In 1999, a micro-budgeted horror flick came along that forever changed the way motions pictures are made and marketed. As with most paradigm-shifting events, the folks behind “The Blair Witch Project” may not have been the absolute first to do any of the things they did, but they were the first to do them all at exactly the right cultural moment. The story of three college kids encountering a mysterious force in the Maryland woods while shooting a documentary, with the conceit that the film was actual footage shot by the handheld cameras of actual people, became a sensation that crystalized a new genre and ushered in the era of internet movie promotion.
17 years and a whole bunch of cruddy imitators later, this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown takes a look at two of the spawn of “The Blair Witch Project” to see if that revolution has led us into a new and glorious age or been crushed by the weight of avarice and sloth. It’s “Digging Up the Marrow” (2014) vs. “Blair Witch” (2016) in a contest to see who fulfills and who betrays the promise of the original.
“Digging Up the Marrow” (2014) may style itself a faux-documentary but make no mistake, it owes everything it is to the “found footage” legacy of “The Blair Witch Project.” It tells the tale of horror filmmaker Adam Green, played by real life horror filmmaker Adam Green, and his attempt to make a documentary about a man named William Dekker (Ray Wise) and his belief that monsters actually exist. The “monsters” in this case being people born with horrible deformities who, according to Dekker, flee from the normal world to an underground society he calls “The Marrow.” Dekker has spent years tracking these beings and locating the entrances to their subterranean civilization and enlists Adam and his cameraman, Will Barratt (played by Green’s real life collaborator, Will Barratt), to make a documentary about these creatures and Dekker’s search for them.
As you might expect, things don’t go all that smoothly. Dekker’s veracity and sanity come into question, no matter how hard Adam tries to look away, and the search for monsters leads Adam to find more than he ever bargained for.
“Digging Up the Marrow” is superficially a faux-documentary or mockumentary, complete with deliberate editing, on camera interviews and a sound track, which is a separate genre from “found footage” that was greatly popularized by “This is Spinal Tap” (1984). But in its horrific subject matter, a focus on the filmmakers far more than the supposed subject of the documentary, a cast of real people playing themselves on screen, an excess of behind-the-scenes footage that makes up the bulk of the movie, a lack of narrative structure and not one but two separate “found footage” style endings, writer/director Adam Green is clearly following in the footsteps of 1999 landmark.
How does he do? Pretty darn well.
Frightening in a way that doesn’t just rely on manipulative filmmaking techniques and with characters that act enough like normal human beings for viewers to honestly care about them, “Digging Up the Marrow” is a neat little film. Green shows he’s as gifted a filmmaker with seemingly mundane conversations between friends as he is with bursts of energetic thrills. The most interesting character in the movie is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Green himself. A grown man who has achieved a true level of success and fame, the heart of this story is about the boy inside him who still desperately wants to believe in things that don’t exist. Thematically, this film is built on the idea that people are attracted to monsters because they’re looking for others who don’t fit into the ordinary world, only for them to discover that there’s a world of difference between a geeky kid who is unpopular at school and being an abomination of flesh.
“Digging Up the Marrow” has its flaws. It hasn’t much of a plot and kills time with a bunch of unanswered questions about William Dekker, the answers to most of which would be utterly contradictory. Its attempts to be true-to-life unfortunately mutes all of its humor. This movie needed to be more “laugh out loud” funny and less “that’s how me and my friends are in real life” funny. And all of the efforts at verisimilitude are destroyed by Ray Wise. Everyone else in this movie, including some famous folks from the world of horror cinema, are playing themselves on screen. Again, the film is undeniably going for that “this is something that actually happened” suspension of disbelief but that effort is shattered when such a readily recognizable actor shows up as the second most important character in the story. Wise does a great job, as usual, but a legitimate performer would also have almost certainly done a better job as “Adam Green” than Green himself. I liked “Digging Up the Marrow” at lot but would have enjoyed it even more if I could have entirely turned off that part of my brain telling me “this is only a movie.”
There’s no confusion whatsoever about “Blair Witch.” It’s as “found footage” a “found footage” flick as you’re ever going to see, just with the latest in technology, like a drone camera and cameras the characters wear in Bluetooth-style earpieces, so it’s more like we’re seeing things through their eyes instead of looking through a lens. Sadly, that also means the viewer is presented with two-dimensional characters who are nothing more than nails to be pounded down by the Almighty Plot Hammer, banal dialog and nausea-inducing visuals.
And before I get any further, allow me to digress and present a message directly to the makers of “Blair Witch.”
SCREW YOU GUYS.
