Buried now under so many years of bad found footage movies and viral marketing gimmicks, it’s easy to forget that in 1999, The Blair Witch Project was a scary sensation for good reason: it was creepy and frightening on a brilliantly primal level. It may be impossible now to view that film without the baggage nearly twenty years have added, but the main complaint from the naysayers is usually “it’s not scary…nothing happens!”
Director Adam Wingard hears you, and he has something for you.
Wingard’s Blair Witch began last year with the unassuming title The Woods, before unveiling itself as a BWP sequel (Book of Shadows is wisely ignored) a few months back. Repeating the genius of the original film’s “is it real?” firestorm wasn’t going to happen, but this rope-a-dope title switch was an early sign of Wingard’s solid instincts for both limitation and opportunity.
Remember poor Heather from BWP? Her brother James (James Allen McCune) thinks he glimpses her in a strange online video, so he tracks down the poster, Lane (Wes Robinson). Lane says he found the tape while hiking in the Black Hills Forest, the same area in Maryland where Heather, Mike and Josh went missing years before.
James’s friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) is the budding documentarian this time, so along with friends Ashley (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott), they head into the forest, filming their search for the mysterious house deep inside it where, hopefully, Heather can still be found.
Wingard (You’re Next) and usual screenwriter Simon Barrett know we know some of what’s coming, so they serve it up. Strange noises at night, twigs, and piles of stones are all here (which, if this is the same witch at work, they should be) but we also get an eerie expansion of the ways time and space seem to break down inside the forest.
There are plenty more jump scares, too, and then a sly acknowledgement that this device can quickly grow tiresome, before it’s on to the main event. The tension, naturally, doesn’t feel as tight as when we first went into these woods, but Wingard, as he did with the film’s “fake” title, is confidently exploiting his chance to bring our guard down.
Once inside the house, things most definitely happen, and it’s a helluva fun ride.
The pace becomes almost breakneck, and as the point of view is mainly through a video camera, we’re scanning all corners of the screen for a light source, a way out, someone standing in the corner..or worse.
And if you have one certain phobia, expect to squirm plenty.
Blair Witch is Wingard and Barrett’s most complete film, because it understands why the original Project was scary, and how to honor that horror legacy while turning the action up a notch.
It is the most tired and tiresome of all horror film gimmicks, but are there worthwhile found footage movies to be celebrated? Or are they all simply the result of an inexpensive narrative device that allows for sloppy filmmaking and weak production values? Well, we did the research and found that there are many worthwhile offerings in this field. Yes, the bad outnumber the good 10 – 1, but there are good ones. Here are our five (OK – 6!) favorites.
All ancient cultures generated fairy tales. They passed on stories that wrapped the virtues most respected at the time inside common dangers to tell tales of heroism and humor. Norway’s fairy tales all involve trolls. Indeed, their entire national culture seems weirdly identified with trolls. Why is that? Well, writer/director Andre Ovredal’s Trollhunter suggests that maybe it’s because trolls are a real problem up there.
Ovredal’s approach is wry and silly – adjectives that rarely hang out together, but maybe we haven’t seen enough of Norway’s cinematic output. The FX are sometimes wonderful, and especially effective given the otherwise verite, documentary style. Ovredal makes droll use of both approaches.
Trollhunter is definitely more comedy than horror, as at no time does the film actually seek to scare you. It’s a wild ride into a foreign culture, though, and it makes you think twice about the Norway section of Epcot, I’ll tell you what.
5. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Paranormal Activity, or The Little Ghost Story That Could, opened on a handful of screens in just a few cities around the country for midnight weekend shows only. All screenings promptly sold out. Powerful word-of-mouth and an aggressive marketing campaign propelled the modest flick into multiplexes worldwide. Why the hubbub? Well, for those patient enough to let it seep in – for those who do not require a jump, a slash, or a violent act in every fifth frame – Paranormal Activity is an effective, creepy little production.
