Saturday, 23 July 2016

Elly's watching you...

Image courtesy of Lionsgate
Ironically, this all seems slightly unreal.

There had been some rustling in the leaves for a while surrounding upcoming Horror flick, The Woods, but earlier today, news finally broke that the upcoming film, set for release this September, is in fact a long-awaited sequel to Indie classic, The Blair Witch Project!

Made on a shoestring in 1997, the original film was later released in 1999 to enormous worldwide commercial success, and a positive critical response. The first industrial metal-fueled sequel, Book of Shadows shortly followed in 2000, and is often regarded as, well, not quite up to the lofty standards of its predecessor. Personally, I must admit to having slightly more time for its central, mass-hysteria-centric conceit than some, which feels more grounded and intriguing a concept on repeat viewings. Give it another go if you can, especially if watched alongside its short film accompaniments, Shadow of the Blair Witch and The Burkittsville 7.

On that subject, for those not in the know, this trilogy of mini docos, kicked off by the wonderful Curse of the Blair Witch, almost serves as a collective prequel in its own right, with each subsequent edition adding to the lustre of the overarching legend, simultaneously serving as a stepping stone to aid audiences in building a cognitive map of the intertwined narrative prior to the release of each film. I very much hope we shall be getting a fourth, in time for this one.


Expository plot details for this newly-rechristened installment, now simply titled Blair Witch, are so far, thankfully few and far between. However, this trailer does unveil a brand-new lead character with a strong familial link to Heather Donahue, who is said to have finally tracked down new evidence pertaining to his sister's tragic disappearance in the Black Hills, almost twenty years previously. In any event, this premise alone is certainly closer to the sequel story that most would naturally have expected in place of Blair Witch II.

In deference to Book of Shadows, the story boldly diverted from the established focus and narrative of a college-film-project-turned-bad, cleverly admitting from the get-go that it was a so-called dramatisation of 'real' events that took place shortly after the film's original theatrical release. Regrettably, it never seemed to gain the traction it sorely needed to match, or indeed outdo the sheer inventiveness (or effectiveness) of its forerunner, which to this day, remains a tremendously high watermark in low budget film-making. The series has remained in limbo, ever since.

Contrary to popular belief, the original film was meticulously planned. For proof of this, you need only refer back to the casting - with each largely-unknown actor cunningly selected to bounce effectively off the other, in some way. The pervading sense of isolation depicted within the film itself, is at times crushing, and the sound design, more than anything, is designed to stay with you, as opposed to merely jump-scare viewers into an adrenaline-depleting sense of physical exhaustion. It's genuinely scary as hell. And given the sheer weight of footage generated by the three lead actors, I remain surprised that the equally daunting/impressive process of editing the film has not yet been met with even greater recognition.

Recently, I talked about Batmania, and how 1989 was huge for advertising that featured the Bat insignia. In 1999, the now iconic Blair Witch stick-man emblem, for a time, reigned supreme. The marketing campaign was frighteningly efficient - effectively deputising its target audience to help coalesce an unassuming, though ultimately horrifying myth. As often with Ghostwatch, I am reminded of the opening title card for the Coen Brothers' Fargo, in which the film naughtily professes to be a 'true story', and how lead actor from that film, Peter Stormare was later heard to remark in its defence, "It is a true story... but it might not have happened." To me, this encapsulates the profound and lasting effect of any well-drawn and executed narrative.

Like Ghostwatch, The Blair Witch Project similarly encouraged the viewer to actively participate. The treasure hunt-like mentality of the latter film's debut website (then, something of a rarity in itself) enabled a new generation to play detective, in a profoundly innovative way. As fiction willingly merged with reality, Heather Donahue was infamously reported 'dead' on her personal IMDb bio page - in her words something that, "doesn't necessarily bode well with the friends and relatives." But in kindhearted retrospect, this undeniably added to the film's mystique.

In this instance, from a franchise-standpoint alone, inter-connectivity astutely remains the name of the game in continuing the Blair Witch legend. The centuries-spanning, make-believe history as presented, was at face value watertight, though flexible enough to allow for added scrutiny. The aforementioned mini-doc, The Burkittsville 7 accurately deconstructed the myth, inferring even greater, sinister machinations at the hands of one of Elly Kedward's young 'victims', Kyle Brody. It can be truly fascinating to immerse oneself in thick, gloopy Blair Witch lore (if you're into that kind of thing). Put simply, it's good to hear they've not started afresh, this time around.

