Review

Secrets of the BLAIR WITCH Commentary Track

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After months of waiting, Blair Witch is finally out on blu-ray, so it's time to restart the hunt for secrets! Sadly, it looks like the mystery dies along with the franchise...

SPOILERS for Blair Witch and it's commentary track!

"To us, the Blair Witch isn't necessarily something that you ever really could show. You know, it's something much older...We kind of thought that people were going to interpret this film a lot of different ways, and we were trying to leave a lot of mystery to it. But of course, um, what we actually discovered is that if you call your movie 'Blair Witch,' anything you show, everyone is just going to assume you're actually showing the Blair Witch, and uh, and then they're going to be annoyed about that."

The Blair Witch blu-ray comes with a commentary track featuring director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barret, so naturally I listened to it expecting insights into the film akin to the above quote. Sadly, it seems that the commentary was recorded shortly after the film flopped, which not surprisingly, isn't the best timing.

Had they sat down and discussed the movie prior to the opening, perhaps we would have heard a tired, but excited conversation packed with cryptic hints about what's really happening in the woods. If they recorded the commentary a month or two after the disappointing reception, maybe we'd have a subdued, measured talk about what their intentions were. Unfortunately, having just experienced what must have felt like the death of an exciting project, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are not just tired and subdued, they're kind of angry.

That's not to say that they don't offer any intriguing information. Though a substantial amount of the commentary is filled with references to how much people hated the film (read my glowing review HERE), there are some real conversations about the way they approached crafting the story and world.

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When the characters first enter the woods, there was an element cut that Adam Wingard believes would have given context to what we're seeing. Lead character James and conspiracy-theorist Lane were originally scripted to debate the origins of the Blair Witch legend. The idea was that, like any other urban legend, there are multiple interpretations of the Witch's story, and as a result, no one truly knows which tale is correct, if any. If this sounds familiar, it may be because I pinpointed this as the central idea of the movie months ago. The creature we see in this movie is not necessarily what everyone calls "The Blair Witch."

Sadly, every time Wingard and Barrett come close to revealing information, they pull away.

"By the way, I don't think it ever occurred to even you or I that people would think that we were actually showing the Blair Witch in this movie, and I will say really quickly, you know, again I don't want to explain anything, but we're hinting in a couple ways about how the Blair Witch...gets the sacrifices needed to keep the hunting going. And you have kind of Lane who's maybe having bit of a Rustin Parr experience, and then Ashley's obviously undergoing a very different kind of transformation..And you know we thought we were, uh..."
"...We're never going to make a sequel to explain any of this shit..."

This, in a nutshell is the commentary. For a moment you're given a peek behind the curtain, only for someone to yank the curtain shut on you. Again, this was the worst possible time to record a commentary, and the listener suffers for it.

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It's worth mentioning that Wingard and Barret obviously have a sense of humor, and by no means am I suggesting they were exclusively bitter. Of course they sound frustrated, but it seems likely that even if they were in the best of moods, they wouldn't put all their cards on the table. Surely the commentary would still feature a lot of vague references to interesting secrets, but the way it comes across feels like they're actively punishing the listener for caring. If I were one of the guys, I'd think this was hilarious. But, well, I'm not.

Towards the end of the commentary, it's mentioned that Blair Witch apparently contains hidden subplots that you need to have some familiarity with the occult to understand. My frustration immediately turned back into the sort of thirsty intrigue that this franchise provokes in me, and with that one cryptic mention of the occult, I feel compelled to re-watch the film on the lookout for any signs of rituals, sacrifices, or who knows what else. (Note to self: learn as much about the occult as possible.)

One of the most surprising revelations on the commentary track was not about the lore of the world, but rather about how one of the set pieces was accomplished.

The tunnel was real.

Callie Hernandez, who plays Lisa, was made to crawl though an actual tunnel, designed to be just too tight for her. According to the filmmakers, not only were there no escape hatches of any kind, she was sharing the space...her stunt-double climbed in behind her, while in front of her was a replacement camera operator, as the previous camera guy had suffered a panic attack! Hello nightmares!

Impressively, Wingard and Barrett comment on how Blair Witch does not feature any CGI beyond simple touch-ups to backgrounds. The creatures we see? All practical. A great deal of effort was put into making sure that anything shown would stand up under scrutiny of freeze-framing and gif-making, and having just tried to catch clear images of the monster in the house, I have to compliment them on a job well done.

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"It could be Elly Kedward. It could be anyone else whose caught up in the haunting."

At a certain point, Barret and Wingard mention that because Blair Witch won't be receiving a green light for a sequel, the character of Peter will remain stuck in Rustin Parr's house forever. According to them, he never died in the film, and now we'll never see what happened to him. This would suggest that a sequel to Blair Witch might feature Peter as the lead, which could have been interesting. Might we have seen Peter end up somewhere in another era, another victim of the time-displacement shenanigans in the woods? Could we have had a non-found-footage film where he meets Elly Kedward and watches as she's kicked out of town and supposedly turned into the witch? Sounds like we'll never know.

