Blair Witch Craft
Mix eye of Heather with a pinch of horror, promote
well and serve the film event of 1999
By RICHARD CORLISS
In October of 1997, three young actors went into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, to play in a horror movie. Twenty-two months later, their film was a smash. It was the talk not just of Hollywood but of America. You could hardly walk down a bustling street last week or log on to a website without tripping over that ominous incantation "Blair Witch."
The impact, sudden and seismic, of The Blair Witch Project;女巫布莱尔； is utterly
unprecedented. Never has a--let's be honest--weird movie budgeted at a ludicrously low $35,000 stormed both the box office and the national pop consciousness. In its first week of wide release, on 1,101 screens, it earned $50 million--more than the Julia Roberts comedy hit Runaway Bride;落跑新娘；, which played in nearly three times as many venues. It is likely to have the highest percentage of profit in film history. Its astounding success has made indie-film heroes of its directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. And the marketers at Artisan Entertainment,
who built fervid want-see for the film through cunning use of the Internet, have been credited with revolutionizing the way films are sold.
Money and marketing are just part of the lure. This minimalist horror film, which appears to be a self-filmed documentary of three filmmakers who get lost in the Maryland woods while tracking down a local witch legend, has become the Elvis, the E.T., the Pet Rock of 1999--the hottest item in a hot summer. Shagadelic--what's that? Jar Jar Binks--remind me. Ricky Martin--isn't he Dino's kid? For this moment (and treasure it, because it may vanish as fast as it materialized), Blair Witch is the must-attend social event for plugged-in America.
Faced with this out-of-nowhere phenomenon, Hollywood cheers and shudders. Any movie that scares up business is considered good for the rest of the industry. But this one became a hit by breaking too many rules. No-star indie films usually make money with charm and sentiment; Blair Witch has neither. So the mass audience will accept something strident, elliptical, confrontational--what next? The movie was shot with its actors' being put through an eight-day survival game. They shot the film and made up the dialogue while the directors lurked out of sight and played sneaky tricks on them. Don't let James Cameron hear about this!
If the product was eccentric, so was the peddling, what Artisan co-president Amir Malin calls "guerrilla marketing tactics." Blair Witch's creative team, known as Haxan Films, hustled the movie's clips onto John Pierson's Split Screen cable show, premiered its trailer on the insider Ain't It Cool News website and launched its own site, www.blairwitch.com which, on an eventual
investment of $15,000, had racked up 75 million hits by week's end. If Artisan can create an avid audience on cable and in cyberspace, why is Fox or Warner Bros. spending tens of millions advertising in the papers and on prime time? No wonder Hollywood, looking at Blair Witch, says both Wow! and Uh-oh!
The reaction of moviegoers is no less schizophrenic. Scan their faces as they enter the theaters playing Blair Witch. The anticipation is electric; this could be a fantasy reunion concert of all four Beatles. Many in the audience are escorted by hipper acquaintances who have seen the film and are back not to watch it again but to watch their friends watch it. And though those in the know
will urge people to see Blair Witch, they won't spill its secrets. (Warning: we will.) The film is a rite of passage, fraternity hazing and haunted-house trip rolled into 81 agitated minutes.
Theater owners will endure a dip in popcorn sales. During this film, almost nobody leaves. Except to be sick. Some viewers have vomited during particularly tense scenes. Others get motion sickness from the jerky camera style. At the picture's climax, a Chicago woman let out a full-throttle scream. She was still shaking as the lights came up. "I'm too upset to talk," she said as a friend comforted her with a hug.
When the picture ends, reactions vary wildly. Some customers are plainly smitten. "It was every scary story you ever heard as a kid coming to life," says Matthew Smith, 24, in Chicago. Smith isn't bothered by the film's no-tech grittiness: "If you want special effects, rent Titanic."
Several patrons try to shrug off the icy fear the film's neural refrigerator has locked them into. A trio of teens emerging from a screening in Alexandria, Va., refuse to walk to their car, parked near a woodsy area, because "that movie scared me to death," says Shawna Daniels, 14, "and I'm not ever going near the woods again!" A ticket taker graciously walks them to the car. When asked if he has seen the film, he replies, "Not on your life. I don't want to be that scared." For others, the thaw will take longer. Kim Bingham, 33, of Santa Cruz, Calif., says that a week after seeing the movie, her 14-year-old daughter "still can't sleep at night. She doesn't want to talk about it. She won't go outside to feed the dog because she has to pass by some trees, and they remind her of the movie."
Not all reactions are sacred or scared. Justin Renfroe, 27, an Atlanta exterminator, shrugs and says, "I guess I didn't get it." He will advise friends to "wait for the video." After a midnight show at the Angelika, the indie showplace in lower Manhattan where Blair Witch had its theatrical premiere on July 14, a vocal minority is shouting, like a high school football cheer, a chorus of "Bulllllsh……!" But a few persist in believing, even after the final cast and credit roll, that this clever fiction is for real--a documentary that ends in death. "You mean it's not?" asks stunned Chicagoan Paula Taylor. "The website made it sound as if it was. I can't believe it."
