Shot on a shoestring with cheap video cameras and unknown actors, “The Blair Witch Project” established the “found-footage” sub-genre, redefining horror and breathing new life into indie filmmaking.
Since its inauspicious release on 27 screens in 1999, the pioneering film from Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick has been hailed as a modern horror classic, despite having no special effects, monsters or gore.
It made use of viral online marketing in a way no movie had attempted before and, despite its tiny $60,000 budget, managed to make $248 million worldwide.
“Book of Shadows,” a glossy, special effects-laden sequel that dispensed with the found-footage formula, was rushed out a year later and universally derided, putting the franchise on ice for 16 years.
The original has spawned myriad imitations, with found-footage movies such as “Cloverfield,” “Rec” and “Paranormal Activity” saturating the market over the following decade or so.
While each received glowing reviews, these and other franchises racked up numerous lower quality sequels and the sub-genre is now generally thought to be on its last legs.
Enter longtime collaborators Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the respective director and screenwriter behind “Blair Witch,” the latest installment in the franchise, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday.
“The most immediate feedback you can get from an audience is from doing a comedy or a horror film, and we’ve had a lot of experience with that,” Wingard said ahead of the screening of “Blair Witch.”
“And that’s why with this film, we specifically made it with the mainstream reaction in (mind), where we really wanted to get lots of jump scares, lots of direct audience feedback.”
Developed, shot and marketed in secret as “The Woods,” the film was preview screened at San Diego Comic-Con in July, with Wingard stunning fans at the last minute by announcing its real title.
“Blair Witch” wipes out any lingering memory of “Book of Shadows,” serving as a direct sequel to the original and hitting largely the same beats.
Film student James Donahue — played by James Allen McCune, who was devoured by zombies in season two of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” — investigates the disappearance of his sister, beanie hat-wearing Heather.
Last seen screaming in a spooky cabin in the woods in the original film, Heather might still be alive, a mysterious YouTube video suggests.
James and love interest Lisa (Callie Hernandez), accompanied by school friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and his girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), head into the woods in the Maryland wilderness.
They hook up with Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), the strange locals who posted the YouTube video, and the forest closes in as darkness falls and things begin going bump in the night.
The grainy found footage formula has been updated by advances in digital technology since the turn of the century, with the hand-held “shaky cam” usurped by GPS trackers, ear cams and even a drone.
‘Loud death rattle’
“It was a test of our physical and emotional state on a daily basis. It was amazing,” McCune said of the shoot at Sunday’s Toronto screening.
“It was probably the most authentic way of getting us into the position of what our characters would be going through. It was very real.”
Curry recalled “screaming and jumping in my seat with my sweater over my face” when she first saw the finished product, remembering the terrifying experience of the film shoot in British Columbia, Canada.
“The natural environment was very scary, but Adam and Simon playing tricks on us to scare us out of our minds made it a lot worse, and it was very effective,” she said.
Reviews from Toronto have generally been mixed, with some critics praising Wingard’s direction, but others noting a more brash tone to the film, while lamenting its lack of subtlety and overuse of jump scares.
The Hollywood Reporter called it a “dull retread,” while for Variety, it was “an effectively jumpy, artfully artless follow-up.”