The Blair Witch Project | Where the reboot could take the story next

The Blair Witch Project reboot story
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As Blumhouse announces it’s making a reboot of the 1999 classic horror The Blair Witch Project, we look at how it could expand on the original’s lore.

Sobering fact: The Blair Witch Project is a quarter of a century old in July. Terrifying. I can vividly remember the anticipation of that film, the early viral marketing, the comparisons to The Exorcist with stories of audience members fainting or leaving the cinema in paroxysms of terror.

Whatever you think of it – The Blair Witch Project is a film you either unquestionably surrender yourself over to or simply refuse to let in – there’s little doubt that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s micro-budget 1999 experiment forever changed the horror genre, even if it was far from the first movie to experiment with so-called ‘found footage’.

The word of mouth and excellent marketing which turned the film into a $200m-plus behemoth for Artisan (since swallowed up by Lionsgate) inevitably led to a franchise, though one much less prolific than you might imagine. Joe Berlinger helmed a metafictional sequel of sorts in 2000, Book Of Shadows, but it was then 16 years until Adam Wingard mounted a genuine sequel in Blair Witch, which received a muted response.

It came as little surprise this past week that another reboot, sequel or reimagining is coming, this time from the prolific horror stable of Blumhouse, under the aegis of Jason Blum. Having acquired the rights in a deal with Lionsgate, a further Blair Witch film is almost certain, with more on the horizon should it succeed (a trilogy has already been hinted). Blum certainly knows how to make a hit, building his company on a succession of films that have made it one of the most consistent and bankable producers of horror in Hollywood.

So what exactly should the next Blair Witch film do? In answering this, we should probably put aside the question of whether anyone should have made a follow up to Myrick and Sanchez’s original, except perhaps them (they never have). As a huge fan of the film, and someone who takes a keen interest in any extension of the material, I’m confident The Blair Witch Project will never be bettered. The best for this nascent franchise, in that original form, is almost certainly not yet to come.

That said, the world and mythology of The Blair Witch Project is ripe for deeper exploration. Some fans disagree, but I have always been of the mind that a tie-in fake documentary about the film footage found in the movie, called The Curse Of The Blair Witch (included in the bonus features), is even scarier than the film itself. That additional material adds the context and history to the Blair Witch myth that, if you’re paying attention, explains much of the supernatural goings on in the Burkitsville woods.

Across the span of more than 200 years, said Blair Witch lore contains various chilling events roughly separated by 50 year time spans which enhance the terror around the woods.

Fifty years before film students Heather, Josh and Mike disappear in the woods, an old hermit named Rustin Parr abducts Burkitsville children, kills several of them, and later claims he was instructed to do so by a witch. Fifty years before that, a search party looking for missing people in the woods themselves vanish before being found splayed out, dead, in a place called Coffin Rock, only for their bodies to subsequently vanish.

These are just two moments in Blair Witch history that a future project could choose to depict, if rather than continue to tell stories about the woods today, the series elects to venture back in time and enhance the mythos around the Burkitsville area. The Rustin Parr story could be black and white, a 1940s chiller, perhaps with a local detective hunting a killer with supernatural overtones. Coffin Rock, around the 1890s, could have western overtones, with a search party finding terror in stark woodland. Visual style and theme could play a part in telling stories in this universe without relying on a familiar found footage approach.

Credit: Lionsgate.

Berlinger’s sequel blended documentary visuals with traditional storytelling in the rather strange Book Of Shadows, which sought primarily to skewer the cult of obsession around a popular product such as The Blair Witch Project than truly follow up on the film itself. That task fell to Wingard years later, his Blair Witch film updating found footage stylistics and tropes for audiences with almost two decades worth of savvy, while attempting to craft a sequel that expands on what the first film gave us. I liked it, and how Wingard amps up everything that came before, but it arguably fails to do the first film justice because it tries too hard to be that film in many places.

