Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On July 30th 1999, the Blair Witch Project Changed Media

Are you rural or urban? That question determines how you felt about the game changing phenomenon known as The Blair Witch Project. City kids did not understand the horror that lurks in the woods day or night. It is the unknown, which describes the storm that hit so well. The film was unknown in all regards, actors, director, idea, marketing and success. Fifteen years ago today, it was released to become one of the, if not the, most profitable films ever. It also changed mass media more than media critics give it credit.

The 1999 shoe string budget film used the Internet and a savvy "is it real" marketing campaign. Viral marketing, "Frankenstein" styled frame story using primary documents; in this case, found video cameras, and using video or low quality film within the Hollywood production all start here (sorry Sex Lies and Videotape, your try did not stick). My mom thought it was real right up to opening weekend. This was early in the reality media explosion, and pushed the boundaries for how reality could be used and done right. People crave the intangible idea of authenticity because everything in American society is so phony. Blair Witch was real or at least well done manufactured reality. Just two months later, people bought whole the use of digital home video "footage" in American Beauty without complaining. There is no Paranormal Activity without this, no Snow on Da Bluff, no Cloverfield, no backstory false document movie websites without the Blair Witch. Alright, it would happen but later.

Was it scary? I lived in the woods, it scared me and my friends on opening night. Were production qualities poor and the camera too shaky? Yes and at times it was nauseatingly jiggly. Was an evil force in those woods messing with humans for decades and got to them? Does the legend drive susceptible people crazy? Were the locals toying with the students in a ritualistic killing? Did Josh just go insane and kill his friends? I lean towards an evil force infecting local(s) to protect the legend and kill the students. The cairns were made by someone, hurting the Josh goes nuts theory. The trio was being watched as they snatched Josh first. With all the focus on the method of storytelling, it is forgotten that it was a great mystery story.

This was a perfect storm for mass success. Right time and right idea. Students with good enough home equipment investigate a local legend and in their efforts become a bit of an urban legend. The "found" camera film is cliche fifteen years later, but was exciting then. Viral marketing and blurring the edges of reality in Hollywood are features in most marketed productions now. Hollywood destroyed the possibility of reality horror in the woods with a terrible sequel of Blair Witch. Hollywood horror has gone down a gross out porn, remakes and zombies path, but the woods will always be waiting.

Countless children's tales have the protagonist go into the woods because the woods is dark and full of danger both known and unknown. To borrow from Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns are far worse in the woods. We can build civilization but nature will always be waiting. Multiple times in the movie, the female lead jokes that they can't get lost in the woods in America. That is the statement of a cosmopolitan. It is also why the urban viewers did not grok The Blair Witch Project. Every rural teen who thinks they're big enough for that first trek alone will tell you that the first snap of a twig, the first "up close" surprise animal sighting and the first gust of wind all remind you that you are alone, small and the woods is large, dark and deep.


nikcrit said...

I remember beyond the straight-up movie reviews, side-stories galore being written about the effect Blair Witch had that summer. re. its box-office apeal, not to nitpik, but that film came nowhere close to 'biggest ever' tallies...

As to its influence and legacy; i think that was a one-time fluke; i consider it somewhat the spawning ediface and resulting icon that kicked off the personal/home/do-it-yourself media trend and market that has of course grown exponentially since then. nowadays, Blair Witch-like production is just stock DIY technique and such-styled product is all over youtube.

Basically, BW commenced what i consider one of the biggest and most unwieldy social quagmires of the 21st-century; trying to wrap ones head around the massive leveling of markets and aesthetics that the internet technology revolution spawned.

Culturally, socially, artistically ---- we're all now up to our necks in glut!

Son of Brock Landers said...

Thanks for the comment. Very true about do it yourself and the internet leveling things.

Most profitable in terms of % of profit. It was bought by the studio and marketed for like 500k and made over 200 mil.

peterike said...