The website handsomely elaborates on the film's plot by presenting "documents" about the "Blair Witch Mythology, Aftermath and Legend." Anyone who wants to believe in the story or enjoys a smartly designed fiction can browse and learn.
On Blair bulletin boards, fans and foes gather around the Internet cracker barrel to swap certainties. "Seeing The Blair Witch Project is the most terrifying experience, cinematic or otherwise, that I've ever had in my life," JJ-Spaceboy posted last week. RHinkley demurred: "I snuck in and I still felt ripped off." And SRKROL got that familiar trepidation: "The bad thing about it is the fact that I live in a heavily wooded area, with a cemetery dating back to the 1750s half a block away, it's really late, and my three dogs need to go for a walk. I think they can wait 'til daylight..."
The biggest Blair Witch shock has been felt by the movie's directors. "When we did the film," Sanchez says, "we hoped for a video or cable deal. When Artisan told us the film would be released in theaters, we were thinking, 'Man, if we make $10 million, it'd be a dream come true. But to do $29 million in one weekend was so beyond our comprehension. If anyone had said that a year ago, we would have had him committed."
"Now hold on," say the six of you who are just back from Borneo. "Blair which?" For you, and for those who have seen the movie and still don't get it, a little backstory. Or, as they say, mythology.
Myrick, 35, a native Floridian from Sarasota, and Sanchez, 30, who hails from Maryland and attended Montgomery College there, met in 1990 while film students at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. A few years ago, Myrick says, "we got on the subject of old documentaries like In Search Of... and Chariot of the Gods and a 1972 feature called The Legend of Boggy Creek--all these pseudo documentary programs that really creeped us out when we were kids. Later on, we came up with the premise of the three filmmakers' getting lost in the woods. Our movie would be about the found footage. From there it germinated into building this mythology."
The premise: the town of Burkittsville, once Blair, is haunted by stories of a witch who for two centuries lured children to her home and, so the legend goes, made some of them face the wall while she killed the others. For a film project, three Montgomery College students have come to Burkittsville to shoot a documentary project. They'll interview the locals and spend a couple of days tracking down the witch's house in the nearby woods.
The three--director Heather Donahue, cameraman Joshua Leonard and sound man Michael Williams (the actors use their real names)--think it will be a lark, but they have underestimated the legend's potency and overestimated their own skills in camping and coping. Within a day or two, they are lost and sawing on one another's frayed nerves. At night, huddled in their tent, they begin to suspect menace from someone or something outside. Could it be the Blair Witch? They hear noises, feel a rattling of the tent, find three small cairns and twigs bundled in an ominous symbol and, one morning, notice slime all over Josh's backpack. One of the three disappears. The remaining two finally come upon the witch's house, and there...
Through it all, they kept filming and videotaping the ordeal. A year after their disappearance, their footage was found...
The original idea was to surround this story of three kids, lost and grumpy in the woods, with other pseudo documentary filler: archival material on the witch legend, interviews with local police officers and friends of the missing students, all tied together by a suitably questing narrator. The trope is familiar enough, both from that oxymoronic phrase "reality TV" and from fake-umentary murder movies, such as the 1979 Cannibal Holocaust and the current Drop Dead Gorgeous. The Last Broadcast, a slick thriller assembled on a desktop computer in 1997 for--get this--$900, mixes interviews and "found footage" in its story of a cable-TV crew that goes into New Jersey's Pine Barrens in search of a legendary monster; the crew calls this trek "the Jersey Devil project." There is betrayal, death and a twisty climactic frisson in this dark, media-mauling parable. The similarities between it and Blair Witch prove that for film, video or digital artists, self-reflexive stories are in the air.
Blair Witch, like any movie, has many antecedents. It is, by our casual count, the 873rd horror movie about youths who go into the woods on a lark and come out on a slab; the 4,982nd in which people disappear in reverse order of star quality; and the zillionth in which kids are frightened into a state of suicidal stupidity. Horror's evil creatures don't have to be very cunning when the heroes keep wandering in circles or deeper into the old dark house.
Is it good or bad that as viewers come out of a horror movie, they can't decide exactly what happens in the final shot (hint: recall what the witch made the kids do) and who the villain is (one guess: the missing filmmaker)? We'll say good, that ambiguity can coexist with atrocity. The film also plays upon the horror genre's attraction-repulsion for the filmgoer: what-happens-next? vs. why-am-I-watching-this? It makes canny use of dramatic longueurs. It's scary even when nothing
happens, because something awful might, and, eek!, right now! Anticipation is all. Anxiety is a more powerful emotion than shock. Knowing we are to die is worse than dying.
