Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Return of the Blair Witch

This Friday “Blair Witch” hits theaters.  The film is a sequel to the classic 1999 film, “The Blair Witch Project.”  I was initially struck when I found out it was produced in secret with the fake title, “The Woods” and then announced as a “Blair” sequel at the San Diego Comic-Con.   After seeing the trailer my hopes were raised that this might actually be a suitable follow-up.  The first sequel, 2002’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” was completely forgettable. 
Nowadays I’m not a huge horror connoisseur.  I watch “The Walking Dead” like the rest of the planet but unless something really stands out I usually skip it.  The young Brandon was completely opposite.  My initial interest in film was special effects.  This included make-up, you know the gory stuff.   I devoured everything I could get my hands on –Romero, Carpenter, Craven, Raimi, you name it.  So, it should not be a surprise that in 1998 at the tender age of 22 I planned to launch my indie-film career with a horror film.  Remember at this time video stores still existed, so the whole straight-to-video thing was a real avenue for independents of all stripes to release their film.  

Back to the Blair Witch and those cursed woods!  I first heard about “Blair Witch” when it was at the Sundance Film Fest.  The filmmakers did a masterful job of marketing the film as possibly being true.  They went as far as posting missing flyers of the actors in the film around the fest.  Before the film was released in theaters a mockumentary called, “The Curse of the Blair Witch” was broadcast on the Sci-Fi channel.  When the film was finally set to premiere locally in May 1999 at the Spectrum theater, I was ready.  I went alone after work to the first showing they had.  The theater was sold out and I don’t want to be too dramatic here, but there was a palpable sense that the audience did not know what to expect.  While writing this I checked out the film’s Wikipedia page and it indicates that USA Today says this was the first film to go ‘”viral.”
If you have not already guessed, I loved the film -- the hand-held cameras, the found footage style, the improvised acting, I loved it all.  It was spooky and told a convincing story of being lost in a haunted forest.  At the time I was watching my girlfriend’s (now wife’s) cats since she was away in Europe.  Also, my horror project had stalled in the face of a daunting production.  I distinctly remember standing in her apartment calling my film partner and leaving a fevered message that I just saw “Blair Witch,” it was awesome and we need to get our project off the ground.  “It was do or die time!”  And you know what?  We got it going and made the film.  That’s more than a story; it’s a book for another time.
The film was a huge success and became one of the most successful independent films of all time (from a budget to profit ratio).  The key word is independent.  Two guys not from LA or NYC, made it in Maryland with no stars or real crew.  They were total outsiders who caught Hollywood’s attention and that’s something you don’t hear of often.  I think the film and their production offers many lessons for independent filmmakers.  I also think that 16 years later the film still holds up!   Here’s to hopin’ this new film can live up to the legacy of the first film.  Worst-case, we can enjoy a repeat viewing of the original.