x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Successful haunt

Amid rumours of a new Blair Witch movie on its 10th anniversary, a look at the classic indie's cinematic legacy.

The idea was so effortlessly simple. Three young American filmmakers happily tramp into mysterious woods to film a "documentary" about a local Maryland legend who went by the name of the Blair Witch. They go missing, their troubling footage of what they experienced is found - and the rest is history. These days, though, the true legend of Blair Witch is cinematic: taking a staggering $248 million (Dh911m) worldwide in 1999, it sparked a new genre, called "found footage". Without The Blair Witch Project, there would be no Cloverfield, no Paranormal Activity. No surprise, then, that as The Blair Witch Project celebrates its 10th anniversary, rumours of a sequel have started all over again.

Of course, there's already been a sequel: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Problem was, it was awful. After the huge box office success of the first film, Artisan Entertainment was understandably keen to capitalise on the buzz as soon as possible. The original directors - Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez - were less than enthralled by the prospect, but as is so often the case, Artisan spoke with them, listened to their fears ... and went ahead without them.

In the end, Myrick and Sanchez were listed as somewhat unhappy executive producers, and ridiculously, a director of actual documentaries - Joe Berlinger - was drafted to helm a slick, big-budget follow-up. Even he objected to being forced to make a traditional, mass-market horror film completely at odds with the whole lo-fi aesthetic and original idea of The Blair Witch Project. So it was completed without him. No wonder it was terrible.

There's certainly the sense that Myrick and Sanchez have some unfinished business with Blair Witch. Which is exactly why internet message boards were set alight last week by an incredibly dubious casting notice. Entitled, er, The Blair Witch Remake, it said the film will be shot in Glasgow rather than Maryland. Add to that the fact that none of the producers have ever put their name to a film before, and this effort may end up missing in action, like the characters in the original Blair Witch.

The reason a possible remake hit the headlines at all was because, just a few months ago, Sanchez and Myrick revealed to a horror website that they were "about as far along on a sequel idea as we've ever been". They went on to suggest that it was a completely different kind of film, while remaining true to the original spirit of the first Blair Witch and, crucially, that they were expecting to hear news about whether it was being green-lighted within weeks. And within weeks, there was that odd casting note.

But if Sanchez and Myrick are genuinely considering a Blair Witch follow-up 10 years on, they are also entering a world haunted by ghosts - of their own pasts. "Don't go back" is a truism for a reason: if you're lucky enough to enjoy success, trying to replicate it years later is almost impossible. In Sanchez and Myrick's case, the reason is simple. They had a massive, innovative, surprise success with The Blair Witch Project, and everything they have done since has been a huge anticlimax. Heard of The Strand or Seventh Moon? No, neither have we.

Still, the genuine goodwill the first Blair Witch Project continues to enjoy won't have escaped them. The current "found footage" hit, Paranormal Activity, is hugely effective in its psychological torment, following a couple trying to work out who or what is haunting them as they sleep, but it's essentially At Home With the Blair Witch. The general consensus, too, is that it's not as scary as The Blair Witch Project, or as interesting. When the dust has settled, and when people talk of new-millennial horror in decades to come, it will be The Blair Witch Project that's held up as the master of its genre: for all its low-budget brilliance, Paranormal Activity is likely to be a mere footnote. A traumatising footnote, but a footnote all the same.

All of which leaves just one question. Why has The Blair Witch Project endured? Well, not only does it leave the terror to the audience's imagination: it feels chillingly real. It's one of those rare horror films that has a truth and humanity behind it, which taps into common human fears. It's why it swiftly became not just a great horror genre film, but a classic film full stop. No wonder Sanchez and Myrick want to go back to it - and millions of film fans are devouring any kind of news, no matter how dubious, about when they will.