With the shocking news that Adam Wingard’s The Woods is in fact a Blair Witch sequel. Hughesy looks back on the much loved original that gave many horror fans a sleepless night!
In 1999, the world was all set to celebrate the year Millennium. The 90’s were coming to a close, a new decade, later to be called The Noughties was on its way, and horror at box office was limping along and dying a slow death because of a figure called GhostFace. The Scream sequel from 1996 was the best and worst thing that happened for the impact of horror at the box office. While it introduced the fun factor and gave a new generation of fans something to talk about in the Slash genre, it also brought back a horror trend that died on its backside only a few years before.
The 90’s was notorious for its bad sequels that saw the likes of 80’s icons wave a final goodbye. Freddy had his final Nightmare and a post modern new one, Jason was sent to the pit from where he came, not before a game of Quantum Leap, and even the likes of Ripley had bumped into that ALIEN too many times for the viewers liking! While Scream was the new kid on the block, a fun ride with an enjoyable guessing game at its core, the overwhelming success of the film made other studios jump onto the bandwagon. This resulted in the once tired and bust Slash genre burst back into life, but once again a victim of its own story when the market was diluted by inferior rip offs that made the viewer weep. Anyone who has the seen the awful A Clown At Midnight will tell you the state that horror was in, and with J-Horror being born but the other side of the world not quite ready for the likes of Ringu, it was time for a new vision of terror to take shape! And that was in the form of a little thing called the Internet!
It’s amazing now that all the film studios use the web as a tool to advertise their latest films. Yet way back in 1999 this was not seen has a practical thing to do. The only time the Internet was linked to any film was two years before when a well known website ran an early review of Batman And Robin before it was even released, which was so harsh and critical that it stung the film studio who totally underestimated the power that the Web has. Even to this day, many within the film corridors blame that one single review for wrecking that Dark Knight Franchise even though its not hard to admit that the film was actually a piece of crap and maybe that was more to blame for its stinking box-office takings than a well written review!
Two people who did not underestimate the power of the web were Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, two budding film makers who decided to do a horror. A year before and desperate to break into the film world, they wrote a script that only contained 68 pages and hoped the rest would be improvised by the actors they cast! They struck up a simple idea about an haunting, a concept that did not need a massive budget, and in some ways brought horror back to its roots. There is nothing more scary than a horror film that plays on natural fear, and the duo believed that they had come up with a story that would do just that
Advertising in Black Stage magazine for actors with exceptional improvisation skills, they came across their three, Amanda Donohue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams, who would also use their real names in the film. This enabled the directors to start their plan and exploit the Internet to their advantage. In a crazy way, it was this campaign that took more time than the actual making of the film, which only lasted seven days! Their story was to be presented as an “actual true story!” about three hikers who while filming their hunt for a local ghost, go missing never to found again. Over the Internet there were actual sites asking people had they seen these three actors, and when it was announced that their camera’s were found and what was on it, you would not believe your eyes, even before the film was released, the story was in crazy meltdown!
How can I describe the scene! While if Facebook was invented back then, the amazing hype would have crashed the site. Fans who had logged onto this story were foaming at the mouth to see this footage. It was so unbelievable, I was twenty two years of age and being a full horror fanatic, I was longing to see this footage that explained what happened. I remember reading one article that explained “there was now 100% proof that Ghosts exist”, and even now writing this rewind review, I can feel the excitement that filled my bones back then! Never again will I see this happen! A once in a life time lightening in a bottle moment that I feel privileged to have been apart of. The new directors played it a perfect hype game that no one would expect to have such a profound effect on the industry. By the time the film was released on July 30th 1999, with the consent of the families involved, the queues were unbelievable. Over 90% of those going believed what they were about to see was real, and that is why it upsets me that the new generation dismiss this film! They simply do not understand that no matter what, this film did the impossible and made everyone believe there was something out there. For that alone the film should be applauded for its ingenious ability to actually scare those before they had actually seen even a glimpse on screen!, and oh boy, even if the film was not “real” Sanchez and Myrick still delivered a mighty fine film!
The plot was simple, Heather believes in the Blair Witch. a story of a woman who was killed many years and haunts the woods of Burkitsville. To prove this is true, she and two friends venture into the woods to find some evidence, but they never return. A year later their backpacks are discovered along with a Camcorder that contains footage of what happened on their trip. What follows on those tapes is enough to make anyone never go camping again!