A classic ghost story, the film evolves Blair Witch-style, as a couple pestered by something spectral begin cataloguing incidents with a night vision camera. The entire film consists solely of the video footage, tracking about three weeks’ worth of rising tension, most of it captured in the couple’s bedroom while they sleep.
The couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) is annoyingly believable in their pensions for doing the wrong thing simply to cater to each other’s insecurities. This, and the simplicity in the filmmaking – limited effects, incredibly limited cast and sets, minimal backstory – create an unnerving air of authenticity. The cam-corder timestamp rolls quickly forward, providing shorthand imaging of the couple sleeping, then slows to real time tracking just as something is about to happen. This repetitive gimmick proves so succinct and effective that dread begins to build while still fast forwarding. By the time the clock slows, half the audience is holding its breath.
4. The Last Horror Movie (2003)
A clever concept handled very craftily, The Last Horror Movie is found footage in that we, the audience, have found it recorded over the VHS tape we are apparently watching. What serial killer Max (a top notch Kevin Howarth) has done, you see, is made a documentary of his ghastly habits and shared them with an audience that’s shown, by virtue of the movie it intended to rent just now, its predeliction for someting grisly.
There’s a lot of “yes, I’m a bad person, but aren’t you, too” posturing going on, and while it is an idea to chew on, it nearly outlives its welcome by the time Max applies his theory to concrete action. It’s an idea explored masterfully by Michael Haneke in 1997 (and again, ten years later) with Funny Games, and by comparison, The Last Horror Movie feels a bit superficial. (Not a huge criticism – few could withstand a comparison to Michael Haneke.)
But director Julian Richards deserves immense credit for subverting expectations throughout the film. Just when we assume we’re seeing a predator anticipating the pounce – just when we’re perhaps feeling eager to see someone victimized – the film makes a hard right turn. In doing this, Richards not only manages to keep the entire film feeling fresh and unpredictable, but he enlightens us to the ugliness of our own horror movie fascinations.
3. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Oh, Belgium. How we do love your horror output. In a bit of meta-filmmaking, Man Bites Dog is a pseudo-documentary made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. It is about a documentary being made on a shoestring budget by struggling, young filmmakers. The subject of the documentary is the charismatic Ben – serial killer, narcissist, poet, racist, architecture enthusiast, misogynist, bird lover.
There’s more than what appears on the surface of this cynical, black comedy. The film crew starts out as dispassionate observers of Ben’s crimes – which is certainly morally questionable to begin with. Eventually their commitment to the project, fear of retaliation, bloodlust, or sense of camaraderie pushes them toward aiding Ben, and then finally, to committing heinous crimes themselves.
It’s a bitter view of their chosen industry, and – much like The Last Horror Movie – a bit of a condemnation of the viewer as well. The fact that much of the decidedly grisly content is played for laughter makes it that much more unsettling.
2. [REC] (2007)
[Rec] shares one cameraman’s footage of the night he and a reporter tagged along with a local fire department. The small news crew and two firefighters respond to a call from an urban apartment building. An elderly woman, locked inside her flat, has been screaming. Two officers are already on the scene. Bad, bad things will happen.
Just about the time the first responders realize they’re screwed, the building is completely sealed off from the outside by government forces. Power to the building is cut, leaving everyone without cell reception, cable, and finally, light. Suddenly we’re trapped inside the building with about fifteen people, some of them ill, some of them bleeding, some of them biting.
Filmmakers Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza make excellent use of their found footage approach, first by way of the news report, then because of the need to use the camera to see once power’s been cut. They play the claustrophobic nature of the quarantine to excellent effect, creating a kind of funhouse of horror that refuses to let you relax. The American reboot Quarantine is another excellent choice, but our vote has to go with the original.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
BW is, of course, the now famous instigator of the found footage movement. Yes, Cannibal Holocaust was the first film to use the found footage conceit, but a) it sucked, and b) it didn’t show the audience this footage exclusively. Cannibal Holocaust built a narrative around the film canisters, and then looked at them. One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that the filmmakers made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people.
