Bloody October: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

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Every year in the run-up to Halloween, I watch as many horror movies as my little horror-loving brain can stand. I also attempt to rectify the oversights of past years and see some classics (cult or otherwise) that have somehow managed to escape notice. This year, the first up is The Blair Witch Project, the horror smash from 1999 that inaugurated our ongoing obsession with the found-footage sub-genre.

Contrary to popular belief, The Blair Witch Project is not the first found-footage horror film. That distinction goes to Cannibal Holocaust, the controversial Italian cannibal film made in 1980. But Blair Witch definitely established some of the hallmarks of the sub-genre that we now see today.

The story is pretty simple: three student filmmakers (Heather, Mike, and Josh) embark on a documentary trip into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland to make a movie about the local “Blair Witch” legend. After they vanish, their footage is discovered and edited into the film we see. The film combines the faux documentary made by the students – including talking-head interviews with local residents to establish the Blair Witch legend – and the “real-life” footage the students take as they get lost in the woods, stalked by an unseen force.

The conceit of The Blair Witch Project is provocative in itself: the documentary footage feels very much like a student film project, with leading questions to residents and silly, posed scenes at cemeteries. As the students head into the woods, the documentary elements are slowly abandoned and the students become the subjects of their own work. They fight among themselves, breaking down psychologically as they wander off map and bizarre things begin to happen. Some of the film’s more iconic images, like stick-dolls hanging in the trees, are incredibly creepy, while others – the POV camera shots of trembling hikers – have become so iconic as to lose their power.

The Blair Witch Project is a weak film in many ways. While it has some good ideas, the conceit begins to strain credulity. Although some excuse is made for Heather’s obsession with continuing to film even in the direst of circumstances, it feels just like that: an excuse. As time goes on, the conceit itself began to pull me out of the film and remind me that these were not actually documentarians lost in the woods, but fiction-filmmakers pretending to be lost in the woods.

The found-footage concept is a difficult one to pull off for just that reason, and it’s to Blair Witch’s credit that they manage to keep it going as long as they do. Still, the shaking camera and heavy breathing does become wearing after a while. Rather than creating horrific tension, it becomes an exercise in trying to understand just what is going on. What am I supposed to be afraid of and why? After all, this is a fiction film; it does need some kind of coherent arc and coherent horror. Not being able to see the monster can often be terrifying, but The Blair Witch Project does not manage to create tension surrounding it.

I also struggled with understanding the actual legend behind the Blair Witch, and the film doesn’t take many pains to establish why certain elements are important. The dolls hanging in the trees, the piles of rocks, the weird abandoned house that makes up the film’s denouement…what are we really supposed to get from all this? I don’t insist that all elements of a film be explained – and a film like this has difficulty providing exposition without it coming off as an info drop – but there was still a sense that the characters knew more than they ever explain.

I’m glad that I have The Blair Witch Project under my belt – it’s a seminal horror film, and influenced quite a few of my favorite contemporary horror films. But it’s far less successful in 2016 than it was in 1999.

Carnival Of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls (1962)

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American filmmaking went through a period of spectacular growth and increased genre diversity throughout the 1950s and 60s. The Hollywood studio system was slowly collapsing, allowing more space for young directors, writers, and actors to step in and start experimenting. While the low-budget horror film Carnival of Souls didn’t achieve cult status until many years after its release, it has all the hallmarks of early American realism, filtered through a horror story that asks more questions than it tries to answer.

Carnival of Souls tells the story of Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a young woman plagued by hallucinations following a near death experience when her car plunges off a bridge during a drag-race. The other occupants of the vehicle are killed, but Mary emerges from the river three hours later with no memory of what happened or how she escaped. A week afterwards, she takes a job as an organist at a church in a small Utah town, hoping to escape from the trauma of her car wreck. But when she arrives in the town, she begins to hallucinate that a bizarre man is stalking her. This all seems tied to an abandoned carnival on the outskirts of the town, though how or to what purpose remains unclear.

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Carnival of Souls relies mostly on the tense, off-kilter atmosphere of the town and its inhabitants, focalized through Mary and her increasing paranoia. The camera work itself feels carnivalesque, managing to instill close-ups and otherwise normal scenes with a sense of foreboding. No one is really normal in this film: Mary’s fellow lodger John Linden is nearly a sexual predator, insinuating himself into Mary’s room and life with self-centered ease; her landlady, the minister for whom she works, and even the kindly doctor who attempts to assist her all seem in collusion with supernatural forces. The film as a whole has a silent-movie aesthetic, especially in the appearance of the devilish ghouls who menace Mary. This element is further punctuated by an eerie organ score that veers between religious and carnival themes. The two overlap as Mary’s hallucinations become more pronounced, and then cut out altogether in key sequences, as though transition from one plane of existence to the next has been imperfectly completed.