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The film of course ends with James and Lisa in the attic of Rustin Parr's house. For a moment, blinding light fills the room, leading many to theorize online about UFO's, time-warping, and more. What do Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have to say?

"You know what, you're not going to get an explanation for these lights. Because you didn't come see this movie opening weekend, so now you're going to have to fucking wonder what's going on out there."
"No Sequels. No Answers."

Again, I find it unlikely that they would have spilled the beans no matter what their mood was, but it comes across as a punishment. Additionally: I was there opening weekend, guys. Hit me up on Twitter and tell me everything.

"Now you'll never see Blair Witch 4 where we show the toilet in the house, which is the only thing you haven't seen yet. Rustin Parr's toilet."

Seriously guys, I like your movie! I'm not even bitter that I wasn't sent one of those sweet promo boxes! Just explain the lights and DM me a picture of Rustin Parr's toilet and we're cool.

To be honest, after listening to the commentary, my interest in Blair Witch as a film has increased, regardless of how the creators feel. Having also watched the other features on the disc, I know that Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett approached reviving the franchise from a place of absolute respect for the original, and excitement at the prospect of contributing new ideas to the old story. Personally I feel like they totally nailed it, as Blair Witch feels like a proper sequel and a springboard for new stories to continue investigating the creature(s) in the woods, all the while deconstructing the way we create myths to explain the unexplainable.

There were never going to be concrete answers on the commentary, but I'm satisfied with the information they did provide, especially as it seems to support my own theories as to the meaning of the film.

To their credit, Wingard and Barrett seem to know I care, as evidenced by their sign off as the credits roll: 

"If you're still listening to us speaking at this point, um, obviously then you're probably a fan of the film, and uh, and so thank you for listening to us, and uh, obviously uh...We're sorry."
"We're sorry that you won't be able to see any more sequels to this film. You may be a fan, but you probably didn't show up on opening weekend, and uh, and we're still bitter about that."
"We're still angry about that. We made everyone's second least-favorite Blair Witch film. Good night."

Well, nevermind.

What do you think? Did you pick up the disc? Leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter to talk it out! Do you wish that blu-rays still had secrets in the menu like DVD's did? I checked anyway, but I guess that's not the way things are done anymore!

UPDATE: After publishing this post, Simon Barrett had a response. I think it shows that they were completely aware of how people would interpret their commentary track. I've gotten a lot of tweets from people saying that they just sounded bitter and shitty, but I still think they tried to approach this with a sense of humor!

BLAIR WITCH doesn't hold back (Review)

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In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary.

17 years later, twice as many people enter those same woods, and the results are remarkably similar. There are just a lot more names to scream.

Well, that's not entirely fair. I want to delve into the nature of the plot and explore what this movie does to up the stakes, but as a lot of that conversation will be spoiler-filled, first I'll get my recommendation and spoiler-free thoughts out of the way.

Blair Witch is a better film than most reviewers have said. It is also an incredibly flawed film. You should see it.

Our lead character is James, the brother of Heather, who went missing in the first film. When James stumbles across a YouTube video that supposedly shows footage found in the very woods Heather disappeared in, which shows one or two frames of a woman wandering through a dilapidated house, James is convinced it's his sister, and they need to go to the woods to find her. Along for the ride are Lisa, who wants to document the events, and James' friends Peter and Ashley, as well as a couple of obsessed Blair Witch theorists, Lane and Talia. We watch their drone and cool earpiece cam footage, found long after they've gone missing.

If you have issues watching found-footage movies, you'll have them watching Blair Witch. Being that I'm not typically a fan of this particular sub-genre, I can't really comment on whether or not Blair Witch features more or less "shaky cam," but I can tell you that a lot of the scenes are punctuated with camera glitches and the intrusive sound of popping electricity in a way that bugged me. Do cameras even do that?

Furthermore, if you aren't a fan of jump-scares, get ready, this film is packed with them. It's almost rare for there to be a scene in which a character *doesn't* SUDDENLY BURST ON SCREEN! I understand that jump-scares are part of the deal when you go to see a modern horror movie, and I understand that films like this seek to emulate the vibe of a haunted house (I'll be going to Orlando Horror Nights next month, and I expect Michael Myers to pop out of bushes [just like in Halloween...?]), but I don't have to like it.

Personally, I find it easy to dismiss the shaky cam and the jump-scares, because they've become so common that I barely notice them, but still, you should know they're both strongly featured. The scares that don't fall into those two categories? They're pretty clever. If you're even the least bit claustrophobic, get ready...

