Forgive me for having a lazy day today, but in my defense I’ve already written about The Blair Witch Project in a “Confessions of a Fear Junkie” entry. The movie that popularized the still surviving and evolving found-footage horror boom had its theatrical wide-release nineteen years ago today, in the oh so wild year of 1999. I’ll have a lot more to say about Blair Witch as well as several other movies released that year when we get into the 20-year anniversaries in 2019, I assure you.
Other horror films released on July 30th include Deep Blue Sea, and if you’ve somehow avoided knowledge of Sam Jackson’s surprise demise in this film up to now, then my bad about the title of this post. Odds are, though, you’ve either seen the movie, seen a GIF of that scene, seen a YouTube clip of that scene (or at least read a title that says “Samuel L. Jackson Dies” beside a thumbnail of Sam in a wetsuit), or watched Dave Chappelle yelling about Sam’s fate in Bill Burr’s ear.
Deep Blue Sea is yet another 1999 release, one entry in a long list of incredibly varied horror films released in a year when the teen slasher revival was still supposed to be dominating the genre. Seriously, I can’t wait for January to get here so I can have a proper, arbitrary round-number anniversary as an excuse to dive headlong into the horror flicks that hit theaters at the close of the millennium.
On the international front, two seminal, pre-Ringu Japanese films share a July 30th release date: 1960’s Jigoku (aka The Sinners of Hell) and 1977’s Hausu(aka House). Tonally, it’d be hard for the films to be much more disparate without residing in different genres. Jigoku, perhaps the earliest horror feature film to indulge in modern levels of gore, eventually takes its characters to a bleak, dark void of Hell where you might get dismembered for eternity. Or get caught in an endless, insanity-inducing mob of the mad damned screaming for loved ones you can’t find. Or might have to try to save the most innocent soul imaginable from an eternal suffering they don’t deserve but are enduring due to your sins. It gets pretty damn grim.
Hausu, meanwhile, mines all the irreverent glee there is to mine from a haunted house scenario. Floating, disembodied heads might cartoonishly bite you on the ass, or psychedelically-flashy pianos might eat a schoolgirl who can’t decide whether to laugh or cry about the situation.
Yeesh. Given the option, I might sign up for the “bleak, dark void of Hell” instead of “loud neon nightmare house.” At least in the former it’s dark enough for me to be able to sneak in an hour or two of sleep in between torments.
I understand why a lot of people hated The Blair Witch Project. When it was first released over a decade ago I didn’t understand the negativity, but it didn’t take long for me to figure it out. And no, I’m not blaming it on “Hype Backlash,” though that was probably a part of it. Truth is, it’s not a very good film. It was, upon initial viewing, a great experience for me, but when you break down actual movie components like plotting, pacing, and acting, it ranges from serviceable to questionable. I own the DVD and the movie itself has very little replay value. I’ve watched the faux-documentary several times but I’ve only watched the movie itself twice in its entirety.
At the time, my best friend and I were practically obsessed with horror movies. Now, we’re longstanding movie fanatics in general, but our horror geekdom in the late 90’s was rapidly approaching critical mass. Mind you, we were two tall, athletic black dudes who did okay with the ladies and didn’t shop at Hot Topic, so we didn’t fit the any visual stereotype for horror movie nerds.
Nonetheless, we were both enamored with horror movies, at a level that probably should have embarrassed us. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the internet reading up on and discussing horror flicks. This, of course, is how I (along with many others) came to know of The Blair Witch Project several months prior to its wide release. I can’t remember where I first heard mention of it, but more than likely it was through Dark Horizons. I do remember reading quotes from people who had attended advanced screenings. One quote in particular stood out to me: “I feel like I just got punched in the stomach.”
