Here a Witch, There a Witch, Everywhere a Blair Witch

Recently I had cause to watch the classic horror film and it’s not so classic sequel.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

I caught this at the cinema when it originally came out. It was a Halloween showing and a cinema usherette seemed to think I was remarkably tasteless when the film cut out and I suggested it might be because the projectionist had been murdered by the witch. Yeah, well.

Everyone knows the plot I guess. Three students head off into the woods to investigate the local legend of the Blair Witch and film a documentary. They are never seen again, but their tapes are discovered and tell a harrowing story of three young people not so quietly going insane. What’s happening is very much left for the viewer to decide – whether there really is a supernatural element, locals messing with the townies, or simply collective hysteria. The three keep getting lost in the woods, turning back on themselves. Unsettling sounds are heard at night, such as a baby crying, and when they emerge in the morning their camp site and camping gear have been tampered with. One of the three goes missing, but his screams draw the others to a ruined house which was one of the sites in which atrocities took place according to the local legends.

I believe I’m right in saying that, though it wasn’t the first to do so, this is the film that kick started the trend for shaky cameras and amateur documentary style film making, and if so it’s a trick or two that is put to very effective use. The amateur documentary veneer is maintained faithfully to the end, even down to using the real names of the actors as those of their characters in the script to enhance the ‘authenticity’ of the film, while the viral advertising campaign that went hand in hand with the film’s release further blurred lines between fact and fiction, encouraging cinemagoers to believe in the veracity of what they were seeing.

The characters feel very realistic and we get sucked into their fate as these three young people are subjected to a barrage of undermining effects, with aspects of their personalities emerging that don’t seem especially laudable. In a nut shell, they are being driven mad, and in the end the supernatural aspects, if there are any, seem almost incidental to a story that shows what happens when people are taken out of their usual environments for any length of time and placed somewhere that doesn’t feel quite as safe. Tensions mount within the group as their situation deteriorates and they take up the blame game with each other, their psyches slowly but surely unravelling, so that they fall prey to whatever outré force is at work in the forest, whether it’s the Blair Witch or their own imaginations, those fabled monsters from the id. At the time this film felt like a game changer, and it still has that feel of untapped potential, riveting to watch and unsettling.

Books of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)

I caught this at the multiplex the following Halloween, but don’t recall liking it very much, though I have to admit my DVD viewing was a lot more agreeable.

In his novel The Midnight Tour Richard Laymon used his earlier ‘Beast House’ stories as a fictional McGuffin, and Book of Shadows does something similar with The Blair Witch. In the wake of the film’s success, the Maryland town of Burkittsville has become a tourist attraction. The locals are divided in how they feel about this state of affairs. Some insist there is no Blair Witch and wish the outsiders would bugger off, while others seek to profit from the town’s newfound notoriety. Jeff runs a website selling all things Blair Witch, such as stick figures and local rocks, and now he’s looking to diversify into taking tourist groups into the woods. In his first party are witch Erica, who is looking to get in touch with her spiritual ancestor, Goth girl and psychic Kim who liked the film, writer Stephen and pregnant wife Tristen, who are working on a book about group hysteria. Of course things go wrong and, battered and weary, the group retreat to Jeff’s isolated home to try to figure out what may or may not have happened. It slowly emerges that there are three alternatives – their memories, others’ perceptions of events, and what’s shown on some pesky videotapes. Have they brought something evil back from the woods or simply fallen victim to the collective hysteria Stephen wants to study?

It’s not as potent as its forerunner, with more emphasis on bloodshed (mostly seen in flashback) and less on atmosphere, but still a decent film, with a fine idea at its core and well drawn characters. Along the way it takes some swipes at societal attitudes to those with mental problems, such as Jeff, and outsiders such as Kim and Erica. And it plays games with consensus reality, the narrative changing with each fresh revelation. Like Craven’s New Nightmare it deconstructs the material of horror fiction and asks whether our obsession with this sort of stuff is good for us, or if it can lead us to lose our grip on reality and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Are the characters simply innocents whose perfectly natural interest in the Blair Witch opens them up to malign forces, or are they sick fucks who use the Witch as a pretext for giving in to the worst aspects of their own natures? Are we?

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