Hilligoss’s distanced performance is central to the film’s conceit: Mary is unable to connect to anyone, desperate for human contact one minute and then cold and distant the next. While the other actors vary between amateur theatrics and solid performance, Hilligoss remains both sympathetic and remote; the audience shares her terror, but cannot fully invest in her as a person. Most of the film is told through her eyes, yet there’s a sense of distance even in the most frightening sequences. Like Mary, we are disconnected from this world, and we also feel the terror that goes with that disconnection. It’s an excellent trick that combines cinematography, soundtrack, and the actress’s performance, and lends Carnival of Souls its most basic horror.

Carnival of Souls was made on a budget of $3,000 and has influenced filmmakers like George Romero and David Lynch. Director Herk Harvey never made another feature film, though he was a prolific director of educational and industrial films. It’s a shame Carnival of Souls didn’t do any better at the box office, for it might have encourage Harvey to continue to hone his undoubted abilities in combining the mundane and the supernatural. As it is, the film stands as a cult classic and a deeply influential work that helped shape the future of horror.

Horror Express (1972)

Horror Express (1972)

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Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee made a remarkable 22 films together over the course of four decades – the first being one where they never even appeared in the same scene, as the pair actually appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948. More often than not they were antagonists, pitted against one another in a series of Dracula films from Hammer Studios and as Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. It’s a pleasure to come across a film where the two friends share the screen and are (mostly) friendly with one another.

Horror Express is not a Hammer film, but it certainly looks and sounds like one.  The film features Lee as Sir Alexander Saxton, an archaeologist and scientist who discovers a “missing link” in a cave in Manchuria. Returning to England with the specimen via the Trans-Siberian Express, Saxton hopes to change the face of science with his mummified creature. They’re joined Saxton’s friendly rival Dr. Wells (Cushing), his assistant Miss Jones (Alice Reinhea), and a whole gang of suspicious characters that include a Polish Countess and her husband, a lovely stowaway, and a mad monk.  Also on board is Inspector Mirov (Jose Pena), a police officer following Saxton around after the sudden and inexplicable death of a thief in close proximity to Saxton’s mummy.  As soon as the train starts moving, people start dying. It rapidly becomes clear that the thing Saxton has in that case is not quite as dead as it appears, and is capable of murdering with one glance of its shimmering red eyes.

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Horror Express is something like The Mummy meets Murder on the Orient Express with a healthy overtone of Italian giallo. The influence of the latter becomes obvious during the murder sequences, a bit more violent and disturbingly realistic than your usual horror fare of the time period. The violence is not overdone, however, and the film relies more cleanly on the slow realization of who, and what, is doing the killing. An abrupt shift halfway through the film makes for some excellent tension, while Saxton and Wells join forces to stop the creature and protect as many people as they can.

Cushing and Lee are enjoying themselves here, as perhaps the only English speakers in a Spanish/British horror film with a primarily Spanish cast. They begin initially as rivals and quickly become buddies, facing the monstrous horror with two very stiff upper lips. The pair are always fun to watch together; their chemistry tends to leap off the screen, even when the surrounding events might make lesser actors into hams. The rest of the cast is quite impressive on the whole, with no one standing out as a poor performer among the rest. You have to be willing to enter into the madhouse spirit of a film like this to get any enjoyment out of it, but at least the cast seem game, taking their parts seriously without overacting.

There’s really not much to complain about with Horror Express, so long as you accept the initial and rather silly premise. The denouement does feel rushed, however, and raises a number of questions of plotting that are never satisfactorily answered. The sudden introduction of Telly Savalas as a Cossack commander is jarring, not least because Savalas does not even attempt to sound like a Cossack. The final showdown comes off as perfunctory, especially after some strong tension building over the rest of the film.

I would not put Horror Express forward as the best film Cushing and Lee made together, but it is very far from the worst. It’s a solid, enjoyable hour and a half spent in the company of one nasty monster, and two of the finest horror actors to ever haunt the screen. As we mourn Lee’s passing, we can find a bright spot in the idea that he’s still stalking monsters with Cushing, on the screen and, perhaps, elsewhere as well.