Thursday, January 29, 2015

This Halloween, revisit two 1999 films that changed horror forever

Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project Lionsgate

By almost any estimation, the weekend at the movies that kicked off on this date 15 years ago was a terrific one, a bit of a sigh of relief in a long, weird movie summer.

The releases of the summer of 1999 are largely all over the place — Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut rests uneasily against films like American Pie — but they reflect, simultaneously, how much more daring Hollywood studios were when it came to prime real estate even a decade-and-a-half ago and how much everybody in the industry cowered in anticipation of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace being the be-all and end-all of the year's box office.

The weekend of August 6 through 8, 1999, however, launched any number of fascinating new releases. There was cult comedy Mystery Men to skewer a superhero movie trend that hadn't even begun yet, or you could dart over to the screen next door for The Thomas Crown Affair, an enjoyably adult, sexy remake of an art heist film.

The wacky political satire of Dick suggested a world where teen comedies could somehow cross-pollinate with Richard Nixon takedowns, while The Iron Giant is one of the finest American movies ever made. (Both of these latter two movies bombed. Fortunately, people caught up with Iron Giant on home video.)

But in the first weekend of August 1999, one of the last genuine sleeper mega-hits debuted. It would go on to make nearly $300 million and be nominated for six Oscars (including Best Picture). It would launch a catchphrase and a director, who would forever be haunted by its success.

Its name was The Sixth Sense, and what almost everybody forgets was that its pump had been primed by another movie, which had been rolling out slowly around the country in the weeks before, a weird little horror film about some kids lost in the woods called The Blair Witch Project.

And in some ways, horror films are still dealing with the legacy of that one weekend, when the Bruce Willis ghost story narrowly edged out the indie terror fest.


These creepy stick figures were a major part of The Blair Witch Project's horror.

Reviving horror

The largest, most obvious legacy of The Blair Witch Project has been the rise of found-footage horror films, shot to look like documentaries and constructed as if they've kept just enough of the boring bits to make the scary parts really scary. (The second-most influential thing about the film is probably that shot of the character Heather apologizing profusely straight into camera, accidentally framed so it only captures the top half of her head. It's impossible to count how many times that scene has been ripped off and parodied.)

Blair Witch wasn't the first horror film to be shot in this style. (Cannibal Holocaust, for instance, leaps to mind.) But after it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival — and proved to be one of the fest's biggest sensations — Blair Witch's story was unstoppable.

The fact that directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez had actually dragged their cast of three into the woods, then attempted to legitimately scare them by startling them at random intervals and keeping traditional direction to a minimum, made for great copy. It was proof of directors overcoming budgetary limitations through sheer creativity. The film ended up on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, and it was staggeringly successful in limited release, including a weekend when it made nearly $30 million on just 1,101 screens. (That same weekend, Runaway Bride made $35 million but had to be on over 3,000 screens to do so.)

What's hard to remember now about Blair Witch, especially as it's become all too easy to make fun of it for, say, launching a truly terrible sequel, is just how much of the story about the film was all of the material surrounding the film. The onslaught of Blair Witch content became inescapable throughout July of 1999, as distributor Artisan (since folded into Lionsgate) worked to reach potential viewers through a Sci-Fi Channel documentary, promotional tie-in book, and innovative for the time website. (The movie's "franchise" would later expand to include video games as well.)

Horror wasn't in a great place in 1999, when the genre had mostly succumbed to a bunch of Scream clones. Artisan's plan to elevate Blair Witch from the arch sensibility of those movies and make it seem like the genuine article also ended up looking a lot like a modern fiction form: the creepypasta.


The famous conclusion of The Blair Witch Project.

The original creepypasta

Creepypasta, which briefly had a moment in the limelight in the wake of two Wisconsin teenagers allegedly stabbing their friend after reading scary stories online, is an online story that exists primarily to terrify. It tends to proliferate on the same-titled Wiki, as well as on Reddit sites like NoSleep. In many ways, it's just another permutation of campfire ghost stories or urban legends.

But poke a little more at creepypasta, and it starts to look an awful lot like Blair Witch. Sites like NoSleep don't just predicate their stories on the idea that they are true; they insist they literally are true. Horror is always scarier if it seems like it might really be happening, so creepypasta exploits both the weird ability of the Internet to make anything seem plausible and the useful tension of the reader's brain knowing something is bullshit while still half believing in it anyway. Authors like Dathan Auerbach (who wrote the horrifying Penpal) have even been able to ride that tension all the way to self-published novels of their work.

But Blair Witch did both of these things, too, and it arguably got there first. The website Artisan cooked up for the film was the first sight many had of the project, and its stripped-down aesthetic gave no indication that the film it was promoting was fictional. Yes, the brain insisted that it would have been hard for three filmmakers to disappear in the Maryland woods because they'd been consumed by a ghost witch without a media frenzy, but the site — state of the art for the time — felt just official enough to not set off alarms.

Artisan exploited this real/not real divide for all it was worth that summer. Yes, if pressed, the studio would grudgingly admit the film wasn't real. But it really hoped potential viewers would think it was. The mythology surrounding the titular witch that the directors came up with felt so tangible and plausible, like a small-town horror tale glanced barely out of one's peripheral vision. The tie-in book and Sci-Fi promotional show were pitched at the tone of Unsolved Mysteries or In Search Of, infotainment aiming to playfully deceive.

