Revisiting The Blair Witch Project

Let’s talk about found footage horror for a moment. It’s a subgenre that has enjoyed a considerable heyday over the past two decades or so. Launched somewhat by the cult favorite Cannibal Holocaust, and more so by the release of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, found footage went on to see thousands of releases throughout the 2000s and 2010s. It became the popcorn flick of the horror genre – the role previously filled by slashers in the 80s and 90s. Given a quick examination of finances, it’s no wonder why found footage horror became notable. The Blair Witch Project was made for $60,000 and returned a comparatively incredible $1.5 million in its opening weekend (Not to mention its $140 million lifetime gross, according to Box Office Mojo). In its opening weekend, The Blair Witch Project returned about 2,500% of its budget. It’s easy to understand why found footage horror gained the attention of the Hollywood money machine, and why for a good minute there, it had such a hell of a run. The Blair Witch Project remake was released recently, marking a milestone for the genre, and so I’d like to take a moment to return to this ever divisive film for a new critical look.

I first saw The Blair Witch Project when it came out on VHS. I was 11 years old. It inspired me, as it did many others, to grab my dad’s camera and make a parody film, beginning a hobby that I would pursue for the next decade. I found the movie laughable at that age. What could possibly be scary about a bunch of idiots screwing themselves over in the forest? I cringed at the entire middle act of the film, which was essentially a half hour long screaming match. The impression colored my idea of the found footage genre in the ensuing decade and beyond. Upon further review, I will admit that my critical faculties at age 11 might not have been as sharp as I thought. Actually, I feel prepared to say of the many found footage films I’ve seen, The Blair Witch Project is probably the most artfully done.

The film, by necessity, is probably the most conservative horror film I’ve ever seen in terms of actual screen time it dedicates to its monster. With virtually no budget, it’s easy to see why this is the case. The witch (or what-have-you) is left 100% to the viewer’s imagination, which is a stark contrast to many of the found footage films The Blair Witch Project inspired. Leaving the monster to the audience’s imagination is a hallmark of many beloved classic horror films, and allows the viewer to appreciate the film’s use of atmosphere, which requires much more subtlety of a film crew.

The Blair Witch Project is actually a very patient depiction of seeping panic, and how it can cause a group of perfectly decent people to behave monstrously. Although the woods are (maybe) stalked by some unseen evil, what ultimately undoes our protagonists is distrust and betrayal. Mike kicks the group’s only guidance into a creek because it is “useless,” an expression of frustration at Heather’s inability to navigate. As tensions set in, they all begin to subscribe to the idea of Heather’s – and then each other’s – incompetence. Sure, the arguing and bickering gets tiresome and the camera work becomes nauseating as they get more agitated, but it’s a pretty realistic, convincing depiction of a frightening idea: just below the surface of each and every one of us, there is a panicked half-wit waiting to emerge when enough goes wrong.

The film even deals relatively well with a fundamental problem all found footage movies must tackle, and it’s something that has always bothered me about the found footage premise: why, when faced with life threatening scenarios, do people continue to film, rather than devote the whole of their energy to survival? The Blair Witch Project is rife with conflict over the continued filming throughout. One of the film’s major conflicts is, paradoxically, the film’s very existence in the first place. The fact that Heather keeps the cameras rolling at times of stress is a major factor in the fallout and ultimate death of the our protagonists. Heather’s dedication to her craft serves to satisfy the question that often goes entirely unanswered in found footage, and even elevates the film to a level of postmodern irony. What, after all, is more horrific? The fact that these terrible things happened to a bunch of students, or the irony that in trying to share their experience with the world, these same students caused those terrible things to happen to them?

The Blair Witch Project, for all the mainstream attention it garnered, is a surprisingly deep work of fiction. Is it perfect? Of course not. But set against the backdrop of the entire found footage movement, it sets itself aside as an experience and work of art.

Hollows Grove: Movie Review

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Synopsis:
A group of charlatan ghost hunters head to a haunted orphanage to record an episode of their show, S.P.I.T. (Spirit Paranormal Investigation Team)  They allow a friend along to document their process, and end up talking about how they fake everything.  I have no idea why they do this.  Anyway, the orphanage turns out to actually be haunted and terrible things happen to this crew.