Sondheim riffed quite brilliantly on "the woods" and what happens there in "Into the Woods," which is really quite amazing (if you can stand musicals) in how it looks at fairy tales and relates them to how children grow up, etc.

Into the woods,
It's time to go,
It may be all
In vain, I know.
Into the woods --
But even so,
I have to take the journey.

Anonymous said...

My brother found a youbube video that showed an alien in the woods.
It was so super scary! (not really)

Anonymous said...

I like to get drunk and hike through the last remaining local woods. The owl can be kind of scary but at least it isn't a big corn studded turd like Blair Witch.

the woodsman said...

Yes, the woods is a scary place. My most vivid childhood memory resulted from a coon hunting trip with my dad. I was around 8 or 9 years old. We were walking back to the truck on a remote bluff (eastern Iowa) when our hounds started barking "treed". It was a very windy late November night and we couldn't quite pin point where they were at due to the wind. I was quite tired from carrying all the coon and possum hides. Dad directed me to sit by a tree and covered me up with the hides to keep warm. I had a little flashlight.

Needless to say, it seemed like an eternity until dad returned! It was terrifying. My little flashlight was turned on at the sound of any twig breaking. The most terrifying part of it was the strong wind - I couldn't hear if anything was sneaking up on me. When the hounds ran up to me "out of the blue" I almost had a heart attack. It was a good character builder. I don't know if I would ever have the strength to leave one of my kids in a similar situation. Anyways, coon hunting is great fun and I heartily recommend everyone go at least once in their life with someone who has some good hounds.

nikcrit said...

Most profitable in terms of % of profit. It was bought by the studio and marketed for like 500k and made over 200 mil.

Yeah, i do recall that metric mentioned a lot, now that you mention it.
But in terms of pure, traditional box-office generation, it's been said that 'Titanic,' when considering global box office and post-theater-run revenue, eclipsed $1 billion ------ though that, too, may be a mix of accounting, mist and folklore....... actually, after the Star Wars trilogy, when the suits saw how purely profitable a vessel films could be, it became harder and harder to gather accurate figures on blockbusters, as they actually became too big to thoroughly control and account for. And nowadays, with piracy at the level its at, i'd bet that vagueness in accounting is more true than ever.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Cradle of Fear featuring the "singer" of English goth-fag band Cradle of Shit (Filth)?
It seems to mock Blair Witch in some parts and is very gory.
It did cure my insomnia so I guess it isn't totally worthless.

Anonymous said...

It's too bad cowboys didn't eat much pizza back in the Old West, because I think a good painting would be a cowboy giving his last slice to his horse. - Jack Handy

DCThrowback said...

Saw TBWP in Austin in '99 when it first came out and thought it was incredible. The end was amazing. What a movie!

Also watched Scream again on IFC last night. It came out the year before TBWP and I think changed horror more than the Blair Witch did. It acknowledged that the (SWPL) kids of today were smarter, yet still making the same dumb historical mistakes the earlier generation of horror movie victims did. "Won't get fooled again" my ass! Sounds like Kevin Williamson had his finger on the pulse of 2010s America to me. The idea of a vulture media being targeted was pretty great too, tbqh.

(Also, the first scene w/ Drew Barrymore on the phone is twelve minutes of cinematic excellence, especially as her parents are coming up the driveway. Nothing worse than the hope of a character surviving snatched away. Then the mom hears her dying on the phone...just great cinema.)

tonsplace said...

LOL, the woods don't scare me... marriage and city living now that's scary.

PA said...

Eddie Vetter does a tribute to his predecessor, doing a good job at "Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns."

Fucker never learns, does he? He spends the first two minutes of the video babbling about the money he donated to innah cittah keyds.

WTF. What is it with solidarity to people you have nothing in common with. Doesn't he know that (a) 1991 is long gone, and (b) there are tons of kids who look like he does in America, who need a leg up?

