Thanks in part to the ineptitude of the bulk of latter-day “found footage” movies, it is easy to heap derision on Ghostwatch and The Blair Witch Project, two movies that in many ways pioneered the genre. In the latter case, the fact that it became such a phenomenal cultural touchstone in 1999 also meant that it achieved the level of being openly mocked for its few flaws, parodied to oblivion, and judged in the light of the unattainably high hype it had garnered. Ghostwatch, a BBC Halloween special shown in 1992, suffered the opposite problem as the controversy surrounding its release simultaneously increased its notoriety while also making it extremely hard to see (my all-region DVD player coming to my rescue in my case).
In any case revisiting these movies decades after they were released and after a glut of sub-par found-footage horror films in their wake reveal that each was revolutionary in their own way, and pretty terrifying to boot.
Note: Double Feature posts are where I pair a couple of movies that I think make for a great long-night in with some thematic similarity tying them together. Since these are usually pretty old movies, my discussions will be very SPOILER-heavy. So if you haven’t seen any of the movies mentioned, go watch them first. Consider yourself warned.
DOUBLE FEATURE TIE-IN: Early ’90s ghost stories using the veneer of reality to terrify viewers (The “events” of The Blair Witch Project purportedly happen in 1994).
GHOSTWATCH (1992) dir. Lesley Manning
From the moment this faux-documentary opens, it is steeped in verisimilitude not the least because of how painfully boring the concept is. The idea that on Halloween night a bunch of BBC news and entertainment personalities hosting a live-TV investigation of a haunted house sounds so much like the BBC scraping the bottom-of-the-barrel for content, that you immediately accept this is exactly something the BBC might put on the fill the network’s time. And the true genius of the movie is that for two-thirds of Ghostwatch‘s runtime it plays out exactly like a dull BBC special meant to occupy the minimum amount of your attention on Halloween night.
The movie is split between two locations: the first being the studio itself, where real-life BBC newscaster Michael Parkinson holds court with a perfect mixture of dignity and annoyance, as if the whole night is slightly beneath him. Joining him is fellow presenter Mike Smith who is tasked with supervising the phone lines (of which there was an absolutely legitimate phone-line for viewers to call-in) and Dr. Pascoe (Gillian Bevan), a paranormal expert who is meant to provide some explanations for the night’s possible proceedings. The second location is at the Early residence, the haunted house in question, where Sarah Greene, a children’s program presenter (and Mike Smith’s real-life wife), is spending the night with the Early children in hopes of capturing some form of paranormal phenomena. Meanwhile outside the residence BBC DJ Craig Charles plays the goofball, pumping up the crowd outside the residence and refusing to take any of this seriously.
All five of these performances are crucial, because at the first sign that any of this is being acted and the illusion is broken. And so it is with astonishment that the first hour of this movie passes by looking so very much like a telethon special. Parkinson in particular impresses as he seamlessly fits into his newscaster persona, showing a remarkable level of self-awareness as he brings gravitas to the narrative parts of the segment and then switches to incredulous annoyance, especially when finding it difficult to swallow Dr. Pascoe’s explanation for innocuous occurrences. Greene meanwhile evokes her role as a children’s presenter, immediately making the Early children comfortable in her presence as in the early part of the night they engage she sets up an apple bobbing game or creates some art with the kids. Her bubbly personality perks up the broadcast whenever she appears, and even though she is clearly performing, it is in her role she inhabits on the BBC as the cool big sister to British kids.
Most of the first hour of the “special” involves setting up the paranormal observance they hope to capture. There is the requisite backstory segment in which Dr. Pascoe details all the strange goings-on in the Early household to make them a prime candidate for this TV special. Then Sarah Greene details all the equipment used in the house to detect the paranormal, from the state-of-the-art audio equipment to devices like motion sensors and heat detectors. Outside Craig Charles drums up excitement with the crowd, and Mike Smith is employed frequently whenever there is a spot of dead air in the program. To say that the production values are not great is an understatement. But again, that is the genius of Ghostwatch in that it looks exactly like any other live broadcast you’ve seen. It’s shot on video, so the entire movie has that too-crisp look associated with British television. Very often Parkinson will introduce a segment, only for the tape to take too long to play or have the audio cut out, and we have to see Parkinson scramble to try and cue up the next segment. Anybody who has seen a newscast in their life knows the awkwardness that comes hand-in-hand with live broadcasts; that Lesley Manning has these moments organically written into the movie goes a long way in making the viewer gullible into thinking that what they are watching is real.
For fifty minutes things are moving along so realistically and lifelessly that my instincts told me to reach for my metaphorical remote to find any interesting programming out there, so when things start to go strange it isn’t hard to sit up and take notice. And then things shift from strange to terrifying in a hurry.
Part of why the final third of the movie works so well is because like the erroneous story of the slowly boiling frog, the opening 50 minutes’ boringness is punctuated by moments of strangeness. First there are the aforementioned technical hiccups such as viewer calls being cut out, or prepared segments not playing like they should. Again, since these are typical hiccups for a live broadcast, nothing seems amiss. When the phone calls do come in, there is an unmistakable strangeness about the contents of these calls as well. The first caller talks about some poltergeist activity happening in his house right now, something that Parkinson easily dismisses as a prank call. But then as more and more of these calls come in, doubts slowly start to creep in that the calls may not be a prank after all.
