by spending very little, and using the dark to his advantage. Because found-footage movies rely on a limited, often first-person perspective—usually of the person manning a handheld video camera, though we’ve seen some surveillance shots thrown in, too—it naturally lends itself to considering the spooky stuff that lurks outside of the frame. And that can be a powerful, visceral effect: As a viewer, you’re in the trenches with these characters, experiencing that “OH MY GOD WHATISHAPPENING!!??” sensation along with them. That’s what appealed to me about those first three Paranormal Activity movies, before the formula and mythology got tiresome. They’re very basic and very scary, a reminder that simplicity can be a virtue in horror filmmaking. I have mixed feelings about the genre overall, but I’ll save the negatives for later. But I ask you, Keith: If found-footage horror goes away, isn’t there anything you’d miss?
Keith: Oh sure, all the fine qualities you mention. I don’t even need it to go away. A moratorium would be fine. Or even just a new innovation: Part of the brilliance of Cloverfield is that it offers a gnats’-eye view of events unfolding on an epic scale. Another found-footage horror movie I like, The Last Exorcism, twists the idea of a documentary in on itself. In the film, a self-professed charlatan minister investigates a case of demonic possession to show a documentary crew how he fakes his acts of faith, but the camera captures a different story entirely. (Note: This is not an endorsement of the absurdly titled The Last Exorcism: Part II, which is awful.) The last time any example of the genre surprised me was in “Amateur Night” from the 2012 anthology V/H/S, which similarly uses the form to comment on itself by following a bunch of hard-drinking yahoos who attempt to take advantage of an apparently inebriated woman, and film it, only to have the situation turn on them.
Am I talking myself out of my own argument here? 2012 wasn’t that long ago, and you make a good point that the batting average for this genre is probably no worse than other genres. So why single it out? I think it’s because when found-footage is good, it’s really good. But when it’s bad, it’s just the worst, a headache-inducing nightmare to watch from start to finish. It’s easy enough to pick up a camera, wave it around, shout a bit, fill most of the frame with shadows, and call it a movie. Only found-footage legitimizes that kind of dicking around. Maybe what we need is a horror equivalent of Dogme 95, a list of requirements a film must meet. Only found-footage horror films that pass certain requirements get certified and released to the public. Would that work for you? And are you seeing signs of life somewhere I’m not?
Scott: Requirement #1: Do something interesting with the first third of the movie. The Blair Witch Project tucks some information into the faux-doc interviews of Burkittsville residents at the beginning of the movie, but it also presages a bad habit common to found-footage horror—way too much improvisational throat-clearing. The hook of the subgenre is the vérité fantasy of scary things happening to real people, but as with horror movies of all types, the threat takes some time to make itself fully known. And in found footage, that means a lot of screwing around without a script—or even if there is a script, a lot of screwing around without much narrative kick. As I confessed earlier, I like the first three Paranormal Activity movies, by and large, but getting to the nightly visitations can be a chore—half exposition, half just noodling around. And since these are unknown actors, likely hired because audiences don’t recognize them as they recognize movie stars, they don’t often have the charisma to carry the section before the scares start happening.
To me, a key exception is The Last Exorcism, which may be the only found-footage film where the first third is better than anything that follows. You mention the clever contrast between the phony exorcisms this minister is performing and the actual supernatural goings-on that the camera sees without his awareness. But I enjoy his shenanigans well before anything out of the ordinary occurs. Patrick Fabian plays him with greasy charm, and it’s fun as a viewer to feel in cahoots with a man who so enjoys taking advantage of faith-blinded rubes. The sequel can’t bring Fabian back—spoiler alert!—and it abandons found-footage, too, in favor of a way-below-average demon-possession movie. (The problem with that is, Hollywood horror movies tend to be hyper-aggressive with the sound and lighting effects, which may be another reason to keep found footage as an option. For every Sinister, there are about a dozen The Lastest Exorcisms.)
Another notable exception: Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek, which was released earlier this year to kind reviews, but little fanfare. The extent to which Goldthwait lifts from Blair Witch borders on shameless: A couple goes into the woods to make a documentary about Bigfoot, stops first in an inhospitable town that offers intimations of danger, gets lost on the way out and spends the night hearing awful noises outside their tent, etc. But Goldthwait nails that first third. He’s an excellent writer, and he sketches a relationship between this couple that’s fraught with divisions that will be exploited later on. (There are a handful of witty one-liners, too.) On top of that, he counters the handheld jitteriness expected of the genre with one extremely long static shot of the couple huddled together in the tent at night as a series of mysterious sounds close in on them. Found footage isn’t associated with bravura long takes, but Goldthwait proves it doesn’t have to be that way.
But those are exceptions to the rule. Is there enough flexibility in found footage to make it a long-lasting, sustainable genre? Or will it be like old 3-D, which went in and out of fashion before digital came along?
Keith: I’d say neither. Most likely, it’ll end up seeming more like a subgenre than a style, one that owes almost everything to The Blair Witch Project, even if it came into fashion almost a decade later. Slasher films had a similar explosion in the wake of Halloween because they were relatively cheap to make, and a fairly easy way to turn a profit. But tastes changed in part because of overproduction, and I suspect we’re at the tail end of the found-footage explosion. That doesn’t mean they’ll go away, but just as slasher films appeared less and less frequently throughout the 1980s, with the exception of a few franchises, we’ll probably end up seeing fewer of these for a while. Until, of course, the next Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity creates a desire again. Then again, I’ve been wrong before. Are these simply too cheap and easy to fade away?
Scott: Oddly enough, we’re seeing them fade away in Hollywood horror films—the Paranormal Activity series took over the once-a-year Saw slot, but the sidequel The Marked Ones, from earlier this year, appears to be the last for a while. Still, they’re ubiquitous in the indie world, almost certainly because they’re inexpensive. (And perhaps also because their “indie”-ness excuses the absence of real production values.) The V/H/S anthology has reached three entries and counting, and more generally, there seems to be a compatible relationship between an indie horror market that’s heavily migrated to home video, and a found-footage genre that can supply it at a low cost. Conversely, the argument for shelling out full ticket prices for a studio-distributed found-footage horror movie at a multiplex where nine-figure productions can be accessed at the same price is a thin one, now that Paranormal Activity has run out of steam. The closest we can get are spectacles like Cloverfield or Chronicle, which use found-footage techniques as an offhand approach to studio genre filmmaking. But those are rare, and will continue to be.
That said, I think there’s a place for it, especially now that we live in a culture where everything is filmed—through smartphones, laptops, surveillance cameras, etc. When a real-life public horror unfolds on cable television—like, say, the bombing of the Boston Marathon—there’s inevitably an array of amateur footage of it from odd angles. It’s the found-footage equivalent of “coverage.” It follows that giving fictional stories the same treatment can make the events seem more “real” to an audience that’s accustomed to getting its information this way. Whether filmmakers can avoid the clichés of the found-footage genre is another matter, but that desire to have movies reflect this very modern experience of the world isn’t going away any time soon.
This concludes our Movie Of The Week consideration of The Blair Witch Project, and our Horror Month in MOTW coverage. Don’t miss Mike D’Angelo’s reconsideration of the film 15 years after the initial hype, marketing, and disappointment has faded, and Scott Tobias and Nathan Rabin’s thoughts on why it’s still scary and what people miss in it. Next week, we move on to Animation month, starting with a look at Pixar’s The Incredibles, just in time for its 10-year anniversary.