Thoughts:
The movie opens with Mykelti Williamson as director of the FBI, very seriously stating how these tapes we’re about to watch were found at a crime scene, and how watching them means we’re part of the investigation, and yada yada.  It was so sincere and ridiculous that I just had to laugh.  Having a recognizable actor open the movie in that way made it even worse.  There was no possibility of suspending disbelief.  If I’m going to watch a found footage movie, I need to buy in that the events could possibly be real.  Seeing Bubba Blue sit on a desk and tell me he’s with the FBI does not allow me to do that.

hollows-grove-timThen we get to meet our ghost hunters.  And they’re terrible people.  Just the worst.  They’re fronted by Tim, who has one of the smuggest faces I’ve ever seen (which is odd, seeing as how he is played by Heed from So I Married an Axe Murderer).  His right hand man – Roger – is a screaming ball of misogynist comments and terrible jokes, wrapped up in a man who has entirely too high an opinion of himself.  Chad is also there.  He is tall and blonde.  Their producer – Julie – somehow sticks around even though Tim and Roger can’t stop saying terrible things to her.  But I’m sure the paycheck for S.P.I.T. is more than worth it (there is no way this is true).

hollows-grove-groupHarold is following them around with a camera and seems legitimately shocked that their “hauntings” are merely tricks to make it look like things are moving.  At the helm of these tricks is Bill, played by the great Lance Henricksen.  Have you ever wanted to see Henricksen’s hind quarters and part of his balls?  Spoiler alert: you totally see all of that.

Don’t smile at me like that, Lance. I’ve seen too much.

The S.P.I.T. show itself is horrendous.  The awful script was only outdone by the awful performances.  Everything was said with a dead-serious tone, while puns flew around like hotcakes.  (Flying hotcakes, I guess?)  I tried to imagine what it would be like to actually watch the show, and I ended up throwing items at my TV.

hollows-grove-hallwayAll that said…I think I kind of liked it.

This movie was not breaking any ground.  It’s essentially the same movie as Grave Encounters, with a bit of The Last Exorcism thrown in.

I mentioned how the characters were insufferable, but that’s really just an old slasher trick.  Create a cast of unlikable characters so you don’t feel bad when they are killed.  And it worked.  (To be fair, Tim and Roger were the only two I was actively rooting for to die.)  Every time the lights flickered or there was a loud noise, I kept saying, “Please let Tim and Roger die soon.”  I was basically Rob Corddry waiting for Crispin Glover’s arm to be severed in Hot Tub Time Machine.  “This is it.  THIS IS IT!  Oh…false alarm.  Just do it already, ghosts.”

Drop the hammer, ghosts. DROP THE HAMMER.
Drop the hammer, ghosts. DROP THE HAMMER.

The set-up dragged a bit, especially since we all know exactly where this movie was heading.  The ghosts – including the ghost of a psychotic orphan known for slitting throats – were real and the crew would be trapped inside to be taunted and killed.  But not before being haunted for hours.  Soooo much haunting, you guys.

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Even though I knew where it was heading, the payoff was still fun.  Once all hell started to break loose, I had a good time.  One member of the crew got possessed in a fairly confusing manner and decided murder would be fun.  Other members of the crew ended up running aimlessly through the abandoned orphanage, saying nonsensical things like, “Let’s run to the roof to escape,” without any clear plan of what they would do if they were to actually reach the roof.  Doors that were once locked became unlocked, and they ran into them to escape the ghosts in the hallway, not thinking there may be ghosts behind the locked doors as well.  Panic and fear do terrible things to people.  For these people, it caused them to make terrible decisions.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter.  Stay in the hall.  Go into a previously locked room.  Run to the roof.  Run to the ground floor.  Their fate was sealed.  Otherwise, the very official FBI agent wouldn’t be presenting us with the tapes in the first place.

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As you can tell, this is by no means a great movie.  It’s not even a very good one.  But it can be enjoyable if you go into it with the right frame of mind.  Know that the characters are terrible people, but also know that they will die soon.  Know that the beginning is a bit slow, but also know that it will pick up.  And, again, that they will die.

Rating: 2/5

Rorschach: Movie Review

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Hey guys, BadAssGeek here. All movie lovers know what it feels like when you discover a movie that surprises you. You go into it with little-to-no expectations and find yourself blown away. When that movie is over you find yourself excited and can’t wait to tell everyone you know about it, but it’s 2 a.m. and you have to wait. If you’re like me you pace the kitchen replaying all the best scenes in your mind and counting the hours until you can spread the word. For me that movie is Rorschach, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Full disclosure: I can be kind of a dick. It’s true; just ask anyone who knows me. The director of this film, C.A. Smith and I follow each other on twitter and I kept seeing mentions about this film but never bothered to watch it. I heard it was found footage and also heard that it was free to view online (you can view on many sites, the best probably being the director’s YouTube page) and I began to mentally roll my eyes. I was convinced it would be some buddies that grabbed a camera and went out in the backyard to have some fun then called it a movie. I was so wrong , and I owe the director, the actors, the crew and everyone else a big apology.

