The light at the end of the tunnel was finally beginning to show.
After several years of every Gen-X-er grabbing a camera and churning out no-budget film after no-budget film in hopes of being the next flavor-of-the-week overnight sensation, a la Kevin Smith or Robert Rodriguez, those immense credit card bills were finally making the bandwagon look less attractive to be on. However, the renewed public interest in the horror movie genre (Urban Legend, The Faculty) combined with the recent successes of many low-budget, shot-on-video feature films (The Big OneThe Celebration, Chicken Hawk) is bound to start a whole new bandwagon to jump on.
In the past, the fake-documentary concept has been pulled-off successfully with comedies (Bob Roberts, This Is Spinal Tap, ...And God Spoke), but attaching it to the horror genre gives it a much needed new life. The addition of promotional tools, like websites or books, used to try to "fool" the audience into accepting the film’s fiction as fact adds to the fun.
The Blair Witch Project, while not only being the best film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (despite not being in competition), may also be one of the scariest movies ever made. It was quickly picked up for distribution by Artisan (who had recent success with Darren Aronofsky’s PI). Directed, written, and edited by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, the film is a pseudo-documentary about three film students hiking into the woods to make a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch. The story unfolds as we watch the video and 16mm film that they shoot during their trip.
From the beginning, the audience is fully aware that the three protagonists are not going to make it out of the woods. The suspense of finding out why is what makes the film so scary. They encounter strange scarecrow-like stickmen hanging in trees and odd little piles of rocks, and at night they are tormented by the sounds of breaking sticks and laughing children. Their tolerance for one another and their predicament is tested to the fullest. The horror itself is subtle, making it all the more effective. It all adds up to a truly frightening, creepy experience seen through the eyes of the story’s cast.
Shot mostly on video, with occasional 16mm, and then blown up to 35mm, The Blair Witch Project may turn out to be the most groundbreaking horror movie ever made despite it’s small budget. It bares many striking similarities to another film, Lance Weiler & Stefan Avalos 1997 film, The Last Broadcast a film that first made headlines for it’s $900 budget and digital format, and later went on to be the first feature film released theatrically via satellite.
The Last Broadcast ’s story focuses on the cast and crew of a public access cable show, who venture into the woods to find the Jersey Devil. Only one comes out alive. The footage shot by the protagonists during the trip makes up the majority of The Last Broadcast. It is the same footage that is used within the film as evidence to convict the lone survivor for the murders of the others.
Both The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project share not only similar story lines and low-budget shooting formats, but marketing ideas as well. Both films have websites that do more to back up the fiction as fact than they do to promote the actual film. The Blair Witch Project site contains supposed police photos, the reconstructed diary of one of the film’s characters, and a time-line that starts with historical information about the Blair Witch legend ending with the parents of the missing characters turning all of the footage over to the producers so that it may be pieced together in order to find out what happened (a project that obviously becomes the film). The Last Broadcast site is designed as more of a fan page for the public-access cable TV show the characters in the film were involved with. It even goes as far as to list all of the known episodes of the shows and puts out a call to anyone who has copies of any other episodes. The events that take place in The Last Broadcast are, as far as the website is concerned, used mostly to mark the end of the public-access cable show. Both sites do include additional pages that let the cat out of the bag, such as how to order merchandise and news updates regarding the status of each film (there’s already a Making Of The Last Broadcast book available).
The use of video in both films adds a reality that may not have been achieved had they been shot in 35mm with large budgets. Video has become a tool of the common man, used to document our lives for our own viewing pleasure. As a result, we’ve grown accustomed to the look and feel of video and the truths it reveals. In the eyes of an audience, video equals reality, while film equals crews, stars, money, and soundtrack CDs. Had The Last Broadcast or The Blair Witch Project been shot on 35mm film with name actors, both films would be commercial flops not even worthy of footnotes in the history of filmmaking. Combining the "real" look video format and the fake-documentary genre only adds to the effectiveness of both films. Any other attempted genre will have to work extra hard to achieve that "reality" (note: the Dogma 95 film, The Celebration, is a good example of a feature shot on video whose filmmaking and storytelling completely overcome it’s shooting format without relying on the fake-documentary concept).
So here it is kids. Throw away your outdated copy of Rebel without a Crew, buy a digital video camera, shoot a fake-documentary in the horror movie genre, and set up a website that treats your subject matter as fact. This bandwagon’s ready to role.