The Haunting vs. The Blair Witch Project

Ushering in the new millennium of horror movies, one of these films is mighty, the other mediocre.

Officially or not, the millenium is upon us. While technically it doesn’t start until January of 2001, the significance of the calendar rollover is whipping the nation into a frenzy. As if the demise of the global economy and social infrastructure weren’t enough, there’s always the entertainment industry to worry about. I’m afraid it’s too late for Hollywood too.

Hot off the heels of Scream, the newest dynasty in teen slasher movies, is another crop of horror. This breed hearkens back to the “golden” years of the horror film but brings to the genre its unique contribution: millennial paranoia. This is perhaps its most effective asset, as well as a new gimmick ripe for exploiting.

Instead of mere slashers, these new horror flicks add to the list apocalyptic prophecy, spirit channeling, necromancy, and demonic possession. Among the lineup are The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis, Stigmata with Patricia Arquette, Stir of Echoes with Kevin Bacon, End of Days with Arnold Schwarzeneggar, and Lost Souls with Winona Ryder.

But before all this millennial hubbub takes the scene, there were two trailblazing scream-fests this year — one mighty, the other mediocre — that took center stage.

Similarities

  • horror movies involving children
  • stories leave something to be desired
  • the House and the Woods, symbols of terror

If you haven’t heard anything about The Blair Witch Project, then you probably know nothing about The Phantom Menace either. This is the first time an independent film, much less a mainstream movie, has ever matched the hype of a Star Wars chapter. No small feat.

What is it about Blair that captured its audience? As engrossing as a campfire ghost story, it goes like this: three student filmmakers set out on a project to document the legend of an old Maryland witch. They interview the people of Burkittesville which was founded on the condemned town of Blair. Using video and film equipment, they record their findings and mishaps in the thick woods, until ultimately their demise. Their footage, which the audience is watching, was allegedly found a year after their disappearance.

Just what happened in the Blair township in colonial days became the stuff of myth. One Elly Kedward was accused of conducting bloodletting experiments on local children and was banished from Blair. For years afterward, various disappearances were blamed on the “Blair Witch.” The most disturbing tale in the mythos surrounded the murder of seven of Burkittesville’s children at the hands of the town recluse, Rustin Parr. His only alibi was temporary possession by the Blair Witch herself.

The Haunting likewise attempts to paint a horrific story around children. Textile millionaire Hugh Crane made his money off the backs of sweat shop child laborers in the 1800s. He built his gothic Hill House ala Xanadu mansion as a twisted monument to both his excess and their honor. Cherub statues adorn every railing and room. A twelve foot mural of Mr. Crane looms over the stairwell like Ebenezer Scrooge’s goliath cousin.

Just when I felt certain Liam Neeson would never again act in front of a special effects green screen since Phantom Menace, he grins and bears it to play Dr. David Marrow. His character is a fringe psychologist who plans a grand mousetrap experiment for human insomniacs. The voluntary sleep disorder study is actually a front for his research on the suggestibility of fear, and Hill House is just the place for heightening a patient’s susceptibility to paranoia. Why a person suffering from sleep deprivation would attend a slumber party in a house clearly haunted is anybody’s guess.

Among the hapless volunteers is Theo (the voluptuous Catherine Zeta-Jones), Luke Sannerson (Own Wilson from the previous bomb Armageddon), and Eleanor Vance (Lili Taylor, the indie film queen who seems to have had a change of heart regarding big budget movies).

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Blair Witch let me down ever so slightly in that the two real directors, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, cut out a lot of extra footage from the film. The cut scenes include local news station reports and interviews with local and professional historians; basically extracurricular material. Realizing that it was still valuable info on the fictional witch mythology, they instead handed it over to the Sci-Fi Channel for a cable TV special. Their reasoning was to let the “students'” film speak for itself rather than include the supporting information. While the end result is extremely effective, it can lose some viewers that haven’t seen the special on Sci-Fi. The program doesn’t give much away, but actually explains more of the details in the fictional timeline (1700s to present) which doesn’t really come out in the film. If you missed the Sci-Fi special, check out the official website for reference before seeing the film.

Haunting leaves its share of things to be desired. There’s so much prop detail in this ominous house with so little sincere plot background that it’s a shame to see the story bumble a handful of awkward characters into the mix. Spiraling iron stairwells, towering spires, marble hallways, plush carpets, etc., etc.

What starts out as an intriguing setup peters out with hackneyed scare tactics. The infamous Hollywood horror jump scenes are painfully predictable (skeletons popping out of ashes, statues coming to life, ad nauseam). While Hill House itself is the most interesting character, it’s unfortunate we have to waste time with the flesh-and-blood actors at all. Still, you have to admire director Jan de Bont’s attempt at terror. Directing Speed and Twister, the guy knows how to pace an action movie. I’m afraid that his nary-a-dull-moment axiom doesn’t translate well to the horror genre though.

The reason is that horror is inherently psychological. Had de Bont followed Dr. Marrow’s theories of fear, he would have made a real thriller instead of another Die Hard installment. The difference is that he showed us too much. Computer graphics illustrate every scene, turning a haunted house movie into a theme park ride. The effectiveness of a horror film is gauged by how deeply you can get into an audience’s head, and in the case of the haunted house sub-genre, none did it better than Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, or even the comedic House.