To go back to my earlier point: you can’t beat The Blair Witch Project at its own game. There is no doing that film, for what it was and the low-fi presentation it gave us, better. There’s no point Blumhouse even trying, because it’s doomed to failure. Critical and fan responses to Blair Witch in 2016 were mixed to say the least, but the knives would be out even further for a new film that carbon copies the original. That is sacred ground. The trick is to find a new approach. Hence the historical possibilities. And there remains one corner that is perhaps the most tantalising, and indeed the riskiest venture: the origin of the Blair Witch.

From what we understand, when Myrick and Sanchez were considering a follow up, this was potentially the story they were looking to tell. As Sanchez explained to JoBlo, plans were once in place:

In our mythology, as far as the Blair Witch is concerned, this thing existed long before it was called the Blair Witch. The Native Americans have been living with this thing for way before Europeans got here. (Myrick and I) wrote a (prequel) to our movie probably more than ten years ago now. Lionsgate paid us and it was a legit, ‘We’re gonna let you guys write a script.’ We were really proud of the script and Lionsgate really did love the script, they just didn’t want to spend – it was a little bit too expensive for them to pull the trigger on it. I understand why they hesitated. But we wrote this script and it had a lot of Native American kind of influence, like you would see this guy on horseback and there was even a scene that gave the origins of the stick figures, why the stick figures were there. … That was the original idea for the Blair Witch movies, we wanted to bounce around in time.

Credit: Lionsgate.

The Curse Of The Blair Witch bonus establishes that the mystery we understand to be the Blair Witch myth begins with a woman named Elly Kedward, who travels from Ireland in the late 17th century and settles in the original township of Blair, that later became Burkitsville. After she uses Pagan techniques to bleed children in order to cure maladies, the hysteria of the time brands her a witch and she’s banished to the woods in winter, left to starve to death. A year later, all the town’s children vanish and Blair is abandoned by terrified townsfolk, at which point the legend of the Blair Witch begins to cement over time with Kedward as the woman, presumably, transformed by whatever dark power exists in the woods. Sanchez continues:

If we had been able to do it, we would have gone back and done the Elly Kedward story, which was the original Blair Witch, which would have had a lot of Native influence, at least a few Native American characters. Then we wanted to go and do a Rustin Parr story. We wanted to do these period piece horror movies, then eventually go into a sequel, six years down the road or ten years down the road. But unfortunately, it just didn’t work out for us to do it.

To me, this sounds like the perfect route for Blumhouse to take with future Blair Witch films. Chilling period horror features that could flesh out a lore and mythology which hints at stranger, even more arcane and possibly ancient revelations than we know currently, and which would differ substantially from what came before.

These ideas have been explored several decades ago in videogame form (Bloober Team’s Blair Witch, released in 2019), but they remain ripe for cinematic rendition. It is highly unlikely via Blumhouse that Sanchez or Myrick would be the directors to make them into reality, but as consultants they could provide important insight into what they devised, lending such ideas to fresh approaches to the material.

Credit: Lionsgate.

It would also be a good PR move. One of the original stars, Joshua Leonard, has been vocal since the announcement of the new film about the mistreatment over the years from Lionsgate as regards their likenesses being used for promotion, poor remuneration, and even elements of exploitation given how The Blair Witch Project went from no-budget experiment to rampant cultural and box office success. He, Heather nor Mike have ever escaped it, or successfully forged careers of note beyond it. The same goes for Myrick and Sanchez. Yet all continue to have what they created exploited for financial gain.

And as I ponder all of this, part of me wishes Blumhouse wasn’t touching any of this at all. There is power and excitement in mystery, and Blair Witch remains a world and mythology that has never been too deeply pillaged in that regard. My fear is by telling these historical stories, they can never live up to the myth and possibility fans have spent a quarter of a century creating in their own minds. As much as I adore the original film and the world it built, part of me doesn’t want to go back into the woods again, and find out the secrets behind the witch.

All I hope is that Blair Witch, if it does have a new lease of life, simply doesn’t try and repeat the past. It could explore its own history and create riveting, terrifying stories in doing so, but it should avoid pulling an Exorcist: Believer and sullying its own legacy. If it did that, much like Heather, I’d be afraid to open my eyes to watch it, much less close them.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his podcasting and books, via here.

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