And then there is Pipes, the ghost at the center of this story. Throughout the “broadcast” Pipes haunts around the periphery as the movie teasingly chooses to reveal hardly any information about who he is. But as the slow drip of information about who he could possibly be creeps in, it becomes increasingly clear that Pipes is not someone we would want to meet if he were alive, let alone in ethereal form. With every new revelation it becomes clear that Sarah and the Early girls might be putting themselves in serious danger by staying in the house, especially once the action suddenly ramps up.
The final stroke of genius is the incredible restraint Manning shows in revealing the paranormal happenings going on in the house. Pipes is seen multiple times throughout the broadcast, a chilling vision of a burly man covered in blood, but always in a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” kind of way, sowing just the right amount of doubt into proceedings. When bangs and thumps start to go off in the house, twice our fears are assuaged because it turns out to be a hoax (first because of a Craig Charles prank, and second when the eldest Early girl tries to manufacture some drama in an increasingly boring broadcast) thereby satisfying our initial instincts to disbelieve anything we see onscreen. In lowering our defenses by proving that the cheap scares are, in fact, cheap scares Ghostwatch finds us ready to believe when the slightly more unexplainable happens.
These peripheral strange details all come to roost in the finale, when the movie quickly descends from sleepy Halloween-night broadcast into true terror. Far be it from me to spoil this final act, but it is no surprise that the movie ended up garnering so many complaints from the public because so many of them got duped into thinking it was real. If there is any fault in watching Ghostwatch today it is in knowing that an audience could never be fooled today by a stunt like this. Ghostwatch in many ways is a case of all the right things coalescing at the same time and the movie capitalizing on that. The advances in tech made creating a ghost in a movie easier than ever, but before wizened and cynical audiences caught on to new tricks. The fact that Ghostwatch existed on a television landscape where there were much fewer choices, meaning less competition for eyeballs, meant that the BBC could get away with a seemingly boring telethon and still count on a bunch of the country to tune in; our modern media today could not be more different. And while one might hope that the presence of Twitter and other social media could have possibly enhanced the original viewing experience, chances are that Twitter would’ve instantly pointed out the hoax (probably by revealing that the haunted house sections were filmed months ago on their street).
While all this means that watching Ghostwatch today cannot have the same power it did in 1992, it does not mean that Ghostwatch is not an excellent piece of entertainment. It is remarkable for the way it subverts our expectations of a newscast to manipulate our emotions, and noteworthy for the many ways it pioneered the “found footage horror” genre. The inundation of other “reality” shows purporting to hunt down and prove the existence of ghosts that have oversaturated the market (and seems to be the Travel Channel’s business model) may sour our taste for “ghost watches” don’t be fooled; the original still holds most of its terrifying power.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) dirs. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
There is a key question that proves to be a potent stumbling block for many found footage movies, namely “why are you still filming this?”. Both in Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity that question gets answered “because the guy filming is a jerk and completely oblivious,” thus forfeiting both the movies’ great concepts from translating into great films. The difficulty with which other found footage movies have in answering that question goes to show what a brilliant piece of filmmaking The Blair Witch Project is, as it leaves little doubt in the viewer both why the footage was shot and the contents of what was shot. But we will get to that later.
Before we talk about Blair Witch the movie, we have to talk about Blair Witch the social phenomena. With the internet still in its infancy, Blair Witch revolutionized movie marketing by providing the world with a website that fed directly into the interests of a burgeoning community of message board users. The website, purporting to be the real website of the movie’s fictional filmmakers, details the story of the Blair Witch which such believable precision that it is not hard to see why so many thought it was an actual urban legend. It also provides a slew of information about the disappearance of the filmmakers, including supposed police evidence videos, news reports, and audio files of some of the recovered tapes. To the new users of the internet, who were dying to explore its unknown depths, this website was precisely the kind of treasure we hoped to stumble upon; talking about this website among my circle of friends was almost as fun as watching the movie itself.
Taken on its own terms, The Blair Witch Project is an amazingly innovative movie whose power and terror comes from the fact that it is a startlingly frank portrait of human misery. The movie begins innocuous enough as it follows college students Heather, Josh, and Mike as they collect stories from the locals about the Blair Witch for their documentary (having the trio use their real names is a great touch blurring reality from fiction). The locals employed to regale stories are a great example of amateur acting, as they are literally plucked from the local town and convincingly tell us their stories about a made-up urban legend as if it has always been a part of their town’s history (they did such a convincing job that for the next few years the sleepy town had to turn away hordes of would-be witch-hunters trying to convince them that the story was pure fiction). When I first watched Blair Witch I knew for certain that the story was entirely fictional, but this opening scene did so much to sow doubt in me that I spent the rest of the movie in uncertain ease.
