by Paul T. Riddell
The science fiction genre takes a lot of grief from those in the movie industry: although the vast majority of the largest-grossing films of the last twenty years were science fiction or fantasy, Hollywood still considers SF to be "crazy Buck Rogers stuff". Oh, sure, genre films hog the "Best Visual Effects" or "Best Art Design" Oscars, but just name any releases in the last two decades that won any of the big Academy Awards, such as "Best Actor" or "Best Film".
Horror films get abuse worse than science fiction or fantasy: even though some of the first films ever made could be classified as horror (look back all the way to Thomas Edison's adaptation of Frankenstein, which sadly no longer exists save as an individual still). Even with some of the most popular films of the last 75 years being what could be considered dark fantasy or horror, it's still the mutant sibling the movie industry would prefer to keep locked up in the attic. Even the most sappy romance or period epic gets grudging admiration from film critics, but with a very few exceptions, horror films get nothing more from critics and publicists than an upturned nose and a grunt of disgust.
Naturally, as with dining critics who refuse to touch anything that doesn't come from the Kingdom Plantae (and thereby misses out on such joys as steak and mushrooms), film critics who skip out on horror miss out on some good viewing. Horror is the only sub-genre of the fantastic where budget and special effects are secondary to atmosphere. Well-placed special effects can augment and accent a horror film, but without that feel of terror, the film might as well be chopped up and turned into guitar picks.
That doesn't stop folks from trying. Last summer, USA Today ran a cover story on "The Return of Horror", basing its arguments that horror films were on the rebound on ticket sales for the innumerable bastard children of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. The facts that (a) these film weren't sold as horror films ("Yeah, this is a parody of horror and slasher films, don't you know..."), (b) that they came out with plenty of pre-manufactured publicity (if only because one of the prerequisites of a 90s Horror Film is that each and every one has to star at least one actor from Party of Five or Dawson's Creek), and (c) once they fail, studio execs will blame their failure on how "audiences don't want horror films" instead of "audiences don't want crappy slasher films" doesn't figure into USA Today's analysis. Suddenly, horror films are hot, even though the premixed product keeps flopping.
This is why I suspect that The Blair Witch Project (released through Artisan Entertainment) is going to start a whole new boom in horror, and for all of the wrong reasons. Which is a shame, really, because it qualifies as the best film H.P. Lovecraft never made.
The last time horror film (as opposed to horror literature, which works on its own timetable) saw such a potential renaissance was back in the late Seventies, when three seminal films helped change the face of the movie industry. Within months of each other, Halloween, Alien, and Dawn of the Dead popped up in theaters worldwide and managed to scare the crap out of their prospective audiences. Better than that: these films horrified their audiences.
Let's try a bout of semantics here. What normally appears in the all-inclusive "horror" category (i.e., the contents of the "Horror" section at Blockbuster Video) are actually two categories: the scary movie and the horror movie. Scary movies work on the well-known startle reflex: throw a cat at an unsuspecting person, and you see the same effect as the startles in Scream. You know the boojum, whatever it is, is waiting for you, and the tension is due to waiting for it to make an appearance to kill you/eat you/steal your wimminfolk. Scary films generally end with an upbeat ending of sorts: sure, you get nearly two hours of cats thrown in your face, but the boojum is killed/imprisoned/sent back to Hell, and the rest of the world is shiny and bright, barring the obligatory teaser at the end intended to set up a sequel.
Horror films work on a much deeper level: the best horror films work on the philosophy that you know that someone is going to throw something at you, but it isn't a cat, and all of your intentions to protect yourself aren't going to amount to a hill of beans. Horror films go much further into the subconscious than scary films do: for all of our civilization, we still remember, on a cellular level, when we weren't at the top of the food chain, and that we never knew exactly what was making that noise just outside the circle of firelight. Scary films generally let the audience know exactly what's waiting outside the firelight, while horror films work with the mysteries.
(Okay, so this isn't a perfect definition, because different movie watchers are terrified by different experiences. The most terrifying film I've caught in the last decade was Richard Linklater's SubUrbia, although it wasn't intended to be a horror film: considering that some of my old high school classmates are still hanging out by the local 7-11, waiting for someone to hand them their big break because they sure as hell aren't going to work for it, I left the theater shivering and mumbling "There but for the grace of God go I...")