Blair Witch also used a tenable symbol of terror but to better execution: the forest. Many people are scared of the woods (hylophobia) and for good reasons. As children, the isolation and exposure associated with the wilderness is a powerful source of fear. As adults, the disorientation and lack of concrete-paved civilization can be just as frightening. Whichever the reason, Blair expertly exploits this very primal fear. There is a palpable sense of dread as the three students get lost in the heart of the thick Maryland forest.

Differences

  • production bankroll and star power
  • psychological thriller vs. the eye-candy thriller
  • players enacting real fear or actors faking fright

Haunting is the epitome of a big studio product. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The entertainment empire in Hollywood works on simple supply and demand. The studio in question is DreamWorks SKG, Spielberg’s infant movie machine and strong competitor to Disney.

With a creepy sounding old woman’s voiceover, even the limerick tagline of Haunting smacks of its alluring big budget: “Welcome to Hill House. This is its body; these are its eyes, and this is its skin. Won’t you come in?”

The most fundamental difference separating Blair and Haunting is financial. Blair is an independent horror film made by two student filmmakers. Co-director Sanchez has estimated in interviews that production of Blair was “…about the cost of a fully loaded Taurus,” a modest $30,000. To be sure, this shows. There is no gratuitous blood to speak of, no slick computer graphics, no explosions (gasp!). I’m quite certain that Haunting was at least a thousand times more expensive to make.

By contrast, Blair‘s more narrative tagline reflects it’s documentary feel: “In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittesville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. One year later, their footage was found.” Simple, yet genuinely intriguing.

On the other side is Haunting with its entourage of crewman and big name stars. Interestingly enough, the only one of the bunch that seems earnest about her material is Lili Taylor, who was up until now an exclusively independent film thespian. Blair‘s cast however is meager. Although their status is going to change forever as they enter cult classic stardom, the actors chosen for Blair were completely unknown in the industry.

Bump in the Night

To truly scare someone within the confines of a darkened theater and rolling strip of film isn’t the easiest thing to do. On the other hand, it isn’t terribly hard to get that audience to jump on command. But to sustain a room full of sincere dread is a trick that most movie companies wouldn’t try even if they could. For one, it isn’t the kind of movie that will sell big. General audiences (not the cult following crowds) love to be scared, but not for prolonged sequences. Haunting opts for the scare-by-number routine.

So there’s a big difference between sneaking up behind an unsuspecting character with some creepy music or spilling lots of gory blood, and getting inside an audience’s collective mind and twisting their fear nerves. Blair aspires toward this kind of terror.

To illustrate, two distinctly terrifying moments in film / TV come to mind. The first is an old classic episode of “The Twilight Zone”, the one with William Shatner playing an airline passenger who’s afraid of flying. The twist is that we see this man’s fear from his perspective as he begins hallucinating about a creature out on the wing. Or is it a delusion? We never really know for sure. But our first hazy glimpse of the beast is enough to make the skin crawl.

Another chilling moment is the Hitchcock masterpiece Rear Window. Jimmy Stewart plays a man temporarily in a wheelchair with a broken leg, occupying his time by spying on his neighbors with a telescope. His paranoia grows when he suspects one neighbor has murdered and dismembered his wife. The terrifying scene comes when the man realizes that he is being spied on and chillingly peers back up at Stewart through his telescope.

Likewise, the success of Blair depends solely on the willingness of the audience to extrapolate the terror in their minds. The bad guys, if they even exist, aren’t ever shown. All the impending doom lies just outside of the camera’s view. Adding to the overall effect is the first-person aspect of the film. In seeing the events unfold through the students’ eyes, we embody their characters, sharing their hysteria and panic. This can be far more frightening than any animated statue in Haunting.

As a horror movie, it would seem that Haunting is inherently self-defeating, since it’s too hard to soak in the scenery and be scared at the same time. As a popcorn screamer, I suppose it succeeds pretty well. Watching the movie is like literally going to a haunted house. To the filmmakers’ credit, they nailed the setting in filling the screen with huge creepy architecture. The actors look like small children inside its ominous scale. I think this is the feeling they were going for, given the theme of the movie.

If only character fear were so easily painted with digital effects. It’s rare that an actor can find the motivation to become truly scared on film. In Haunting, the special effects and enormous sets can only go so far. The actors have to fill in the rest.

In Blair, the actors’ fear is quite authentic. They really were out in the woods being chased in the night. That’s real panic in their voices and real tears streaming down their faces. I can’t help but wonder what real psychological damage Blair had on its three actors. The fact that all of the actors in Haunting are upstaged by a very animate and elaborate house is disheartening.

It’s a joy to see how the film industry has been shaken by Blair‘s success. It deserves every accolade for being an original film in times of movie staleness. Yet, I don’t look forward to this time next year, as no doubt Hollywood will be releasing their own refurbished version of Blair.

The Blair Witch Project is by no means mere child’s play, as is the haunted house formula of The Haunting. Instead, it takes the child-like superstitions of yesteryear and graduates to a new class of adult-sized terror.

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