Blair Witch is a story where bland characters find an excuse to venture back into the woods. It's a story that takes a lot more chances than you might expect, and while I feel there are a few missed opportunities to make the film a truly great film-going experience, Blair Witch does it's very best to stand on it's own two feet, despite the fact that most will obviously view it as a somewhat of a remake of the original. I particularly appreciate the somewhat controversial decisions they've made. The story goes in a direction I certainly didn't anticipate, and personally I'm glad for it. They already made The Blair Witch Project, lets do something new.

All in all I'd advise any fan of horror to go see Blair Witch, and I'd particularly recommend it to fans of the original, though I might suggest they go in with an open mind.

Time for spoilers.

When I say that I'm impressed by the controversial decisions they've made, I'm specifically talking about three things: the story's loopy timeline, ghosts who pop-in, and the depiction of "the witch."

Allow me to cut to the chase: the very footage that brought them to the woods (a woman's face seen briefly in the mirror of an old deserted house), is footage shot by Lisa at the end of this movie. More than that: the woman in the footage *is* Lisa. Not only does it provide an interesting twist that James has actually been chasing Lisa this whole time, it struck me as interesting that Lisa and Heather could easily be confused. Both women were first and foremost interested in documenting events in the woods. James has been so obsessed with finding Heather his whole life, is it really any wonder he gravitated toward Lisa? Regardless, we're given our first hint that something is wrong with time when obsessive conspiracy theorists Lane and Talia run away and resurface a day later, claiming 5 days have gone by (see also: Cube 2: Hypercube). Do we believe them? Earlier in the film, Lane and Talia admitted they had hung some of the iconic stick-men in the trees. Couldn't they be lying now? Of course not: by the end of the movie, we meet Lane after yet another impossible length of time, and now he has a full beard. Has it been weeks? Months? Years?

I thought for sure this amorphous timeline would culminate in James coming face to face with Heather. Or: more accurately, coming across a woman in a basement, grabbing her by the shoulder, causing her to drop her camera (roll credits on Blair Witch 1). How could they not do this? Did they think of it? Did Heather Donahue refuse to come back? I was crushed when at best we caught glimpses of a ghost who might be Heather. James locks himself in a bedroom and in a flash of lightning a woman is suddenly in the room, only to disappear a moment later. Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Do I have to go see the movie a second time to confirm? I'll do it. Maybe it was Ashley...

Let me just add that, had they brought Heather into the plot, they could have used Mike, still standing in the corner, to display why you shouldn't ever look at the witch. Distracted by the sudden appearance of James, Mike could have turned, only to be taken and brutalized. Lesson learned for the finale.

This brings us to the witch. I've seen a lot of backlash against the filmmakers for showing her. We already have a movie where they kept her a mystery. They're making a sequel to a polarizing film, with no guarantee of future installments (the box office might have made this more certain). Why not go all the way? What a bold move to not only show the witch, but multiple times? For decades we've lived with the rules that it's scarier to keep the monster unknown or unseen. Jaws practically made it a law. People are quick to recite the rule that movies can never show you something scarier than what you imagine.

Well, Blair Witch pulled it off. Early into the film we're given a new legend about the witch. She was hung from a tree with rocks tied to her arms and legs, like a makeshift rack. The beast we see at the end of the film is large, with overlong limbs, running after us. I loved it.

I'm also not convinced this is actually the Blair Witch. I know, I know, I've already gone too long. I'll state my case another time. Suffice it to say they've created a monster that would kill me of a heart attack before she could even reach me.

The film ends with a tense re-enactment of the original film's iconic selfie shot. Kudos to them for managing to take the camera angle and do something novel with it. In this film they establish that if you look at the witch, she takes you, hence all the standing-in-the-corner in these films (a troublesome retcon of the Rustin Parr tale). When James is tricked by the witch into thinking that Heather is behind him, he turns and is violently pulled out of the film. Lisa is left to turn the camera around and point it backwards over her shoulder, desperately watching the screen to see what's lurking behind her. It's a brilliant move. Of course, though, she's also tricked by the witch, and despite seeing James get wrenched away, she turns, and her camera falls.

Call me crazy, but I think one day the tide will turn for this movie. It's currently taking a beating at the box office and by the critics, but it's a fun film that obviously wants to pay respect to the original while blasting the story and the stakes into outer space. Perhaps literally. I think someday this film will get the respect it deserves, but for now, I'm satisfied. Blair Witch is a tense, clever, nostalgic horror film that didn't leave me wanting anything more. Hell, they even managed to jam in what the stick men are actually for (hint: don't snap them in half). Come to think of it, I almost want one for my collection, is that crazy? I'll just make it myself and keep it somewhere safe.

What did you think of the movie? What did you think of my review? Leave a comment below, and lets get into it. I'm not done with The Blair Witch series just yet. Or maybe the Blair Witch isn't done with me.