In this day and age of spoiler-filled trailers and overhyped marketing campaigns, it is hard to go into a movie blind but that is just what I did with Rorschach. I literally knew nothing about this film and boy did it leave me all kinds of giddy. The film is a classic haunted house tale told with assured direction and strong performances and it delivers a level of satisfaction not found in many movies made with much larger budgets.

As I have stated, this movie is found footage. There are basically two camps when it comes to found footage: those who still enjoy it and those who feel it is played out and should just disappear. I feel that found footage, when done right, adds a whole other level of creepy to horror films. There is something about the immediacy and the boots-on-the-ground feeling that pushes all the right buttons for me. Well, Rorschach is found footage done right.

Written and directed with a competent and assured hand by the aforementioned C.A. Smith, Rorschach tells the tale of two paranormal investigators (played by Ross Compton and Ricky Lee Barnes) who are looking into the strange goings on at the home of single mom Jamy (Jamy Gillespie) and her young daughter Ashlynn (Ashlynn Allen). Simple enough right? We’ve seen this a million times. Well-developed characters and strong performances are what separates this movie from the pack.

In my opinion, actors in found footage movies don’t get enough credit.  While other actors get to perform their roles, found footage forces you have to act without performing. As anyone who has had someone point a camera at you and tell you to act natural knows, it is very hard to do. I sometimes forget how to walk. Every one of these actors nails it.

When they arrive at the house our investigators are told of strange noises and things moving by themselves or disappearing altogether. They are also told of strange horrid smells coming from nowhere and ghostly voices whispering from dark corners. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the plot because you should go in as blind as you can. I will say that this is a movie that gets under your skin and stays there. C.A. Smith knows how to build tension and dread with an expert touch most directors need many years to formulate. His timing and pacing is just about perfect. When you find yourself in a tense scene waiting to see if something is truly going to happen he makes you wait just long enough that you think, “okay, it’s not happening this time”. Then it does.

Let me tell you right now, this is not a jump scare movie. If you want jump scares there are a million tweener horror movies out there to scratch that itch.  Feel free to knock yourself out with one of those. This is my favorite kind of horror film; it is quiet and creepy and gives you a total sense of unease. I promise you by the time this movie is over you will be asking yourself if you left that bedroom light on or did it come on by itself. This is the kind of film that makes you jump after it is over, when the sound of the water heater knocking about makes you crap your pants.

Rorschach is also special by today’s horror standards in the way you actually care about these people. These actors never allow their roles to become caricatures. When Ricky and Ross investigate they keep trying to find ways to prove that there is really nothing going on; that Jamy and Ashlynn have just scared themselves into this haunted fantasy. As their explanations become more and more reaching you realize they are not being condescending; they are truly scared and trying to whistle past the graveyard. When it becomes obvious that something is wrong with this house they stay by Jamy and Ashlynn’s side because they are decent guys, even when it is painfully obvious they have no idea what to do.

Little Ashlynn is good in her role as well. Child actors can sometimes make or break a film like this but she gives her character a mix of innocence and world weariness no child should have.

As good as the guys and Ashlynn are, Jamy Gillespie is the glue that holds this whole thing together.  She is great. Never devolving into overacting or histrionics, she reacts how just about all of us probably would. At first she is frazzled but embarrassed to even be talking about it. Later that is replaced my weariness and anger, and finally just an overwhelming hopeless fear. You really feel for her, as you do for all of them.

The finale of Rorschach is understated and the film is made all the scarier because of it. If the director had tried to tack on some overly produced BIG SHOT at the end, I feel it would have lessened the impact. Instead we get a satisfying ending – rare in found footage – that is just as creepy and effective as the rest of the film. When Rorschach was over I felt like I had just been told a great ghost story while sitting round a campfire. I can’t think of a better compliment than that. To C.A. Smith I say this: I will never roll my eyes at you again.