Between the novelty of the found footage approach and the also novel use of viral marketing, the film drew a huge audience of people who believed they were seeing a snuff film. Nice.
And those two cutting edge techniques buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors, and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon primal fears.
The Nineties boasted more good horror than you might remember. It was a time of big budget, Oscar nominated studio films like Misery and early genre work from filmmakers who would go on to become the best in the business, like Fincher’s Seven, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Tarantino and Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn, and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. Foreign films made a splash – Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, and a wave of Japanese films that would have a powerful influence in the next decade of American horror. Here we pick the best of the decade.
5. Cape Fear (1991)
In 1991, Martin Scorsese toyed with the horror genre with a remake of the ’62 Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum power struggle between a steamy psychopath and an uptight lawyer. Scorsese mines the very ripe concept for more outright horror, recasting Robert DeNiro – still on top of his game and garnering an Oscar nomination – as Max Cady, a deeply disturbed criminal who should not be underestimated. Nick Nolte takes on the Peck role, but it’s Juliette Lewis (also Oscar nominated) as Nolte and Jessica Lange’s teenage daughter who amps up the unseemly tension.
Scorsese and his cast know how to wring anxiety from an audience and their film brims with a sultry tension that keeps everything on edge. It’s masterful storytelling with a throwback feel, the kind of film that finds you yelling at the screen, not because characters are doing anything stupid, but because you know better than they do just how terrifying Max Cady is. Still, the evil that he can do manages to stagger every single time.
4. Scream (1996)
In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor. What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But director Wes Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.
What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. We spent the next five years or more watching talented TV teens and sitcom stars make the big screen leap to slashers, mostly with weak results, but Scream stands the test of time. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but I think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.
3. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Blair Witch may not date especially well, but it scared the hell out of a lot of people back in the day. This is the kind of forest adventure that I assume happens all the time: you go in, but no matter how you try to get out – follow a stream, use a map, follow the stars – you just keep crossing the same goddamn log.
One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people. Between that and the wise use of online marketing (then in its infancy) buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon nightmares I have almost every night.
2. Audition, 1999
Audition tells the story of a widower convinced by his TV producer friend to hold mock television auditions as a way of finding a suitable new mate. He is repaid for his deception.
Nearly unwatchable and yet too compelling to turn away from, Audition is a remarkable piece of genre filmmaking from horror master Takashi Miike. The slow moving picture builds anticipation, then dread, then full-on horror. Midway through, Miike punctuates the film with one of the most effective startles in modern horror, and then picks up the pace, building grisly momentum toward a perversely uncomfortable climax. By the time Audition hits its ghastly conclusion, Miike and his exquisitely terrifying antagonist (Eihi Shina) have wrung the audience dry. She will not be the ideal stepmother.
Keep an eye on that burlap sack.
1. The Silence of the Lambs
It’s to director Jonathan Demme’s credit that Silence made that leap from lurid exploitation to art. His masterful composition of muted colors and tense but understated score, his visual focus on the characters rather than their actions, and his subtle but powerful use of camera elevate this story above its exploitative trappings. Of course, the performances didn’t hurt.
Hannibal Lecter ranks as one of cinema’s greatest and scariest villains, and that accomplishment owes everything to Anthony Hopkins’s performance. It’s his eerie calm, his measured speaking, his superior grin that give Lecter power. Everything about his performance reminds the viewer that this man is smarter than you and he’ll use that for dangerous ends. But it’s Ted Levine who goes underappreciated. Levine’s Buffalo Bill makes such a great counterpoint to Hopkins’s Lecter. He’s all animal – big, lumbering, capable of explosive violence – where Lecter’s all intellect. Buffalo Bill’s a curiously sexual being, where Lecter is all but asexual.