Back to the Disco Era, all three films previously mentioned had a good base in mystery, although they had little in common with each other. Technically, Alien was a science fiction film, and although it wasn't original (check out A.E. van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle, as well as the old film It! The Terror From Beyond Space), it impressed upon audiences that alien life probably wouldn't care that humanity considered itself to be at the top of the evolutionary ladder. The title critter wasn't interested in ethics or the difference between right and wrong: it simply wanted to live and reproduce, and that the humans stuck with it may have had something to say about the situation didn't matter.
Halloween and Dawn of the Dead hit slightly closer to home with the essential helplessness of the modern resident of civilization. In both of these films, the survivors are the ones who take control of the situation: the monsters may be unstoppable, but waiting for the authorities to take care of the situation guarantees a nasty death. (The fact that they also encourage cooperation seemed to slip the minds of those involved with making the innumerable ripoffs: those characters who drop the attitude and help one another live long enough to see the end of the film, while those with Rambo complexes end up as Memphis-style barbecue.) In all three, though, the basic theme was simple: this situation is happening, trying to figure out why it's happening is futile, and the only hope is to survive, because the answers aren't forthcoming.
This was what made the work of famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) so timeless. Instead of basing his short stories and novellas around such obvious monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, he changed the face of horror literature by changing some of the environment. Not only did Lovecraft add a cosmicism to horror pretty much unheard-of at that time, but he changed the rules concerning the threats from Outside. Vampires and werewolves became almost friendly when given weaknesses (going after a werewolf with silver shotgun slugs theoretically gives normal humans the upper hand, while the multitude of weaknesses inflicted upon vampires makes one wonder why the whole breed wasn't wiped out by the Romans and the Celts), but Lovecraft introduced his readers to such nightmares as a sentient, malevolent colour from space, intelligent crustacean fungi from the outer realms of the solar system, the twin spawn of an alien deity (one of whom resembled his human mother more than the other did), and other threats to his protagonists' sanity. Science was just as ineffectual as religion in stopping the things from beyond, and those who delved too deeply into the secrets found themselves insane or dead.
Best of all, Lovecraft borrowed various literary devices from other authors and somehow managed to make them synonymous with his work. He wrote of the dread book the Necronomicon with such perceived knowledge that a disturbing number of people believe that the book is real (yes, New Age bookstores worldwide sell a book with that name, but the real Necronomicon was purely Lovecraft's invention, a fact that he rapidly tired of passing on to fans of his work while he was alive), and he described the mythical towns of Arkham (home of the world-famous Miskatonic University), Innsmouth, and Kingsport with such hinted detail that one can't help but look through a Massachusetts road map for the appropriate highway turnoff. Everything he wrote was fiction, but he wrote with such verisimilitude that the reader can't help but wonder if some of it was based on fact.
And this is where The Blair Witch Project comes in. The film (and the Web site at http://www.blairwitch.com) starts with the simple legend "In October 1994, three college filmmakers disappeared in the forest near Burkittsville, Maryland, while filming a documentary. One year later, their footage was discovered." No other exposition, no explanation of how the footage was discovered or the fates of the filmmakers, no explanation of what happened. The film gradually unfolds by showing the experiences of Heather, Michael, and Josh, three students who planned to spend a weekend making a documentary about the famed Blair Witch, allegedly hailing from the area around Burkittsville. What started as a fun camp-out rapidly builds to terror as they find themselves lost in the forest, sans map or any guideposts, as some unseen presence torments them at night just outside the limits of their camera lights. During the day, they find traces of some possibly malevolent presence in the form of rock piles and stick sculptures, and night brings sounds of unintelligible voices, and the group finds themselves rapidly falling apart from the strain.
To ruin some of the suspense, THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION. The whole film is fiction, but the combination of atmosphere and camera work makes it appear as if the trio managed to catch their situation on film and video, to the point where the preview audience I saw it with was honestly disappointed to see the little "This film is a work of fiction" disclaimer in the end credits.. The film goes beyond being low-budget, with no stars or special effects, and all of the camera work being done with hand-held cameras (to the point where some members of the audience may have problems with motion sickness), but it does something that very few horror films have managed to do in the last two decades: it scares the crap out of its audience.