You can watch Rorschach right here:

Blair Witch: Movie Review

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Synopsis:
15 years after the initial trek into the woods of Burkittsville ended in witch-related deaths, disappearances and map-kicking, a new video surfaces that shows a figure that may sorta/kinda look like Heather Donahue, but only if you squint in the right light.  The tape is sent to Heather’s younger brother, James.  He has sought answers about her disappearance for years.  And so, armed with new information, James heads out into the woods of Burkittsville with a few friends and a lot of cameras.

Thoughts:
Let’s get this out of the way early: the image of Heather in the newly surfaced video doesn’t really look much like Heather.  I know James was desperate for something to cling to, but he’s really grasping at straws.  I get it, James.  I get it.  Sisters are awesome.

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I went into this movie with high expectations.  I tried to bring them down a little, but I couldn’t help myself.  I loved the original Blair Witch Project, and the surprise unveiling of this one at Comic Con really set a high excitement level.  I even closed my eyes every time a trailer came on so nothing would be ruined for me.  I took a half day off work the day it came out just so I could see it without having any of it ruined for me.  I was all in.

I walked out of the theater thinking, “Yeah, that was a good movie,” but I didn’t love it like I hoped I would.  Part of that is on me.  It’s rare to exceed such high expectations.  It can happen (hello, Mad Max: Fury Road), but it’s rare for me.  I let the hype get away from me.

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There were entirely too many unnecessary jump scares, and most of them were of the same variety.  Namely, the old, “there was no one next to me NOW THERE IS SOMEONE NEXT TO ME LOUD NOISES,” trick.  That’s fine once or twice, but they used it a lot in this movie, which is ridiculous when you realize it’s a movie about a group of people trapped in the woods by a time-bending witch.  Being lost in the woods is an inherently scary scenario; being stalked by a witch only makes that scenario more terrifying.  There’s no need to rely on jump scares to frighten the audience, and yet that’s exactly what Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett did.  A well-executed jump scare is one thing, but a lot of these just felt lazy, and that bothered me.

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Let me get one more negative-that’s-not-really-a-negative out of the way before moving on.
The first Blair Witch came at a perfect time.  It was the infancy of the internet and, though there were found footage movies before it, The Blair Witch Project captured the attention of a ton of people and had large groups asking if the events on the screen actually happened.  I’ll admit to being drawn into that story, and I was sufficiently freaked out by the film for a long time afterwards.  (It didn’t help that I went camping a few days after seeing it for the first time.)  In this day and age, there’s not really a way to recreate that.  I know that.  Wingard & Barrett didn’t even attempt to pull a trick like that.  Still, The Blair Witch Project hit me pretty hard in my pre-horror days, and I still carry that feeling with me.  I knew this wouldn’t do the same thing, but I had hopes that it would affect me in a somewhat similar way.  It didn’t, but that’s my own problem, not a failing of the movie.

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(Fun found footage aside: Ruggero Deodato, the director of Cannibal Holocaust, was taken to court for charges of murder after that film was released.  The actors were forbidden from doing interviews after the movie was released to convince people that the footage was real.  Apparently it worked a little too well.)

I just said a bunch of kind of negative things, but I actually really enjoyed this movie.  So let’s get to that part.

The shaky cam was much less shaky in this movie than the original.  That’s a product of the updated technology.  Instead of the images coming to us via hand-held cameras while the operators stumbled through the forest, we got ear-piece cameras and cameras mounted to trees and a handful of somewhat useless drone shots.  We were guided through the woods in Burkittsville with a steadier hand.  Instead of feeling like I was being kicked around, it allowed this to feel more like a haunted house movie in the woods.  I was focusing more on the surroundings and less on blurry images of trees as they rushed past.  And, though those shots didn’t always pay off like I thought they would, it kept me on the edge of my seat.  I kept waiting for images to emerge from the darkness.  I stared into the bushes through black and white night vision looking for the slightest bit of movement.  There were a lot of shots in this movie that freaked me out without anything actually happening.

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The main four characters were likable and relatable.  I didn’t agree with James’ reasons for going into the forest, but I could see why he was doing it.  If you can understand that, the motivations of everyone else made sense.  They were a close-knit group of friends who truly seemed to care for each other.  They also seemed like actual friends in the way they interacted with each other.  I laughed out loud several times at their conversations.
Even the two outsiders – Lane and Talia – were perfectly fine characters.  We get a feel for them in roughly 30 seconds and have plenty of reasons to be a little wary of them.  Despite some warning signs – a Confederate flag in Maryland is a red flag if I’ve ever seen one – the group allows them to tag along, mainly because James will do anything if it means finding out what happened to his sister.
There were reasons not to like them and to be distrustful of them – more Lane than Talia – but they loved each other and just wanted to go home once everything started going crazy.  It’s somewhat rare to have a cast like this without one of them being unbearably annoying.
I have some questions about Lane’s ability to grow a beard, but that’s a conversation for another time.