In honour of our recent piece on VHiStory, earlier this week, I looked through a number of old cassette tapes gathering dust, and happened upon one from Saturday 30th October 1999, containing almost a full day's worth of unique programming from now off-air cable channel, Rapture TV.

The much-missed, light-hearted 'youth' station, which zeroed-in on rave culture, extreme sports, and all things cool'n trendy in the late nineties, hosted an entire Blair Witch Weekend in honour of the then-heavily hyped flick. Much of the limited original programming generated for the event was repeated ad infinitum over its two-day run, including ACNY (A Cinema Near You), which explored the slew of spoofs that rode in the film's wake (The Blair Fish Project, etc), and the decidedly Bad Influence!-lite console show, G@mers which featured an astoundingly corner-cutting tutorial on how to make your own hit Horror film, that simply consisted of purchasing as much expensive, high-end film kit as you could get, and then finding a forest. Having done so, I can't imagine the inevitable nightmare of uploading an edit to the web, as instructed. And in 1999, upload to where, exactly?!

Also on offer was a parodic series of sidesquel micro ad bumpers featuring Colin Rothbart and Matt Cuttle entitled, The Norwitch Project, and crucially, a highly-enjoyable doco by the name of The Quest For Blair Witch, hosted and produced by Inge Theron.

The one-off special followed Inge, and producer/companion, Alex, as they jet off, first to LA to interview cast, crew and fans, including words from Production Designer, Ben Rock, and late Director of Photography, Neal Fredericks, before heading all the way over to Burkittsville, Maryland, to join a dedicated group of real-life Blair Witch hunters (surely, inspiration for the second film) who at least at one time, regularly corralled curious fans for hikes through the very woods as seen in the film, landing on various landmarks, including Coffin Rock, and the infamous (now demolished, as I understand) house of fictional, local villain, Rustin Parr.

Ironically mirroring much of the film's basic structure, upon landing in Burkittsville (and becoming genuinely lost), the pair proceed to interview local residents, some of whom admit to not being quite so keen as others at the prospect of their one-peaceful town being flooded by curious fans and moviegoers - particularly after reports of vandalism, and a repeatedly-missing town sign, allegedly in said visitors' wake. There is however, some positive reaction to be found, with local merchants revealing how a boost in tourism has nevertheless contributed to a marked increase in local trade - with somewhere in the region of 2000 postcards being sold purely on the strength of their local postmark, alone.

Before venturing into the woods for their own tour, at one point, the group stops off to cool off and refresh themselves at a local, crushed ice, 'snowball' dessert stand, with advice from one particularly humorous fan, warning the hosts to stop calling people 'blokes' in America - "I'm tellin' ya, they're just not gonna like it!"

As the sun sets, deep in the forest, Inge's voice depressingly drawls amidst the growing dusk, as she finally reads from her untouched, leopard skin tent's instruction manual, "To avoid surprises, get to know your tent before you travel..." After timidly viewing the final location, they are even gifted a congratulatory T-Shirt each from their guides, upon successfully making it through the night.

With Rapture still very much an online presence, I very much hope that this special gets the chance to air again in some form. Particularly as it features some exclusive footage and interviews which I'm sure would be of great interest to fans.

In the meantime, this recent development and full-blown trailer for the latest iteration of the long-hibernating, would-be Horror franchise raises as many expectations as it does questions. I myself, have a great deal of time for the low-key, slow-burn advertising of the original film, but you can't deny that this next-gen update packs a serious punch. The whiplash-like frenzy of today's announcement is specifically designed to turn heads, and so far, they have succeeded. Now, all that remains is actually delivering on the promise of returning the series to its roots. Ahem.

I still find it hard to believe that a soft reboot is now less than two months away, but I'm just as glad that the new creative forces have taken the care and time to acknowledge what came before. This way, yet another new generation can turn detective, in learning more about what really happened, now almost two decades ago. It's as carefully-calculated a marketing strategy as we've come to expect, but perhaps lacking the subtlety the original used so effectively to energise and engage with multiple audiences simultaneously (to me, this seems very Horror-driven, as opposed to a thriller). This time around, the message almost seems to be, 'Make no bundles of teeth about it, this is the Aliens of Blair Witch sequels', 'This time, we're turning the piles of rocks up to eleven,' and so on.

That said, as we continue to follow the trickling through of strong, first reviews, the early signs are, this is indeed the follow-up that so many (no doubt already camped outside their local cinema, snugly wrapped in their plush sleeping bags) have so long been waiting for, to entice them back into the woods, once again. I for one, cannot wait to discover the truth behind Blair Witch.

Until next time, Ghostwatchers, try not to have sleepless nights...