In common with earlier indie horror classics like Night of the Living Dead;活死人之夜；,
Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Evil Dead, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the new film makes a virtue of its seeming artlessness. A picture's dead air, ragged acting and extreme shifts of emotional tone throw the viewer off balance. This is not your standard Hollywood movie, whose technical finesse reassures even as it excites. The bizarro indie horror films seem unmediated, out of control, a blurred or garish snapshot of lunacy. It's as if the footage had been found, a year later, and all that's left is a grainy record of awful happenings.
But something else attracted critics and the first knowing viewers to Blair Witch, and that is the film's bold sense of withholding. Horror, after all, is a genre that gravitates to the lurid edge. The jaded audience wants more--more teasing sex, more gross-out gore. So directors make their young minor characters play the sin-and-repent game: you have sex, then you die horribly. Makeup maestros like Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead) dream up (or nightmare up) grotesque
faces and prostheses. Screeching violins italicize the killer's abrupt entrance as he raises his knife behind the fair maiden.
Then there's Blair Witch. It has no sex or even sexual tension, no music of any kind, no demonic power tools. No prowling, voyeuristic camera from the killer's point of view; this movie is all about victims and the victims they make of each other. There are no shock cuts to the monster. In fact, no visible monster! Because the audience sees only what the camera does. At night it is sometimes pitch-black; for excruciating minutes, we are literally in the dark. The physical mayhem is limited to one conk on the head. There's no slashing--except of everything extraneous to the creation of psychological disorder. Blair Witch tweaks Mies van der Rohe's dictum into "Less is morbid" and makes the viewer collaborate actively in both the scenario and the scariness. Says Sanchez: "Horror is something that works in the viewer's mind, not really onscreen."
Myrick and Sanchez had tried to cast their main characters for two years before finding Donahue, Leonard and Williams. They gave the actors a 35-page plot outline and a lesson or two in handling a camera. Josh got an old CP-16-mm film camera. "We showed him how to load it and how not to destroy it," says Myrick. "But he treated it like a boat anchor anyway." Heather was given a High-8 video camera. The directors bought the High-8 for $500 at Circuit City. After the shooting, they returned it and got a refund.
For eight days and nights in autumn 1997, the actors were effectively on their own. They shot all the footage, as their characters were putatively doing, and invented their dialogue. Says Myrick: "We took the Method approach to the acting and the filming over eight straight days, 24-7." The directors were usually out of sight and hearing from their stars. Each day they would leave notes in a box for each actor; they gave general instructions--clues, really--on what to do. If Mike were to confess he'd jettisoned the map, the others wouldn't know until he said it. And at night, when the actors were in their tent, says Sanchez, "we'd go out on our raids and scare them--wake them up, leave things behind. We basically played the Blair Witch."
At the end, they had 20 hours of footage. Their plan had been to follow that with the "documentary" scenes and, says Sanchez, "treat the footage almost as if it were real. But it turned out to be just so real." Suddenly they had a faux cinema verite thriller. "We knew it was different,
and a risk. But as rough and as raw as it was, we knew we should leave it alone." They had their movie. They trimmed the woods footage--"It was like we wrote the script during the editing," Myrick says--and used the other material for a devious docu-promo, Curse of the Blair Witch, that ran on the Sci-Fi Channel.
That material also got onto the website, designed by Sanchez. Rarely have outtakes proved so useful. They helped create a Blair world of almost Tolkienian density. "You could get into the spirit of the folklore we created without having to see the movie," Sanchez says, "or vice versa." The folklore also served as fodder for the book (No. 10 on the Amazon.com list), the comic book and, yes, the CD of songs found in the tape deck of Josh's car. Now fess up, that's stretching synergy. But everything has worked so far for the good-guy directors, who sounded most excited about a wager they'd just collected on. They'd bet Artisan that if Blair Witch did $10 million, they'd get a new Foosball table. It arrived in Orlando this week.
Now that their first feature is headed for $100 million at the domestic box office, Myrick and Sanchez have just one sure thing ahead of them: the sophomore jinx. They describe their next film, a comedy called Heart of Love, as "Mad Mad Mad World meets Monty Python meets Airplane! meets the stupidest movie you've ever seen." Could it tank? Of course--like most indie or studio films. "We know we're gonna bomb," says Sanchez. "We're gonna live with that bomb and nurture it and then watch it explode."
They seem to realize that the flip side of phenomenon is fluke. Blair Witch, a film that antagonizes as many folks as it enthralls, could be as fleeting a fad as Deely Bobbers, and with no profound meaning for the future of film--except perhaps that struggling filmmakers with a marketable attitude will for a short, happy time be overpaid by studio bosses hoping against reason for another Blair Witch.
"There's no good lesson to learn here," says Pierson, the indie guru whose cable show helped get the Blair rolling. "It's not an independent-film phenomenon. What you really have is a convergence of old and new media." And a film that blends the thrill of the unseen with the art of the sell. That's true Witch craft.