That is the general plot which all fans love and know, but lets go deeper than that. The Blair Witch is in fact Elly Kedward, who several youngsters accuse of witchcraft and is for banished into the woods in one of the most coldest winters on record! Presumed dead, life returns to normal until children go missing, including her accusers and fearing something more sinister, the remaining town folk flee the town called Blair and vow never to utter the name of Kedward again. Many, many years later, the town of Burkitsville is named on the site and life carries on has normal until a young girl named Eileen Treacle is pulled into a creek from what witness call a hand coming from out of the stream. Her body is never found and soon more mysteries develop including the case of Robin Weaver, an eight year old boy whose vanishing act makes two search parties go out into the woods. While he is found alive, one search party vanishes and soon their bodies are found tied and cut to pieces over in a place called Coffin Rock.
The story goes on but one that is most interesting, is that of Rustin Parr, a hermit who lived in the woods and one day arrived at a police station and uttered the words “finally finished!”. The police arrive at his house and find the bodies of seven missing children in the cellar. Parr goes on and says “the old woman in the woods told me to do it!”, but interestingly and one that most viewers miss is that when he was killing them, he made sure the kids would turn to face the wall while he killed one, a notion that would be followed in the bone chilling final shot of this film!
Those who call the Blair Witch a simple and basic film must realize that the mythology of the concept is one or if not strongest in any horror film industry. For those who read the history before they even watched the film, they sat in the cinema all those years ago, shaking before even Heather said hello! It is a wicked conception of brilliance. I was one of the lucky ones who read into it all before I went in, and while I was too sceptical about what I was seeing, the film itself was so brilliantly executed that those themselves who did not believe were having their doubts!
When the three venture into the woods never to come back, the feeling of impending doom was unbearable at the time! When they set up camp and on the first night, the strange noises that were around them, made me feel an edge that I was not accustomed to while watching a horror. This was so far removed from the style of Ghostface and his in-jokes that the Blair Witch was putting an urban fear into the crowd. An unknown trip where everyone knew the ending was not going to be jolly!
But while at its core the Blair Witch is all about the Supernatural, the main aspect which I feel a sadness for because its always overlooked is the theme of human breakdown! Here on screen we have three humans who become increasingly desperate to get out of these woods. Panic engulfs the soul and at times its heartbreaking to see! The image of Heather saying her goodbye is now an often target of spoof central, but its one of the greatest scenes in horror history. Here is an actual actress bearing her soul to the camera, all improvised and all from the heart!
The climax is one that has rightly gone into cinema history, a final shot that is still talked and debated about to this day. But it also springs a few surprises up on a repeated watch. A year after the film was released, the studio released a book about the police records of that actual case! Reading the book and then watching the film is a surreal experience. For example according to the records, that hill Heather and Michael walk up is impossible……there is no hill in those woods! That house they are in at the end……the police state that there is no house in the woods……two little details that put a more scary slant onto the film!
Also, is it really the Blair Witch or Rustin Parr that are doing the haunting? The final shot hints at the latter and again it opens an endless amount of discussions!
The Blair Witch though was a film the horror genre so desperately needed. It was a shot out of the blue that divided opinion and still does, but if it was not for this film then there would be no REC, maybe no Cloverfield and especially no Paranormal Activity. All those films hold a huge thank you for the impact of the bitch in the woods. Those who dismiss it, simply do not understand or did not let themselves believe in the all hype. I was one of the lucky few who got swept away by the mania, a camp fire story without the need of a dead zombie at its core!
Even a terrible sequel which I will review on HCF soon can not diminish the impact and love this film has. There was frustration for years as Sanchez and Myrick did have a third film planned but the studio for some reason did not want it. Films like the already mentioned Paranormal Activity came along and became a massive success and all of a sudden found footage was the norm, sequels and endless straight to DVD offerings all showing the same blueprint that this 1999 masterpiece came up with but yet the bitch in the woods stayed silent. But with horror once again killing its own self with excessive gore-porn and a need to shock, maybe now is the right time again for a simple story of an old woman who lives in the woods and quite possibly Adam Wingard has given a whole new generation a chance of some sleepless nights….