Demme makes sure it’s Lecter that gets under our skin, though, in the way he creates a parallel between Lecter and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). It’s Clarice we’re all meant to identify with, and yet Demme suggests that she and Lecter share some similarities, which means that maybe we share some, too.
Usually, a director shoots a villain from below, making him look larger and more menacing. The victim is usually shot from above, which makes them seem smaller, less powerful, more vulnerable, and cuter. When Clarice and Lecter are talking in the prison, they’re shot at the same angle, eliminating that power struggle. They’re shot as equals.
More than that, during their conversations, Demme captures each character’s reflection in the partition glass as the other speaks, once again making the visual impression that these two are equals, have similarities, are in some ways alike. No one is like Buffalo Bill. He’s incomprehensible. Unacceptable. But Demme generates something akin to sympathy in his depiction of Hannibal in relation to Clarice, and given how terrifying he is, that’s equally unsettling.
The year’s first great comedy and first decent horror film – What We Do in the Shadows – releases wide this weekend. Hooray! We loved it so, and wanted to celebrate it as well as all our other favorite documentary-style horror films. There are so many greats to choose from – the Norwegian lunacy of TrollHunter? The meta-slasher Behind the Mask? Well, it took some doing, but we landed on our favorite documentary-styled horror films. Enjoy!
What We Do in the Shadows (2015)
In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates. Besides regular flatmate spats about who is and is not doing their share of dishes and laying down towels before ruining an antique fainting couch with blood stains, we witness some of the modern tribulations of the vampire. The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest. It’s also the first great comedy of 2015.
About 5 years ago, Belgiain filmmaker Vincent Lanoo made his own (blandly titled) mock-doc about vampires. Far darker and more morbid than Shadows (the first two film crews were eaten before they could complete the documentary; the final film is dedicated to the memory of the third crew), Lanoo’s film is still insightful and very funny.
The crew moves in with a vampire family with two undisciplined teens. The house also contains the couple who live in their basement (vampires can’t own a home until they have – make – children), and Meat (the name they’ve given the woman they keep in their kitchen). There’s also a coop out back for the illegal immigrants the cops drop off on Mondays. Wickedly hilarious.
American Zombie (2007)
American Zombie begins as an insightful satire on the modern documentary, pitting objective artist against gonzo filmmaker. Director Grace Lee, playing herself, agrees to co-direct a documentary on the Los Angeles area’s growing undead population with her zealous, craftless friend John (John Solomon). They interview experts – doctors, historians, social workers – and choose a handful of zombies as subjects. Lee approaches the film as the documentation of a misunderstood community; her co-director John is looking for something a little more lurid.
American Zombie is observant and often very funny. (An evangelist hoping to serve this untapped market remarks to the camera, “Jesus loves zombies. Jesus was the original zombie.” Nice!) As the movie progresses you find yourself lulled by Lee’s low-key, funny take on the living dead. And then, slowly but surely, she turns her film into a surprisingly creepy little horror flick.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Not every faux-documentary in horror is a comedy. BW is, of course, the now famous instigator of the found footage movement. (Yes, we’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust.) Between the novelty of the found footage approach and the also novel use of viral marketing, the film drew a huge audience of people who believed they were basically seeing a snuff film. Nice.
And those two cutting edge techniques buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon the nightmares some of us have had since childhood.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
Out to expose the fraudulent exorcisms perpetrated by evangelical ministers like himself all over the South, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) teams up with a documentarian and her cameraman. Together they set out to capture his final exorcism – chosen at random from his PO Box – before he hangs up his bible. Things don’t go as planned.
Fabian exploits every possibility he finds in the character of a disenchanted preacher. He’s absolutely terrific, and is aided by an effectively shaken and/or creepy supporting cast working with a script that explores any number of unseemly Southern Gothic possibilities before deciding what kind of devil is plaguing poor Nell (Ashley Bell). Thanks largely to the commitment of the cast and the effortlessly eerie backdrop of backwoods Louisiana, The Last Exorcism entertains throughout.
