Critical Thinkpiece Sample
BLAIR WITCH (2016) MAY BE A SEQUEL TO THE THE 1999 HORROR FILM THAT SHOCKED THE WORLD, BUT IT IS CERTAINLY NOT THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT’S SPIRITUAL SUCCESSOR.
This is not to say that Blair Witch is not a good movie, because all of the hallmarks of a good horror film are there: the characters are compelling and sympathetic, the story is well paced, the editing and special effects are effectively frightening, and the sheer number of scare tactics used are diverse enough to rub any viewer the wrong way (Are you claustrophobic? There’s a scare for that. Are you afraid of heights? There’s a scare for that. Are you really upset by body horror? Yep, there’s a scare for that, too.). So if someone asks me if Blair Witch was a good horror film, I’d feel compelled to say yes, but there’s a caveat: it may be a good horror film, but it was not a good found footage film.
Found footage is a divisive, love-it-or-hate-it subgenre. I’m in the camp of loving found footage, for a variety of reasons. First, I’m going to admit up front that found footage works for me because I have professionally worked in reality television, documentary film, and broadcast commercials for the last 5 years. But my love for the subgenre started long before I got into the industry, and it was actually one of my inspirations to even start working in the format. My college thesis was a found footage horror film that I still hope to make into a feature one day. I’m attracted to the genre from a professional standpoint because I can relate to the struggle of running around with a camera and trying to capture something that won’t stand still. (Try running around a sports stadium to get a close-up of an athlete getting a score… I’ve done it, and it’s about as difficult as capturing a ghost on film). When I watch found footage, I can easily insert myself into the character’s point of view because I’ve been in their shoes… sans the spooky stuff, of course. But I digress, on to the practical reasons the genre works.
I love the limited perspective of one or two characters leading me through the story; you really have the opportunity to connect with your protagonists when the primary voice you hear throughout the film belongs to only one or two people, and when all that you can see is what they can see. Viewers very rarely see the face of their protagonist, so the audience can more easily self-insert and become a part of the story. (This in itself is a unique experience to have when watching a movie, although it may feel familiar to those who play first-person video games.)Like in gaming, you “get” the character who’s holding the camera by the end of the movie, and you almost feel like you’re a part of them. Examples include Hud in Cloverfield, Heather in The Blair Witch Project, Jaquline in The Bay, Angela in [REC] (or its American remake Quarantine), Thomas in Trolljegeren, or Lance in Grave Encounters.
Found footage also can keep the viewer from knowing know why/what/where the spooky monster is at any given time, or at all. Even if the character holding the camera can see “it”, the viewer may not. The viewer is only offered a limited glimpse of “it”- whatever “it” is – because the protagonist may not be pointing the camera in the right direction, the camera may be out of focus, the lens may break, or the lights might be out. The sparse and rare exposure to the monster(s) and the gritty handling of the camera creates an unfamiliar tension for the viewer, which I believe to be entirely unique to the found footage category. Some of these films offer explanations for their “monster”, like the witchcraft-obsessed doctors at the end of Grave Encounters, while others leave the viewer with more questions. In either event, the exposure to these things is still limited, and limitations require the viewer to ask “what if?”, which is the scariest question of all. Found footage is supposed to be a harsh experience, one that feels dirty and fast and confusing and gritty. It should never feel polished, and “it” should never be seen too clearly.
SO WHY DIDN’T BLAIR WITCH WORK WITHIN ITS OWN GENRE?
To start, there are six protagonists in this film, five of which are in possession of their own camera, and there at least three additional cameras staged throughout the woods at various points of the film. Four of our six heroes are each equipped with a earpiece camera that makes conversations between these characters too similar to a standard narrative film because the perspective is edited to shift back and forth between the characters as they speak to one another, as opposed to a single or dual perspective. Two of these characters have long hair, and yet their cameras are never visually interrupted by loose strands–and although this is a nitpicky note, I would have liked to have seen their hair blocking my view of the footage instead of wondering why the hair wasn’t in frame in the first place. Like most horror films, the female protagonists have perfect hair and makeup every single shot, which adds fodder to Blair Witch not feeling like a found footage film.