In many ways, this film is pure Lovecraftiana: the characters have no outstanding knowledge of what happens to them, and most of the suspense is induced by the audience's own imaginations. While the film hints that the Blair Witch may be involved, it never nails this down: all we know is that something steals Josh away, and that something out in the woods calls out to the others with his voice, but neither the characters nor the audience actually see anything. The film keeps hinting at other mysteries, but never quite solving them, but it doesn't cheat the audience.
The obvious improvement over a Lovecraft story, or those of his pastichists over the last sixty years, in The Blair Witch Project comes from its use of film, strangely enough. One of the old tropes in horror fiction concerns the discovery of a diary written by the protagonist, which chronicles the events leading to his/her disappearance under mysterious circumstances. As a teenage horror fan, this always drove me insane: even considering the problems with transcribing as much detail as these stories held in the space of weeks, much less hours (try taking the minutes to a standard business meeting and then transcribing them, much less writing something concerning a life-threatening situation, in this sort of detail in a couple of hours), far too many tales of this sort ended in mid-sentence, as the narrator was snatched away by whatever threat was on its way to kill/eat/rape him/her during the transcription. This never made sense in literature, but it makes perfect sense in The Blair Witch Project, as Heather starts videotaping everything going on with the intent of making a permanent record and then continues as a way of protecting her weakening sanity. Without giving anything away, the same sudden ending that never worked in literature works perfectly in film, and it almost literally takes the breath away in what it implies.
All of the nice things mentioned doesn't mean the film is perfect: astute readers of horror fiction may note disturbing similarities of one plot point to the Karl Edward Wagner story "Sticks", and I have a feeling that Wagner's estate would have as much of a case for plagiarism as Harlan Ellison did against The Terminator. However, it manages to drop everything else in its attempts to build to an appropriately murderous climax, which is more than can be said for a lot of "horror" films.
That said, I'm jumping to the front of the crowd by stating in advance that The Blair Witch Project will be hailed as the film that resurrected the horror movie, if it does well in the next few months. That is, if history repeats itself.
As mentioned before, the horror boom in the late Seventies rested with the contributions of John Carpenter, George Romero, and Ridley Scott, who wanted to do nothing more than make effective films that made a little bit of money. That they ended up inspiring a new generation of filmmakers was almost incidental: they made enough money to convince any number of distributors and producers that they too could make a fortune from horror films. When Friday the 13th, a very poor, horror-free copy of Halloween, managed to become a runaway hit in the spring of 1979, it started the whole slasher film boom, which finally died out in the early Nineties, but popped out of its grave again with the success of Scream. Alien and Dawn of the Dead didn't produce any ripoffs more successful than the originals (although Lucio Fulci's Dawn clones, such as Zombie and Gates of Hell, helped restart the Italian film industry, and Galaxy of Terror acted as a training ground for a young James Cameron, among others), but they made great catch-phrases in Hollywood script pitches: "It's a cross between Alien and Kramer vs. Kramer..."
Because of this, the world ended up with a lot of utter garbage, especially all of the slasher films named after holidays (Mother's Day, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool's Day, Mother Theresa's Birthday, ad nauseam), but a few gems managed to sneak on in. If not for the push back then for ongoing product, we wouldn't have snagged Phantasm or The Evil Dead, and the occasional successes within these escapees allowed Hellraiser, Near Dark, Nightbreed, and Dead Alive. The demand for horror films, real horror films never died: what died was the demand for predigested pap that insulted the intelligence of its audiences.
What caused the perceived boom in slasher films was the misunderstanding of why Halloween was so popular: the only reason these succeeded was because of their incredibly low budgets, which meant that a total weekend draw of $2 million paid for the film and made everyone involved a lot of cash. I suspect that The Blair Witch Project will do the same thing, as producers start scrambling for low-budget horror films intended to cash in on the success of Blair. Right now, I'm all for it: if the scramble allows the production of a decent adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Whisperer In Darkness" or something new that we didn't know would scare us to death, then a few cheapass direct-to-cable student films are a reasonable admission.
With this in mind, I wholeheartedly endorse The Blair Witch Project, if only to remind all of us what a horror film, as opposed to a scary movie, can be in capable hands. For those with tendencies toward motion sickness in the movie house, pop a couple Dramamine, because you really don't want to miss this.
Paul T. Riddell is a Michigan-born, Texas-raised essayist and columnist currently residing on Mount Briscoe overlooking downtown Dallas. Those seeking further abuse should visit The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness at http://www.hpoo.com.
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