Blair Witch Project - a pre-review|
Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: July 6th. 1999
Times Viewed: 70,441
For those of you who have not heard, The Blair Witch Project is an independent film about to take the world by storm. Made by a small company in Florida called Haxan Films, which consists of several young men who are all die-hard horror buffs, The Blair Witch Project is being hyped in a major way by the Industry That Knows No Shame: the Hollywood Promotion Machine. But what sets the hype surrounding this picture apart from the hype surrounding, say, The Phantom Menace or The Mummy or some other big-budget flick, is that The Blair Witch Project was made on a completely shoestring budget. At the Sundance Film Festival, where film distribution companies vie with each other to see who gets to distribute (and thus profit from) the most promising independent films, a midnight screening of The Blair Witch Project had many film critics and industry executives in awe (why? More on that in a bit). An early morning meeting of several companies (including Miramax and Fine Line Features) was tentatively scheduled to discuss bidding. But Artisan didn't want to wait: they wanted to make a bid immediately, predicting this film would be a huge draw for teenage audiences who love to be scared. So in the wee hours of the morning, the filmmakers worked out a deal where their tiny little film (shot on video and super 8mm) would be bought for between $1 and $2 million dollars. Not a lot of money in the movie biz: but consider that, just before Sundance, the filmmakers, who live in Florida, had just had their water shut off for lack of payment! Talk about rags to riches...
The excitement only began there. This week, the filmmakers and some of their producers (Dan, Kevin, Ed, Gregg and Mike) are soaking up the sun on the French Riviera at the Cannes Film Festival. Cannes is kind of the World Series of film festivals: crawling with actors and directors and critics and, although it is mostly a venue for international "art" films, definitely a place to rub elbows with Hollywood stars! The Blair Witch filmmakers send out a short email newsletter to their "fans" every few days (how about that? A fan club for a film that has not even been released yet!), and describing their days at Cannes, they mentioned glimpsing people like Ron Howard, Spike Lee, and Mel Gibson. Last week they did a photo shoot for an upcoming spread in GQ magazine, where they are photographed next to the big Hollywood sign, wearing fancy designer suits (Armani, I think it was). So far, the film has been mentioned in all the big entertainment industry magazines like Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and Variety, as well as being praised on a number of internet film zines and websites.
So the big questions now are: why all this hype? Is the film as good as everyone is saying? And what on earth does it have to do with witches? And why should we care?
Why All This Hype?
As for the hype factor, Hollywood hype seems to be geared towards making money. Period. Artisan took the chance that this odd little film (more on the film in a bit, I promise!) would make big bucks, because, apparently, it is one of the scariest things anyone has seen in years. Period. And although it is intentionally shot in a very amateurish way, with murky lighting and sound, its realistic quality make it all the more chilling. But the most thrilling thing about this film is that, although it is a fictional film, it is presented as being a documentary. And unless you know the whole thing is a story, apparently it all looks very, very real.
I don't want to spoil the story for those of you who want to be surprised, so skip this paragraph if you want to remain a "Blair Witch Virgin" (although there is not much chance of my giving away much of the plot since I have not seen it yet). The basic premise is this: three college students decide to make a short film for a class project. There is a local legend about the ghost of a witch (more on her in a moment) who haunts the woods of a spot which used to be the township of Blair. The students decide to interview local residents about the legend, and try to find the site of the witch's house in the woods. Armed with super 8mm and video cameras and sound equipment, they set off to make their film. Several days later they are reported missing, and they are never seen again. A year after their disappearance, archeology students digging under the foundation of an old cottage in the woods find a duffel bag containing the film equipment and footage of the students. After various legal wrangling with the police, the parent of one of the missing students eventually obtains the legal rights to this footage, and approaches the filmmakers (Haxan Films) to ask them to piece together what happened. The resulting "film, " The Blair Witch Project, is an attempt to reconstruct the final days in the lives of the three students, missing and presumed dead.
Now, I don't know about you, but from where I am sitting, this is one of the most brilliant premises for a horror film I have heard in a long time. Shooting the film in video and super 8mm, while a cost-saving measure for the "real filmmakers, " also gives utter authenticity to the so-called "found footage" of the story. It is such a simple conceit, it is almost funny. As Wiley E. Coyote would say, "Sheer, Unadulterated, Genius."
Until I knew the real deal, I was kind of horrified, and wondered why the filmmakers, in the online interviews I read, were being so funny and cavalier about their success. "What about the missing students?" I thought. I bought it, hook, line and sinker. Speaking of clueless, the filmmakers mention in one of their newsletters that Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman (who, BTW, used to write for the same newspaper I do now) "voted The Blair Witch Project the 'best documentary' at Sundance, and it's not even factual. Now that's great filmmaking!" You gotta love these guys...
Is the Film as Good As Everyone is Saying?
Well, my friends, I cannot give an opinion but I sure have high hopes based on the film's premise and the response of others so far. I will get to check out a press preview in June, and the general public has to wait until July 16 (limited release), or July 30 (nationwide). The only people who see it before the general public are those who were selected to be in test audiences, who see the film as it is still being edited, to give the filmmakers a chance to polish the film based on audience response. Also, critics and film bookers who have been sent preview tapes, and those who have seen the film at festivals like Sundance, or Cannes, or the Florida Film Festival in Orlando later this month. The fans of the film, who for the most part are not film critics, are apparently made up of people who were in test audiences, who were so bowled over by the film that they started looking for information about it on the net, and some of them started their own pages or websites devoted to it. The official site is www.blairwitch.com; the filmmakers have a nice site at www.haxan.com; from those sites you can find other great links to articles, images and other stuff. I have already read a lot of reviews by other people, because I have become obsessed (can you tell?) with The Blair Witch Project. But I am hoping I won't let the advance hype skew my own impression of the film, once I finally get to see it.
