Tuesday, October 29, 2013

15 Days Until Halloween - The Blair Witch Project & Paranormal Activity

I remember when I first saw The Blair Witch Project.

I was working at Walt Disney Studios, and a guy I worked with had gotten a copy.  I have no idea how he came by it, a grainy copy of a copy of a copy of the film that had made a tremendous impact at Sundance.

The film was not due to hit theaters for months, but here it was, my own personal copy in hand (which made it an extra grainy copy of a copy of a copy of a copy).

I remember first seeing the trailer at The Nuart Theater.  I don't even remember what the movie was that I was going to see, but I remember the trailer.

And I remember the listing for the website at the end, something that I had never seen on a trailer before.

The Blair Witch Project was really the first film to use viral marketing on a grand scale, and the now infamous website depicted the MISSING poster for the three protagonists, with a summary of how the footage was unearthed.

I got together with a bunch of friends, and we watched the film.  I said then, and I still hold by it today, that it was one of the most frightening experiences I've ever had watching a movie.

I still think it's a great film, but you have to consider something: when I first saw it, it was months from a theatrical release.  The movie was not on the cover of Newsweek.  Heather, Mike, and Josh were not yet on The Tonight Show.

Specifically, the backlash had not yet begun.  The one instigated by moviegoers who felt "duped".  The movie wasn't real, as advertised, but fake.

Yes, the movie was a phenomenal success -- but all the acclaim couldn't subdue the cultural attitude that followed.  The film was mocked, the actors ridiculed (most of whom never really worked again).  The "found-footage"format was tirelessly assailed as cheap and amateur.

So I'm glad I got to see it well beforehand, while the movie, and all involved were still a complete mystery to me.

But the thing about that format -- was that it couldn't be duplicated without being seen as an obvious rip-off.  After Halloween, a series of imitators sprang up.  You know them well, all the slashers inspired by Carpenter's film, that managed to completely ignore all the things that made Halloween work so well; instead opting to go to Blood & Tits route.  But even though the rip-offs were exactly that, they had the execution of the traditional narrative to conceal their theft.  Friday the 13th looked and sounded just like Halloween, as well as every other movie that preceded them.

If you tried to rip-off The Blair Witch Project, by way of another found-footage story, you couldn't even try to pretend you were doing anything other than cashing in on its success.  While The Blair Witch Project was not the first film to use a mockumentary style, it had been quite a while since it had been used, let alone in a film that had such mainstream exposure.

Ten years later…

…I'm working on Star Trek, when the production company gets a hold of a film that Paramount had just acquired.  The folks in the office knew that I was a horror fan, and suggested I take a look at it.

So I did.

And again, months and months before it hit theaters, I popped a copy of Paranormal Activity into my DVD player.

And again, I had the shit scared out of me.

But an interesting thing happened.

In the ten years since The Blair Witch Project, and undoubtedly aware of the aftermath of the film's release, the powers that be made a crucial decision.  Yes, Paranormal Activity would be billed as found-footage, but they were going to right upfront about the fact that it was fake.  Hell, they were going to take it one further -- by explaining how Oren Peli had crafted a damn scary movie for a mere few thousand bucks.

And like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity was a huge success.

But unlike The Blair Witch Project, there were soon a spawn of imitators.  For reasons I don't completely understand, the found-footage format took off, a style that has practically consumed the genre -- so much so that now a traditional narrative horror film is seen as somewhat "bucking the trend".

I think both films are great.

The Blair Witch Project made me scared to go into the woods ever again.  I grew up across the street from a nature preserve that had once been a tuberculosis sanitarium (true fucking story).  The buildings (haunted, no doubt) were surrounded by an expanse of woods.  This wasn't the suburbs.  It was right there in the city of Chicago, and I realized early on when exploring it as a kid, that it was highly possible to get lost for good in a space surrounded on all sides by major city streets.

Paranormal Activity did something even more inventive.  It brought the terror into your own home -- right into your bedroom.

I've talked about what I think are the two types of horror -- Lost in the Dark Forest, and the Invasion of the Home.

The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are literally a defining example of each one, and I think are two of the most frightening films ever imagined.

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