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Like most found footage movies, we got a decent amount of slow build-up to the action.  Lots of footage of our characters trying out the cameras in fits-and-starts.  Lots of small snippets of conversations that were caught.  That’s to be expected in found footage and it didn’t bother me.  I’m in it for the payoff.  How does the movie do when things turn south?
That’s when this movie shines.  When things go south, they go south in a hurry.  We get some “separated from the group” slasher kills.  We get some Final Destination deaths.  We get plenty of “no no no no no,” moments.  We get some terrific new entries into the Blair Witch mythology.

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By the time we finally get to the house from the end of The Blair Witch Project, my nerves were already on the verge of being shot.  I begged them not to go in, knowing that the witch wouldn’t give them another choice.  The house itself was a labyrinth of horror, featuring one scene that found me covering my mouth and shaking my head.  The last 15-20 minutes of the movie are spent in the house and it is pure madness.  When I wasn’t covering my mouth I was grinning like an idiot.

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Blair Witch isn’t perfect, but the finale is superb.  If you haven’t seen it yet, lower your expectations a bit and prepare to have a good time.  I had a lot of fun with it.  The more I think about it, the more I just want to see it again.

Rating: 4/5

The Poughkeepsie Tapes: Movie Review

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Synopsis:
Authorities find over 800 VHS tapes made by an elusive killer in and around Poughkeepsie, New York.  We the viewer – most of whom are absolutely not police or FBI agents – get to watch some of these and see what terrible things this killer did.  Awful things.  Twisted things.  Why did they let us watch these?

My thoughts:
This wasn’t as much out-and-out scary as it was supremely unnerving.  I had to keep telling myself, “This isn’t real, this isn’t real.”  I believed myself for the most part, but a little part of me knew that I’m not a smart person and was probably lying.

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This movie is 86 minutes long.  There is a whole lot of life-scarring material in this movie for it being so short.  There are things in this movie I will carry with me for years.  Maybe the rest of my life.  I may pass those things down to my children.  They don’t deserve this, man.

There is a lot of stuff going on here, but a decent portion of the movie deals with the kidnapping/torture of Cheryl Dempsey.  She was a teenager when she was abducted.  She was abused physically and mentally to a terrible extent.  We see the torture.  We see her mind cracking under the strain of it all.  It’s heartbreaking.
In a particularly chilling scene, the killer videotapes himself as he approaches Cheryl’s mom, offering to help find her child.  Eventually it dawns on her mother that she is talking to the man who took her daughter.  As she is paralyzed with fear, the killer laughs and walks off.  That scene broke me down.  Of all the things I saw him do over the course of this movie, that felt like one of the worst.  It felt like someone punching me in the gut.  The torture I can take.  But that?  That’s a bridge too far, fella.

But that wasn’t the worst.  Not really.  He did some, let’s call it “creative surgery,” that was horrifying.  Just horrifying.

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Both his psychological and physical torture are next level sadistic.  If this man existed in real life and was anywhere close to my town, I would have picked up and moved a long time ago.  Maybe burned my house on my way out of town for good measure.

I feel like I’m really talking this movie up.  I liked it, but it wasn’t perfect.  There are some slow moments.  There are some scares that don’t really land.  But those are small moments and relatively easy to overlook.  Again, it’s a short movie, and those moments are in the minority.  For the most part, this is an extremely well-done movie.  It used the found footage genre to perfection.

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If you’re looking for an unsettling serial killer movie, this is it.  It has had a troubled release history, so it’s not the easiest movie to track down, but you can find it if you search hard enough.  That aspect makes this a little creepier: it’s a movie about hours and hours of torture and murder, and it’s not easy to track down.  That aspect makes it feel a little more real.
Turn off the lights, check to make sure all your doors and windows are locked and throw this on.  You may find yourself staring at the screen as the credits roll, wondering what you have gotten yourself into.  Then checking all the closets in your house.  Just in cases, you know?

Rating: 5/5

Notable actors: Bobbi Sue Luther, a real serial killer (probably)