After this opening, the trio head into the woods and their journey starts of innocuous enough. The actors were given minimal direction as to what to do; apparently they were often just given a GPS location to travel to and when they got there they got their next packet giving them a sketch of what their next few scenes should look like as they travel to their next GPS location. And like any beginning of a hike, this first phase of the journey is filled with giddy optimism; crucially this is also when we get to know our main characters. Heather as the director of the movie comes across as eager, optimistic, and slightly bossy, seeing this Blair Witch movie as her big break and wanting it to go successfully. Josh is cocky, confident, and the seemingly humorous one, a friend of Heather’s and at least at the beginning hints at possibly being romantically interested in Heather. Only Mike, the sound guy, is the relative stranger of the group, recruited for his skills and thus a little bit more subdued. This isn’t a close-knit group of old friends, instead they are at best work friends; a crucial detail for when things go south.
The raw footage was shot using two types of cameras, a crucial small detail that explains the depth of thought directors Myrick and Sanchez put into making sure that the illusion of reality is not broken. The black-and-white shots were done with a typical 16-mm film camera, and if you look closely it is these shots that seem the most cinematic because they were obviously the footage that was meant to be used for the documentary. The second camera, an 8-mm VHS camera, was used primarily to record audio and to serve as an informal video-diary of the trio’s trek into the woods. And so it is no surprise that while the black-and-white shots show some sort of artistry, the VHS footage is horrible. The footage is frequently badly framed, probably because they were more concerned with capturing the audio than any images. And the VHS footage is more indulgent because it was never meant to be seen by anyone except perhaps the trio and their friends. This might make the footage seem more aimless and make the protagonists a little annoying to watch, but that is entirely by design; the VHS footage looks and feels like something a bunch of college students would shoot on a weekend in the woods, and thus the illusion that this incident is somehow real is maintained. Meanwhile the cinematic footage gives us narrative hooks to keep the story chugging along.
Almost immediately things start to go wrong for the crew, first in ways that seem innocuous and annoying. On their second night in the woods they start to hear noises outside their tents, and then find themselves unable to find the trail to the car the next day. At this juncture Mike is the most perturbed as it looks like he is going to miss his classes the next day. It is only on the morning of the third day, when three stone altars have been erected around their camp and their map is missing that they begin to realize that something may indeed be stalking them in the woods and panic begins to set in. Of course this is a typical trope in found footage movies where normalcy quickly devolves into chaos, but what sets The Blair Witch Project apart is that its scares are derived entirely by concealing its secrets. The trio stumble upon burial grounds with altars, sections of forest where creepy stick figures populate the trees, and are continually terrorized at night by things unseen in the dark. And yet from the beginning of the movie through the end, they remain clueless as to what is going on; we do as well. And not knowing, it turns out, is much more terrifying than the alternative.
Watching Blair Witch with an audience was a terrifying experience because you could feel the collective anxiety build in the room with each coming nightfall; people screamed simply as a form of release from the unbearable tension. While watching Blair Witch alone this time robbed the movie of its anxiety-building power, it also gave me a greater appreciation for just how well acted it is. All three perfectly project how their characters should act under duress. Josh, the joker of the group, obviously uses humor as a shield and when that fails him breaks down the first. Mike’s silence meanwhile speaks volumes; his impending panic being staved by simply pressing forward. But Heather’s performance is the one that stands out for a reason. The frequent complaint coming out of the movie’s success was that Heather was shrill, bossy, and unlikable; the veiled sexism behind that sentiment seems obvious today. But the fact is that Heather, the de-facto leader of the group, acts precisely the way any person lost in the woods and stalked by a paranormal force would act. She forcefully has to carrell an increasingly useless Josh while also trying to keep Mike on task and not break down herself. Her now famous video confessional is powerful because it is a portrait of raw emotion, something that is easily mockable when watching in a group as a way of deflection but becomes claustrophobically inescapable when viewed alone.
Most importantly the strength of their acting and the honesty of their emotions also convinces you as to why they keep filming. As things keep descending more and more into horrific chaos, their skills as filmmakers increasingly become one of the few things they have some modicum of control over. They keep filming because it is a way of survival, an anchoring and centering act that keeps them from going mad. As long as the camera keeps running, they have the belief that they will inevitably survive their horrors; it is no coincidence that their hope fails the same time the cameras do.
In retrospect, it is easy to understand why this movie ended up being the first viral hit of the internet age, how could it not? Unfortunately the fact that it was a massive hit also turned out to be a double-edged sword, as the movie’s enormous popularity gave it an instant awareness in mainstream culture (in comparison, in 2019 dollars it would currently be the seventh highest grosser of the year behind the Aladdin remake and in front of It: Chapter Two). Since it was made for less than $60,000 it earned the mark of being the most successful indie movie of all time but that also made it instantly mockable as its scariest and most earnest moments got turned into punchlines for jokes and satirized beyond recognition. I often wonder what would have happened if it the movie had been a $15-20 million hit rather than the $250 global behemoth that it turned out to be, as it could have then maintained its rightful status as a cult hit rather than becoming an oversaturated meme.
The Blair Witch Project ★★★★