There wasn’t ever a time when I believed it was actually a “true story.” Even back when I was still frequently awed by the sheer world-wideness of the web, my search-fu was strong. Maybe not Bruce Lee strong, but at the very least Bruce Li strong. Some simple web navigation uncovered that the story was entirely fictional–no missing film students, no basis for the legend–and I think that might have actually heightened my appreciation for the well-crafted backstory.
The most enduring element of Blair Witch for me is the “fakelore” at its foundation. I find the idea of the supernatural entertaining and intriguing, and I’m a bit of a history fan, so I’m always drawn to ghostly legends. The story of Elly Kedward is quite convincing for what it is. Her exile from the town, the subsequent disappearances of children and other bizarre, unexplained events come off as a plausible embellishment. Obviously untrue, and yet possessing some small level of verisimilitude. Of course a pale hand didn’t actually reach from out from within Tappy East Creek to pull a little girl named Eileen Treacle underwater, but could there have been an actual drowning that inspired that tale?
Well… no… thankfully there wasn’t, but the fact that it’s all entirely made up just makes it all the more impressive to me. I still think that much of the best writing and storytelling done for The Blair Witch Project never actually made it to the big screen.
I had told my friend about this movie and linked him to its internet viral marketing and lo and behold, he caught the Blair Witch bug same as me. Nearly every review we read was not merely positive, but almost cautionary. I’ve always wanted to write a story that inspires a critic to say something along the lines of, “So scary I can’t even recommend it.” That was damn near how the Blair Witch reviews read, at least to me. This movie seemed to exhibit the motif of harmful sensation: it was so terrifying that it was actually causing viewers physical distress! That turned out to be mostly or entirely due to motion sickness brought about by the camera constantly moving around so much it has a U-HAUL rewards card. But at the time not many reviewers explicitly stated this, either because they did not realize the true source of their nausea, or because at the time copping to motion sickness from watching a movie was like admitting to a fear of clowns in the pre-Poltergeist or IT era: AKA “Before it Somehow Became ‘Cool’ to Have a Fear of Clowns.'”
Our anticipation for this film had reached a point where there was essentially no way it could have hoped to live up to expectations. Mind you, this was well before the mainstream movie-going public had heard of the film, and possibly before it had been picked up by Artisan for distribution. We had not been lured to see this thanks to a bombardment of television ads promising a rollicking, fearful theme park ride. We had created more than enough pre-release hype for ourselves. So when my boy scored tickets to an advance screening there was much rejoicing and high-fiving.
When we finally saw the movie, well, as I mentioned, it was a memorable experience despite the fact that at around the midpoint of the film I started to wonder, “So when is thing actually supposed to get scary?” The answer came in the last ten minutes or so of the film when the tortuously slow build up finally leads to something, and I will close this Confessions entry with a few things that remain with me from that first viewing, and from the film’s ending.
1. The woman next to me held my hand during the film’s final few minutes. She was blonde, and I remember thinking she was probably in her mid-30’s or so. Reasonably attractive, I think. And a total stranger. I had never seen her before and if I’ve seen her since I did not recognize her. But right around the time that Heather and Mike made it to the house in the woods, she gripped my hand like she’d fall into an abyss if she let go. For my part, I did not pull away. I also did not say anything about it to her because…
2. No one in my theater spoke after the movie was over. Or if anyone did, it was as “quiet as an ant not even thinking of pissing on cotton” as Gene Hackman said in Heist. It was unspeakably eerie, marching out of that theater surrounded by the ponderous silence. When we reached the theater lobby and there were people talking and enjoying themselves like normal human beings in a movie theater should, it was jarring. Almost offensive. For a moment there we were a procession of the walking dead exiting our own mass funeral. How dare anyone in our vicinity hold a conversation, much less laugh and jest with one another?
3. I was surprised to see it was daylight outside, but couldn’t quite understand why. In hindsight, the damn movie dragged so much in the first three-quarters or so that it feels like it’s taking you several hours to slog through it. But at the time… at the time, the daylight seemed out of place, and worse still illusory. Fragile.