The Blair Witch didn't actually exist. But the promotional materials seemed aimed at getting viewers' collective unconscious to make her real. And particularly when combined with the film's Internet presence, the campaign created an appetite for untrue truths that the ‘net was particularly well-suited to sate. Want to read more about the Blair Witch? Just click on the links. Want to tell your own stories about her? Well, why not. Want to create your own monsters? All the same, really.

See, the thing this campaign was ultimately designed to hide was that it was supporting an independent film, one that made unconventional story decisions and ended in hopelessly grim fashion (even if that hopelessness was plastered all over the campaign). Blair Witch was a huge, huge success, but it also tended to run out of steam as it added theaters. When it doubled its screen count heading into the weekend of August 6, 1999, it actually fell slightly at the box office.

The idea of Blair Witch, as it turned out, was ultimately far scarier than anything the film could sell. The unconventional nature of its narrative made Blair Witch stronger as a film, but it also ultimately flummoxed the portion of the audience that wanted something more concrete.

Fortunately, The Sixth Sense was right there to scoop up any viewers who wanted to be scared within the confines of conventional narrative.


Haley Joel Osment (left) and Bruce Willis star in The Sixth Sense.

Lost potential

If Scream had reignited the taste for horror and Blair Witch had suggested one end of the genre's spectrum, then The Sixth Sense was the other end. (Hollywood also released the Haunting remake that summer, which is terrible but a sort of big-budget horror dead end. There aren't a lot of movies like this anymore.)

The Sixth Sense is a very good film, but it's also a very traditional piece of Hollywood storytelling. Everything about it is wrapped up neatly at the end. The scares come when they're supposed to. The twist ending (still the most famous thing about it) is designed precisely to make viewers re-examine what came before — and hopefully buy more tickets to see it another time. It had a big star and glossy direction and a script where the plot and character arcs neatly intertwined, so both reached their apex in the last 10 minutes.

Look at the film today, beyond the twist and beyond "I see dead people," and what the movie suggests, more than anything, is a stream of lost potential. The most obvious example of this is the film's director and screenwriter, M. Night Shyamalan, whose career briefly took off in the wake of the movie's release (he, too, would be featured on the cover of Newsweek, three years later, proclaimed as "the next Spielberg"), then precipitously declined afterward. So much excitement surrounded Shyamalan at that time, including Oscar nominations for his direction and script, that it has made his decline ever since all the more disappointing.

But it's not just Shyamalan who suggests the lost potential of the film. Haley Joel Osment is crafting out an interesting career as a character actor in his adulthood, but he'll forever be marked by his stunning (Oscar-nominated) turn here. Olivia Williams and Toni Collette are both terrific here, but have rarely been served as well by Hollywood. Even bit player Mischa Barton (as the ghost who scares Osment's character in the film's creepiest scene) is a reminder of how many of the film's cast members have struggled in its wake. To be sure, star Bruce Willis has maintained a respectable career since the film's release, but he's no longer a top box-office draw.

Most of all, though, The Sixth Sense suggests that we now live in a world where it probably wouldn't be made, at least not with this level of craft and budgetary support. The film doesn't fit in a neat box. It has scary sequences, and it's a ghost story on some level. But it's primarily a family drama, about two broken families trying to reassemble themselves. The biggest ghost in the film, for instance, is the no-longer-present father of Osment's character, who's not even dead. Shyamalan's canniest move is to make the things haunting the characters rarely be actual ghosts but, instead, past failures and sorrows.

The Sixth Sense has unfairly been lumped in with some of Shyamalan's later films as a movie that only exists to prop up its twist. But to watch it in 2014 is to be haunted, anew, by how thoroughly the existence of that twist derailed Shyamalan's career. (Case in point: Imagine a version of his 2004 film The Village wherein the twist is revealed fairly early on. It becomes both a much better film and a powerful post-Sept. 11 story, qualities Shyamalan tried to bestow on the rest of the film retroactively in a way that didn't work.) The children of Blair Witch are many, but the children of Sixth Sense are mostly a bunch of films that shoehorned in twists that didn't make any sense whatsoever, rather than films that wedded intelligent family drama to genre trappings.

Or maybe the true legacy of Sixth Sense was in being the polar opposite of Blair Witch, in being there to scoop up all of those who'd been primed for horror by the Blair Witch hype machine. The success of the film was one of the biggest surprises of its era, but between it and Blair Witch, Hollywood had a pretty good idea of where to take horror in the future.

Now, the genre is big business but it's also a place that allows for the low-key experimentation of things like Mama and Paranormal Activity, right alongside the old-fashioned chillers like The Conjuring. It's the one genre that still allows for this sort of breadth of approach at the big studios, and maybe we have these two films to thank for that. Sometimes, a movie doesn't have to be groundbreaking. Sometimes, it just has to draw up a perimeter for everybody else to play in. In their own, opposite ways, both Sixth Sense and Blair Witch did just that.

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