PS: II wrote earier, I love SOBL's Vetter posts from two years ago about how Vedder ruined rck. ... it's sad to see him keep at it.

argus said...

I grew up in the country but live in a big city now. When I visit home, the darkness at night always surprises me. Sometimes it even freaks me out. Without the exterior house lights on you can't see your hand in front of your face on a moonless night. In the city at night it may as well be noon--the sky is filled with the orange glow of light pollution. I can see how city kids might have had a difficult time understanding the horror of The Blair Witch.

PA said...

I did a family camping trip recently, in the mountains. We had a strong lightning storm one night. All was good, the tent held up just fine. The boys were woken up by the cracks of thunder, looked at mom and dad with a look of alarm on their faces, but saw that we weren't afraid and went back to sleep.

The flash of lightning through tent membrane lights up the space like car high beams. It's amazing how rich the sound of thunder is in the mountain forest.

Son of Brock Landers said...

PA - I saw vedder also spoke out on israel. Dude just shut up and play your hits from 20 years ago. When they had concerts before theyhad a huge catalogue to play,pearl jam would play tons of covers. Great who/neil young songs theyd play for encores.

I spent last week in Maine. As another commenter said, gets so drk you see the night sky proper. Seeing the milky way behind the stars is fantastic. Im at home in the woods but in my area, theres always a bit of danger out there. I grew up on the edge of a heath, which was known for swallowing up hunters who stepped the wrong way.

Anonymous said...

After I do a kegstand and tell everyone how awesome it is for the next 35 years I'm going to put on that bitchin' Pearl Jam album.
What a minute this just in...1991 called and said Pearl Jam sucks balls.
Yo have you seen my dave Matthews band collector's plate?

nikcrit said...

WTF. What is it with solidarity to people you have nothing in common with.

It's the universal urge or impulse to socially and physically transcend and gain communion. you possibly resent SWPL's such urges, cuz that's the class you once aspired to before gaining social and economic parity to it. it probably galled you as a American newbie to see swipples grant fealty to lower-class's in various moments inspiring, transitory, superficial and insipid ------ all depending on the attendant varying circumstances.

sidenote: not 100-percent sure, but i think it was in chicago, at an outdoor venue, in which pearl jam was performing and a drunken Dennis Rodman joined them onstage for a song or two for a semi-coherento co-lead vocal with Vedder... You simply had to be there, PA!!! lolzz.

PA said...

it probably galled you as a American newbie to see swipples grant fealty to lower-class NAMS

That's the funny thing about projecting one's assumptions on another's circumstances: it's a sure way to a get "NOPE! WRONG" answer.

When I came to the US in the early '80s, there was no such things as SWPLs, at least in my perception. Our sponsors (legal immigration requires a sponsor party who is responsible for the sponsored party not going on welfare during his first 10 years in-country) were a conservative Christian organization, to which as a whole I am grateful. Sadly, most of the key individuals have passed on, as they were older/retired thirty years ago.

I had no cognizance back then of any proto-SWPL solicitousness or exaltation of blacks. The reason antics like Vedder's gall me is because they are insincere vanity jerkoff sessions.

pearl jam was performing and a drunken Dennis Rodman joined them onstage for a song or two for a semi-coherento co-lead vocal with Vedder...

I can imagine that Vedder shrunk like a little bitch next to Rodman. I never saw him live, but I caught a couple of his fairly recent duets with other singers on Youtube. Vedder was a beta in body language with Roger Waters, and even with that little twink Michael Stype.

All that aside, "Ten" is musically one of the best albums in Rock history.

nikcrit said...


Not to persist on thread tangent, but i couldn't resist; this, PA, may be the last straw in your PJ loyalism.....

I guess what i saw in chi, i believe it was either the old Commiskey park or the area ampitheater, Tinley Park, was a fairly common hipster-to-bro interlude during PJ concerts in the late 90s.

Checkout the two from about the 3:15 point.