The Blair Witch Project and the Challenge of Franchise Building

When it was released in 1999, The Blair Witch Project was as much a cultural phenomenon as it was a box office sensation. David Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s found-footage format film was a cross-over hit. This was popular culture that inspired water-cooler talk. Its viral marketing campaign, which included mock news and documentary footage, was the first of its kind. To be fair, The Blair Witch Project was not the first example of found footage horror (FFH). That distinction goes to Cannibal Holocaust. Nonetheless, Myrick and Sanchez revived the format and made it palpable for mainstream audiences.

Most importantly, the story had a rich mythology that negated the need for elaborate effects and graphic violence. Indeed, it’s The Blair Witch Project’s subtle world-building that makes it such a fun film to re-visit. Today, major studios are desperate for film franchises that they can expand into sequels and spin-offs. Yet for every Marvel Cinematic Universe or Conjuring universe, there’s a Dark Universe or DC Comics shared world.

To date, we’ve seen two attempts to give Blair Witch a franchise. Both of these efforts have underwhelmed. In this edition of The Laboratory, I take a look at where these efforts have gone wrong. As well, I consider possible future directions to revive The Blair Witch Project.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

Following the box office success of The Blair Witch Project, Artisan Entertainment understandably wanted a sequel. Perhaps hoping to cash in while public awareness was high, Book of Shadows was rushed into development. Original creators Haxan Films and Myrick and  Sanchez had little to no involvement in the sequel’s creative development. Artisan Entertainment opted to hire a first-time director, Joe Berlinger, to take the reigns. Following its release, Berlinger claimed that much of his vision was cut from the theatrical print. Not surprisingly, Book of Shadows was doomed before it was ever released.

In spite of these production issues, Joe Berlinger’s concept for Book of Shadows wasn’t a bad direction for a sequel. Berlinger opted to set the story in a reality where the original film was in fact a work of fiction, which opened the narrative up to numerous possibilities. In addition, Berlinger’s decision to abandon the found footage format also removed a lot of possible constraints for generating new scares.

Larry Flaherty, as the scene-chewing Sheriff Craven, seems to think he is in a different movie.

Yet in spite of its clever film-within-film, Book of Shadows was an absolute mess. For starters, Berlinger and Dick Beebe’s story suffers from several gaps in logic. The Blair Witch Project had a coherent mythology, whereas Book of Shadows can’t seem to make up its mind about what is and what is not real. Things seem to happen in the sequel for the sake of happening. Most of the acting performances range from stiff to barely satisfactory. Lanny Flaherty, as the scene-chewing Sheriff Craven, seems to think he is in a different movie.

Book of Shadows 1

Blair Witch – Sequel or Remake?

Horror fans hold Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett in fairly high esteem. After all Wingard and Barrett are responsible for You’re Next, The Guest, and V/H/S. When the filmmakers announced their mystery project entitled The Woods was in fact a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, horror fans were understandably quite excited. In contrast to Book of Shadows, the duo were giving fans a proper sequel using the found footage format. Blair Witch also offered fans a direct story connection to the first film.

So where did Blair Witch go so horribly wrong? To the contrary, Blair Witch is not a terrible film. In fact, Wingard and Barrett delivered a movie that significantly improved on Book of Shadows. Arguably, Blair Witch’s biggest problem is that it is more of a reboot than a direct sequel. In spite of its narrative linking one character to the doomed Heather Donahue, Blair Witch seems largely content to rehash the original movie. It’s a ‘re-quel.’

Even with several genuinely scary moments, Blair Witch seems largely content to rehash the original movie. It’s a ‘re-quel’.

Even with several genuinely scary moments, Blair Witch can’t escape the feeling that you’ve seen it all before. Wingard and Barrett add a few news twists here and there. For instance, a drone gets thrown into the mix, opening up some interesting opportunities for unique scares. Sadly, like most of the unique twists to the narrative, the drone really doesn’t play much into the movie. Aside from giving the audience a glimpse of the witch herself, the Blair Witch is haunted by familiarity.

blair-witch-still

Next Steps for The Blair Witch Project

In a world where Hellraiser and Puppet Master films keep getting released, it’s hard to believe we can’t get another decent Blair Witch film. This is assuming there’s any public appetite for another movie. But with such a well-established mythology, it would be a shame to let a potential franchise slip away. So what are some possible directions?

Following the failure of Book of Shadows, several stories circulated on the Internet about a potential prequel. Specifically, rumours suggested that Myrick and Sanchez were considering telling the story of Elly Kedward, the source of the Blair Witch curse. Prequels can certainly be flawed. Inevitably, the prequel has to give audiences an expected ending, thereby eliminating some suspense. You knew when you were watching George Lucas’ prequels that Anakin Skywalker had to become Darth Vader. Origin stories have also become an increasingly lazy way to squeeze out more films in a franchise. Did we really need a movie to explain to us how Hannibal Lecter became an ingenious cannibal?

Yet the prequel route may be the best option for a new Blair Witch film. It negates any debate about adopting the found-footage format. Furthermore, a film focused on Elly Kedward is so far removed timewise from the first The Blair Witch Project, that it wouldn’t have to worry as much about pigeonholing its story to force connections. It could be left to tell its own story. A film focused on the oppression of a young woman accused of practicing witchcraft, if done right, could also find much relevancy in our current era of #MeToo and #TimesUp.

For franchise-hungry studios, Elly Kedward-focused prequel could carry on with its own sequel focused on Rustin Parr and The Burkittsville Seven. Both of these films could produce atmospheric period pieces. Now a downside of prequels is the risk of overexposing the Blair Witch mythology. Much of the success to Blair Witch is how much of what happens is truly unknown. While there’s a rich mythology, the original movie doesn’t show you much; it doesn’t try and explain everything. Audiences are left to draw their own connections between the myth and onscreen events.

The Blair Witch Has Another Good Movie In It

No film necessarily needs a sequel or prequel. To be honest, The Blair Witch Project is a perfect film that doesn’t need further expansion. But sequels are going to happen. With that being said, if there’s a horror film that could fuel more films, The Blair Witch mythology is among the best candidates. Rather than a sequel, the best direction may be to delve into that mythology and go into the past. Sequels run the risk of playing down to the audience and rehashing what worked the first time. But a prequel could allow a strong filmmaker to explore the mythology in a new way. There doesn’t appear to be any current plans for the franchise. But the way movie-making works, it would be somewhat shocking if The Blair Witch was left dormant.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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