Remember Bobcat Goldthwait – that screechy, overweight, sweaty comic from the Eighties? Well, in case you missed it, he’s now a film director, and a pretty good one. He’s been flexing that muscle and pushing boundaries since the early Nineties, but in 2011 he proved his mettle with the pitch-black observational comedy God Bless America.
He makes an unusual choice as the follow-up to his artistic high water mark with Willow Creek, a found footage horror that treads incredibly familiar territory.
Though his newest effort certainly boasts occasional humor, it’s no comedy. In fact, it’s basically a streamlined Blair Witch reboot with better actors.
Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) and Jim (Bryce Johnson) are celebrating his birthday with an excursion into the woods to follow the same path as those hearty souls who once tracked Bigfoot. Jim wants to make a little film of their expedition; Kelly wants to humor her boyfriend for his birthday.
The only mildly unique element about this premise is the word Bigfoot, which is so unusual that it suggests a comedy, but the standup veteran is not mining for laughs. Instead, he shows real flair for stoking tensions, expertly building anxieties about isolation while slyly unveiling that slow realization of helplessness.
But it is impossible to shake the feeling that this is just another Blair Witch. Though he improves upon many familiar scenes, they’re still lifted directly from the 1999 granddaddy of found footage horror.
Shouldering a film whose entire storyline depends upon candid, usually in-car footage of just two people tends to be too much for most actors. Indeed, the already very tired found footage style usually crumbles under the lacking improve ability of a handful of adequate actors stuck inside a car trying to make their road trip seem interesting.
But Gilmore and Johnson are surprisingly suited to the task. Their chemistry is quite natural, and therefore their dialog never seems forced. Goldthwait also knows how to make the most of the gorgeous forest scenery as well, showcasing not just the potential smothering terror of the surroundings, but also its true, natural beauty.
The combined effort is effective. Goldwhait has somehow thrown just enough wild cards into the mix that, while every scene feels eerily familiar, you still can’t ever quite predict what’s to come. It’s unnerving, insightful, and strangely fresh considering it’s just the latest in an unending series of films warning us away from the woods.
Chances are by now you’re well aware of the horror fun to found inThe Cabin in the Woods(and if you’re not, what gives?) For a lesser known take on the “cabin” premise, check out Resolution, which is finally released to DVD this week. Much like the blockbuster, Resolution takes a self-aware approach to the horror genre, reworking popular plot conventions and metaphorically bringing the horror audience into the narrative. It also brings more true creepiness to the party, while still managing a healthy dose of humor, and tipping a hat to the art of scary storytelling with nods to films as varied as The Blair Witch Project and Cache.
And speaking of Michael Haneke’s brilliant, simmering thriller Cache, definitely see that movie. Though it’s an entirely different experience, Haneke’s work shares a sense of dread that comes from the knowledge of being surveilled. Haneke develops a looming, paranoid foreboding, a sense of silent menace the characters can’t shake. You’ll have trouble relieving yourself of it, too.
In honor of Evil Dead, we’re counting down our favorite “cabin in the woods” horror films that are not associated with that particular franchise.
5. Tucker & Dale Versus Evil (2010): This hilarious Shaun of the Dead-style send up of hillbilly horror entertains with every frame.
4. Resolution (2012): Self-aware, atmospheric and creepy, Resolution doesn’t rely on traditional slasher implements to get under your skin.
3. The Blair Witch Project (1999): There is, too, a cabin. At the very end, remember? After we lose Josh and Josh loses his tongue. Oh, you remember – Mike’s standing in the corner like a naughty child, and Heather…. poor, poor Heather…
2. Antichrist (2009): “Nature is Satan’s church.” “Chaos reigns!” “Keep her away from the hand tools.” (No one said that last one, but man, somebody should have.)
1. The Cabin in the Woods (2011): Kind of a cross between Tucker & Dale and Resolution, this funny, wickedly clever, joyous deconstruction of horror tropes leaves you just giddy.