Ginger Nuts of Horror
The Blair Witch Project...a “love or hate” experiment, to be sure; for some (myself included), it stands as an icon of horror at its most pure; mystery, tension, escalating dread, subtly conveyed back-mythology; a wonderful uncertainty engendered in the audience's mind as to what is “real” and what is not. That's the genius of successful documentary or “found footage” horror; even when the audience knows it to be confection; a work of total fantasy, it somehow still manages to undermine that certainty, creating a sense of paranoia that sustains beyond the fiction itself. For others, the film is a vague and empty experience, lacking in the necessary elements to evoke more than a fleeting moment of interest, let alone emotions such as dread or fear.
This is to be expected; horror is, after all, as subjective in nature as comedy; what some might find terrifying, others will respond to with boredom or even humour (I personally find The Exorcist, which many I have spoken with on the subject proclaim as the pinnacle of horror in their own experience, absolutely hilarious, largely due to the colourful and evocative cursing of the possessing demon). However, this phenomena is conflated to the power of N by documentary horror, the format itself immediately alienating entire sections of the audience, regardless of the relative quality or merit of the work, whereas others (again, such as myself) are ineffably engaged by the format. Similarly, the relative success of any work of documentary horror relies even more profoundly on context than more traditional, narrative works:
The commercial and artistic success of The Blair Witch Project largely relies upon the marketing campaign that preceded it: one that took full advantage of the then-putative internet to create false documentaries concerning the film's back mythology, news reports, police investigations, missing persons websites...feeding the pubic uncertainty and paranoia concerning the film, such that, for some years after, some still asserted that there was “genuine” footage intermingled with what the film makers had created.
This could only have occurred successfully at the time, of course (mid to late 1990s), when the internet was a less pervasive and naïve medium; when its audience was of less critical and sophisticated nature. Now, such an effort would be doomed to failure, without an extreme degree of subtlety, planning and preparation (even then, the likelihood of it having the same effect as The Blair Witch Project's campaign is slim to nil).
More recent works in the genre have taken advantage of the nature of the internet itself; type “found footage horror” into the search bar on YouTube or any video sharing site and you will be inundated with independent works created by small studios, film students; inspired individuals on their mobile phone cameras etc etc. For the most part, they are, as one might expect, mediocre to god awful, however, amongst them are rare gems of utmost sophistication; works that not only take advantage of the ready availability of the medium, but utilise the medium itself as their subject: Marble Hornets, EveryManHybrid and Tribe Twelve are all extended pieces of work revolving around a common mythology; one born on the internet and therefore perfectly suited to work promulgated exclusively thereon. All take full advantage of social media and the potential for audience interaction, the ten to twenty minute instalments uploaded periodically to what appear to be legitimate YouTube channels, their content further expanded through a number of obscure blogs, instagram channels, twitter feeds and tertiary channels that the audience must actively seek out in order to appreciate the full experience. This is, in many ways, the future of the format, perhaps even of horror itself; just as horror literature and video games have experienced a significant shift towards the independent in recent years, so too has horror cinema; as larger and more mainstream studios become more conservative in what they are prepared to produce (for fear of alienating particular demographics), the onus shifts towards smaller outlets and independent markets to provide what certain audiences (such as myself) clamour for. As such, it is possible to find numerous examples of small scale or independent horror across social media; entire YouTube channels dedicated to exactly that (notable examples include: Daywalt Fear Factory, the aforementioned Marble Hornets, Moonlight Film and numerous others).
This seems to be the natural evolution of the medium and the market; so much of horror film and TV begins in this manner, even examples that come to have mainstream success or that are picked up by larger distribution outlets.
It's therefore slightly strange and fairly suspicious when a marketing campaign begins for a mainstream horror project; more often than not, the studios responsible have paid little heed to the developments within the genre that have occurred on a smaller market scale, but which mainstream audiences have become aware of, resulting in efforts that come off as hackneyed predictable and unsophisticated purely in terms of their marketing; a sure-fire way to murder even a workable project.
This is certainly the case for the marketing campaign known, up until recently, only as The Woods. Initially, marketing for the project consisted largely of vague and obscure examples of social media advertising; snippets of “documentary” style film footage, websites bearing certain images and dates etc etc. Whilst some became rather intrigued or excited by the project, my own response was somewhat less than enthusiastic: whilst certainly more sophisticated a campaign than most in recent years, it still stands as inferior to the original Blair Witch Project's in terms of subtlety and sheer invention; a work that is approaching almost two decades old at this juncture.