In one particular sequence of the film at least eight cameras are edited between seamlessly, and that was enough to make me writhe in my seat. The editing between is damn near offensive throughout the film, because the audience is forced to stare at each beautiful 20-something character’s face over and over and over again. Lingering from face to face keeps the focus of the film from being the the environment – which it should be. . Seeing the characters so frequently diminishes the fact that the audience is supposed to be experiencing this horror alongside them. Instead of experiencing the horror first-hand, the audience is forced to endure each character’s reaction to the horror around them, rarely experiencing the horror itself. Frankly, Blair Witch feels almost pornographic in the same way that gore horror does, but without the visceral imagery (i.e. Saw).
Blair Witch also relies too heavily on the Director Adam Wingard’s desire to make a beautiful film, which is entirely antithetic to found footage as a genre. In an interview with TimeOut Magazine, Wingard said one of his favorite movies is The Shining, and boy, can you tell. Many shots inside and underneath the witch’s house, although obviously “hand-held” in style, are a clear homage to the long, dreary halls of Kubrick’s classic film. Even the trailer for Blair Witch is remarkably similar to the trailer for The Shining, with footage of cascading hills and colorful skies. But Kubrick’s stylized camera angles and lengthy, dramatic hallway sequences do not belong in a found footage film, and it’s distasteful to even entertain the idea.
Blair Witch wants to be remembered as a beautiful film: a drone flies above a forest capturing a breathtaking view, a montage that takes place inside of a bar is colorful and exciting, and throughout the first act of the film the female protagonist, a wannabe filmmaker, takes the opportunity to grab beautiful shots of foliage and running water as she and her friends venture deep into the forest. This works in some found footage films, such as Grave Encounters, a film whose visual premise is predicated on decent camera work because the characters are making a reality tv show, or in Trolljegeren because the filmmakers are documentarians who actually understand how to use film equipment, but not for a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, a story that should be inherently gritty–especially once the characters are in the thick of the horror. The found footage films that work within the “expert” premise do so with grace: in Grave Encounters the camerawork becomes more and more diluted as the characters become more and more fearful for their lives, and in Trolljegeren the documentarians break their equipment and are later limited by a bad boom pole and a broken lens; Lisa’s handywork in Blair Witch only becomes slightly lower in quality, even as she crawls through a long underground tunnel much too tight for her already small body.
BUT WHAT UPSET ME THE MOST BY THE END OF THIS FILM WAS THE FACT THAT BLAIR WITCH IS ITSELF A SEQUEL TO THE FILM THAT MADE THIS GENRE COMMERCIALLY POSSIBLE.
The Blair Witch Project convinced audiences that it was actual found footage because the film was entirely believable. The characters acted and looked like real people–up to the point that their own paranoia created a great divide amongst themselves (and the viewer). The camera work was sloppy at best, the story skips hours and even days to preserve battery life, and the special effects and sound effects were so rarely used and so frequently off camera that when they did come to the forefront, audiences were convinced that what was happening was tangible. (It’s worth noting that the filmmakers literally tortured the actors in The Blair Witch Project to accomplish the realism of starvation and getting lost, which might account for the conviction of those performances.) Blair Witch, on the other hand, offers voodou dolls that crack open a character’s spine, a linear story that takes only 2 days to complete, a big scary white figure with big scary noises chasing the children through the woods, a character caught in a time loop that takes him months to escape, and a house that never ends once you enter it. The realism is completely lost, and so the audience is left knowing that what they watched is a work of fiction.
Blair Witch is a beautiful film and has an excellent story. This film absolutely belongs in the horror genre, and it deserves its accolades… but found footage is not a genre that requires well-executed camera angles, flashy special effects, and 20-something models each with their own perspective. A good found footage film is limited by being intimate and gritty, which Blair Witch never was.
(Originally Published on Front Row Central)