Last weekend at Comic-Con, the micro-budget horror movie that spawned an entire genre of found footage fear returned with a vengeance—out of nowhere. Forget Marvel and DC’s superhero stables—the shocker of the year is that there’s actually a proper sequel to The Blair Witch Project.
Directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest), the sequel, titled Blair Witch, was initially marketed as a mysterious found footage horror flick called The Woods. The Woods came complete with its own trailer and promotional material. Fans of Wingard and horror aficionados alike were actually legitimately salivating over the faux movie, looking forward to the uncanny way Wingard subverts any genre he traffics in (see V/H/S/2 for a deconstruction of found footage; watch You’re Next to see the home invasion flick flipped on its ear).
Arriving at a theater slightly off the Comic-Con trail to see what I expected to be The Woods felt, at first, like a typical screening experience. Red and black posters for The Woods lined the multiplex walls, and a giant display of the eerie The Woods graphic was stationed in the center of the lobby.
As the lights dimmed in the packed theater, I was still primed for a run of the mill horror movie experience. Then the opening scrawl, sans title card, mentioned a mysterious DV tape found in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. A dizzying, horrifying opening sequence of handheld footage opened on someone running for their life through a dilapidated house. The brief image of a man, frozen stiff as a board facing a corner, flashed onscreen. Then there was a reference to a local legend—the legend of the Blair Witch.
In what can only be described as a communal “holy shit” moment, the entire theater gasped as a secret years in the making was revealed: this was a Blair Witch movie. In 2016.
The story follows James (James Allen McCune) as he journeys into those same woods with a group of friends to find out just what happened to the original documentarians after seeing newly released footage on YouTube. Updated to fit into the context of the 21st century, Blair Witch utilizes cell phones, drones, Bluetooth cameras, and GPS in such a real way that it only compounds the horror on screen, and resonates with a modern sense of doom. Not even our ever-reliable technology can save us from the unknown.
It’s a treat to see the Blair Witch mythology expanded and fleshed out, and the movie is a masterwork in shocking scares, plus a technical achievement to boot. Maintaining continuity (and fluidity) while cutting back and forth from the perspective of the four friends armed with multiple cameras each is a Herculean feat, but Wingard and DP Robby Baumgartner manage to capture the claustrophobic interpersonal dread experienced by the characters as the supernatural forces of the woods closes in on them without muddying the narrative. Geography is just as important: even as our cast gets lost and turned around as their sense of space and direction is removed, Wingard is able to capture a wooded area that is both suffocating yet infinitely open.
This makes the scares—and there are so many—that much more impactful. With the cameras placed in unexpected corners and angles, the physical space of the action is widened, leaving the cast completely vulnerable to the evil that lurks just beyond their line of sight. The audience is forced to train their eye on every inch of the screen as they try to spot the paranormal activity within a panorama. Coupled with excellent sound design, a twig cracking in the distance is just as brutally traumatizing as the bones cracking within a helpless victim of the Witch.
But let’s talk about this marketing reveal. Keeping such a secret required a well-oiled machine, from the top brass at Lionsgate all the way down to the bottom line of PAs on set, and even the actors, who had no idea they were making a Blair Witch movie until they were making a Blair Witch movie. “The actors just thought they were auditioning for a terrible Blair Witch rip-off,” writer Simon Barrett admitted during the post-screening Q&A.
“Even the production manager was given a fake script—because we had a fake script circulating around the whole time—and nobody told him we were shooting a Blair Witch movie,” added Wingard, who flew down to Comic-Con from Vancouver, where he’s shooting the live-action Death Note movie for Netflix. “He read the script and it took him a few weeks of filming to realize what we were actually shooting.”
The commitment paid off, not only for the surprised fans, but as an homage to the original The Blair Witch Project, which used unprecedented digital marketing to manipulate a less-savvy early generation of Internet users into thinking what they were watching was real. Back in 1999, fake websites were created to corroborate the legend of the Blair Witch along with “missing” photos of the actors from the first film, whose character names matched their real life ones. It was a holistic, immersive experience that blurred the lines between life and art, fact and fiction.
Once The Woods ended, the post-credits screen came up and read “Blair Witch: In Theaters September 16th,” officially confirming what we’d just seen. Just when I thought the mind-fuck was over, I walked out of the theater to see that all the The Woods posters in the theater had been switched out to Blair Witch ones, along with the massive lobby display. The T-shirts on the ushers no longer said The Woods, but Blair Witch. Even the trailers for The Woods were taken off YouTube and replaced by the exclusive trailer for Blair Witch, cut and timed to coincide with the film’s world premiere, along with its IMDb page.
It was as if The Woods never existed.