Ostensibly, there is nothing wrong with the campaign; its use of suggestion and misdirection to confuse and intrigue the audience is well done, if not novel; the images provided are interesting and engaging...the large problem lies in the fact that it has been done before and done better; the genre and market have moved on significantly, rendering such tricks and tropes largely ineffective.
But perhaps the most problematic factor of the campaign is that it makes plain that it is advertising a work of cinema; fiction, which immediately reduces the final product in comparison to the aforementioned Blair Witch Project; there is none of the uncertainty, the paranoia; the creeping suspicion that the snippets of footage might in fact be genuine, that made The Blair Witch so incredibly successful. The fact that The Woods initially appeared to be a work in the same format and genre; virtually identical to the The Blair Witch in situation and set up, further ham-strung what appeal the campaign might have garnered.
Recently, the campaign has effectively slit its own throat via the release of a trailer that has revealed the project to be another instalment in the Blair Witch Project franchise; not necessarily a terrible thing, in and of itself, but rendered redundant by the terrible timing of the reveal (the film is yet to be aired in cinemas) and the immediate arousal of audience expectation.
Thanks to cultural saturation not only of Blair Witch mythology, but of “documentary horror” tropes and themes in general, we know what this film will consist of. Presumptuous, you say?; Certainly. I am open to the notion that the film might do something terrifically clever and defeat or invert all expectations of the genre and the franchise; that it may, in fact, be that perennial horror film which serves to reinvigorate horror as a mainstream genre. I hope it is, especially since I have some enduring love for the original film.
Sadly, the trailer itself, unless a fantastically clever double-bluff, does not inspire hope in that regard: As seems to be standard for the industry, at present, the trailer is -or at least, appears to be- an atrocious melange of salient moments from the film. So much so, in fact, that it renders the final product redundant; practically every significant plot point, character moment and set-piece is here, leaving little mystery or intrigue as to how the film will pan out. Worse, what the trailer reveals is little but standard fair for the sub-genre; every familiar beat is hit, every cliché line is echoed, leaving those of us who are familiar with practically any significant work within documentary or “found footage” horror under no delusion as to what it will comprise of.
That is, as previously mentioned, the trailer isn't some huge and enormously clever double bluff. In that instance, you will find me hereabouts again very soon singing its praises.
As it stands, the trailer has effectively murdered any intrigue created by the previous marketing campaign by revealing too much, too soon. My guess is that this is as the result of a studio or distribution label getting cold feet and wanting to profit from the established fan-base of the Blair Witch Project label.
Worse, the trailer is cut and composed as though it is of a more standard, narratively traditional horror film (such as Halloween, The Exorcist et al).
This DOES NOT WORK for documentary or “found footage” horror; arguably more than any sub-genre, advertising and promotion are as much part of such projects as the finished film; they rely upon a degree of verisimilitude that standard cinema marketing techniques corrode, by reminding the audience that what they are watching is a contrived and created thing; a work of fiction. That is not to say that documentary horror requires the audience to believe that what they are seeing is real; far from it, but there does need to be enough in the way of uncertainty and suspension in critical faculty to buy the fantasy to some greater or lesser degree.
The decision to unveil this trailer now and in this fashion has utterly destroyed that possibility for the new Blair Witch Project. A far, far more effective strategy in the long term -and one that might potentially have earned the film instant cult or classic status- would have been to trick the audience; deceive us; not even inform us the film was associated with The Blair Witch Project until we were sat in our cinema seats, consuming the product. That experience of creeping suspicion, of revelation, would have fed into the paranoia and horror of the piece so beautifully, and would have resulted in immediate frisson; the like of which documentary horror requires in order to succeed.
The final film might well be an excellent piece of work; initial reports from those who have been fortunate enough to see it have been generally positive, but the potential for it to be a phenomena has been destroyed by cowardly, hand-wringing marketing decisions that are, ironically, antithetical to the highly successful techniques established by the marketing of the original film.
I will see this; I will make it a point to. I will write a review of the product on its own merits (or lack thereof, as I suspect the case to be). But this marketing campaign, which initially showed so much promise, as soured me to the possibility of it being anything more than mildly diverting; a far cry from the zeitgeist-defining work that mainstream horror so desperately needs in order to reinvigorate itself.