We’ve known since “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999 that a decent chunk of viewers get motion sickness from the jerky, constantly-moving shots of handheld video. Most of the “found footage” flicks since then have embraced ways of creating the same kind of pretend realism that calmed down the camera so people could watch it without getting a headache and wanting to puke. Not you guys, though! The visuals in “Blair Witch” are even more unsteady, swervy and erratic than the original. I started to feel like I needed to vomit before your movie was 20 minutes old and had to fight the urge to hurl for the next 70 minutes while my brain kept throbbing away. You deliberately made a motion picture that you knew would make some of your audience feel ill, probably because you thought that would distract us from how much it kind of sucks…and you failed at that, as well.
22 years after his sister and two friends vanished in the Black Hills Forest, which in the movie’s reality was a major event that led to an extensive search of the area, James (James Allen McCune) leads three of his friends on an expedition back into those woods. James had seen some video posted online that appeared to be of the same house on the film shot by his sister, video where a woman covered in mud and blood can briefly be seen. Joined by his best friend, Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter’s girlfriend (Corbin Reid), and this chick with whom James has an undefined relationship (Callie Hernandez) that also just so happens to be a budding documentarian, James and company load up with a ridiculous amount of camera equipment, but absolutely no sound or microphones of any kind even though we can perfectly hear them at all times on the footage they shoot, and meet the people who put that video online.
Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) appear to be the gothy town outcasts of Burkittsville, ground zero for the legend of the Blair Witch. They agree to show James and friends where they found the film of the mysterious house but only if Lane and Talia can come along. There’s a reluctant agreement and all six soon find themselves traipsing around the forest. Bad stuff happens, with the Blair Witch making enough noise and commotion that she apparently grew to Kaiju-size since the original film, there’s a bunch of screaming and running and I was feverishly wishing that these characters would hurry up and die so I could stop watching this stomach-churning production. Things do finally end in a tiresome climax that literally takes the last 2 minutes of the original and stretches it out for 20 minutes.
“Blair Witch” is not a legitimate sequel. It is no way a continuation, exploration or expansion of the original. It’s that variety of fraudulent sequel that I call the forced remake. It’s the same damn thing as “The Blair Witch Project,” except it covers up an even flimsier story with fancier special effects and more people to kill off. Does it have some scary moments? Sure, but not because you are engaged with the movie or emotionally invested in anyone on screen. It’s a Pavlovian sort of fear where your brain and body are merely reacting to stimuli. There’s actually a point where the filmmakers throw out three or four of the same kind of jump scares in the space of five minutes, almost as if they are deliberately testing how lazy they can be and get away with it.
The most regretful thing about “Blair Witch” is that it glosses over what could have made for an actually interesting film. There are a few scenes where James talks about thinking his sister might still be alive in the forest. Not that she might have run off and is living somewhere else under an assumed name, but still alive today in the forest where she disappeared 22 years ago. That’s crazy. And not “mildly neurotic” crazy but “you need to see a professional” crazy. If they had made James this dysfunctional wreck who has been obsessed with where his sister is and the people closest to him decided to take him to the forest as sort of an intervention, to confront his delusional fixation, and THEN weird stuff started to happen, that would have been dramatic foundation upon with a legitimate sequel could have been built. Instead, James is just a normal, good looking guy with normal, good looking friends who basically decides to go camping one weekend. When signs of the Blair Witch show up, James instantly says they should get out of there! If he can be scared off by some twigs, why are they there in the first place?
“Digging Up the Marrow” takes this Throwdown by not only proving cinematic life remains in “found footage” storytelling but there are still new things that can be done with it. I believe this may be the first “found footage” movie where…spoiler alert…someone survived to make the actual movie. “Blair Witch” loses by proving that Hollywood takes every creative breakthrough and eventually grinds it down into the same generic pabulum as everything else they produce. A critical failure and shaping up to be, as I write this, a box office disappointment, I hope “Blair Witch” doesn’t convince the idiots running the studios that “found footage” films are passé. Someone needs to release “Found Footage 3D” (2016) on several thousand screens across the country. It’s better than both of these movies put together.
Digging Up the Marrow (2014)
Written and directed by Adam Green.
Starring Adam Green, Ray Wise, Will Barratt, Josh Ethier, Rileah Vanderbilt, Kane Hodder, Sara Elbert, Tom Holland, Mick Garris, Alex Pardee, Steve Agee, Tony Todd and Arwen Green.
Blair Witch (2016)
Written by Simon Barrett.
Directed by Adam Wingard.
Starring James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry and 11 producers. Yep, this thing has 11 producers and this was still the best they could come up with.