What on Earth Does it Have to Do With Witches?
Well, the Blair Witch is the stuff of a made-up legend. On the film's official website, they give the chronology of the film's background under the heading "Mythology, " so there is plenty of opportunity for people to figure out for themselves that this is all fictional (though the site never comes out and says that, heh heh heh...) The "witch, " Elly Kedyard, was an old woman who lived alone in the woods in Maryland, in a small township called Blair. She was accused by several children of being lured to her cottage so she could drink their blood (yeah, I know, I know...why not The Blair Vampire Project?) She was charged with witchcraft and banished from the community. It being a harsh winter, she died of exposure. It is believed she cursed the town for her banishment, because later that winter all of Elly's accusers and half the town's children had vanished. The townspeople fled the area, fearing the witch's curse. Over the next couple of centuries, stories of howling ghosts, and, more disturbingly, grisly child killings, add to the body of lore of the Blair Witch myth, including the "publication" of a book called The Blair Witch Cult.
Clearly, the archetype of the "old hag in the woods" was the inspiration for this story. And while I do not usually have trouble with the use of this archetype in fairy tales (as they are called but most of them are actually gruesome tales not all that suitable for children), it becomes problematic when such a melodramatic portrayal becomes mixed up with reality. Sure, we all know the potion-brewing, malevolent Wicked Witch of the West type of witch is a fictional creation...but what happens when such a figure is grounded in actual history, or in this case, pseudo-history? We all have seen what Hollywood and television do with their portrayals of modern witchcraft: mixed in with all the special effects and teenagers turning people into toads, there is enough "reality" and authentic material (chants, spells, magic, ritual tools, etc.) that viewers could easily confuse an episode of Charmed with what their nice Neo-Pagan neighbor does at every Full Moon...not good, my friends.
So, here we have some clever independent filmmakers who chose the most negative archetypal impression of a witch that exists, that of the child-murdering old woman who curses entire towns, and created a narrative bridge that links this character of legend with the disappearances and murders of "real" people in the modern day. Although as a film critic I am very impressed with their audacity and creativity, the part of me that is a witch, who is outraged by negative film portrayals of modern witches, wonders why the filmmakers did not choose some other archetype, one that does not have quite so much bearing upon the religious traditions of so many contemporary people. Why not, say, The Blair Werewolf Project? Or The Blair Ghost Project? Or The Blair Mummy Project?
But I do not hold this against them...yet. I want to actually see it before I pass any further judgement. I am still very excited about this film. And very happy for the filmmakers, who are enjoying unprecedented success in their first feature film effort. Go for it, guys. Can't wait to chat with you on the press tour in June.
Why Should We Care?
Well, any film dealing with witchcraft, lets face it, immediately catches the eye of modern pagans and witches. Whether it's an over-the-top fantasy like Roald Dahl's The Witches, or something halfway between reality and fantasy like The Craft (too bad teenagers who want to go beyond "dabbling" with magic don't have any media role models!), or the wonderful and rather frightening The Wicker Man (wherein pagans ritually sacrifice a God-fearing, virginal police chief lured to their bucolic island in Scotland), or any of the silly and tacky made-for-TV stuff in the 1970s and 1980s (Satan's School for Girls, Stranger in Our House, The Initiation of Sarah, etc.)"no matter how far out or outrageous, we eat it up. Old myths die hard, don't they? Modern witches everywhere are waiting for a film that portrays us in a way that affirms the earth-loving, magically-minded paths we try to follow. Not all witches worship or practice the exact same way; therefore no one film is going to address everyone's "truth." But allowing the possibility that we are other than murderers or seductresses or power-crazed sorceresses, well, that would be a start!
As the practices of modern witches become more and more accepted by the public, and as organizations like the ACLU continue to fight for our right to worship as we please, and as the television and movie industries, little by little, are starting to portray us a bit more realistically (though there is still a long way to go), it is not at all unlikely that, one day soon, we will be able to look forward to the newest film release about witches with eagerness and excitement, rather than apprehension and worry.
Of course, if The Blair Witch Project had never been made, we would not even be having these sorts of conversations. Every step on the path is part of our journey: we may meet visions and words of others with praise, or not, as we choose. And just as someone who knows nothing of modern witchcraft can choose to learn about it, witches may also choose to try and understand why it is that the image of the "evil witch" is such an enduring one, and why our culture, for better or worse, is addicted to these images.
There is great power in archetypes; but there can be great harm in stereotypes. The question is, is anyone actually learning anything? By having a completely over-the-top portrayal of an "evil witch" do artists make it clear that real modern Witches could never be so extreme or one-dimensional? Or, by sticking to outmoded stereotypes straight out of the Brothers Grimm do artists actually help perpetuate the prejudice against modern practitioners of earth religions? The answer probably lies somewhere in between.
We must all attempt to use our best judgement and open-mindedness, and try as much as we can to walk in the shoes of others, to listen to where they are coming from, and to realize that the integrity of our intentions can count for a lot, no matter what the results of our efforts may be. Dialogue cannot occur where there is opposition"or at least, it takes a lot longer to get there, when both sides start out on the defensive. I am trying to take things as they come, and celebrate each honest creative effort with the acknowledgement and support it deserves...or not.
Here's to the future of independent cinema!
And to the life and liberty and happiness of Witches everywhere!
The Witches' Voice
July 6th., 1999 c.e.
Email: [Staff Email]
(Also See Peg's Review of this Film and INTERVIEW with the Directors)
AND 5 Pages of Thoughts from the Pagan Community
Article ID: 2414
Age Group: Adult
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Location: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
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