#12: Scream 1996 Dir. Wes Craven / The Blair Witch Project 1999 Dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Today’s entry comes in two parts and includes two films: The Blair Witch Project and Scream. I should tell you all that I began writing this list as a way to express my love of the horror genre to people who may not care about it as much as I do. I wanted to curate a list of films that show the best the genre has to offer. Some entries on this list have their place solely for entertainment purposes (Evil Dead II) while others represent a more historical significance (Nosferatu). I chose these two films (Scream and The Blair Witch Project), because not only are they entertaining, but they are the biggest keys to understanding the post-modern horror we’re currently seeing in cinemas.
Scream is the story of a group of high school students being methodically hunted and murdered by a masked killer. Now, outwardly this premise seems like every other teen slasher film. However, it’s the film’s fresh take on the tired tropes that we’ve come to expect from horror that makes Scream stand out. Within the first ten minutes of the film, we follow a young woman through a phone conversation that is nothing but an increasingly sinister discussion on horror movies. After this conversational red flag, we witness our main character make every mistake that a horror heroine can make and it’s not long before we realize we’ve been Psycho-ed. It is after this first scene, we begin to feel taken aback. It slowly dawns on us that the filmmakers are just as familiar with these horror conventions as we are, and they can use our preconceptions to the film’s advantage. The most telling scene in the entire film, takes place during the house party. Film freak, Randy, breaks down the “rules” of the Hollywood slasher film while watching John Carpenter’s Halloween. This self reflexivity reminds the audience that they’re watching a horror film and makes us pay keen attention the plot and characters to see what rules the filmmakers are going to dredge up and then break. Scream was perhaps the first popular horror film to use plot to discuss the overused tropes of slasher horror, and for us, it was a revelation. But unfortunately like any fresh idea, there are pretenders that gain steam from fresh ideas and the remainder of the 1990s gave us a host of similar films and parodies that had none of the originator’s wit or intelligence. But horror is always a double edged sword and I should point out that without the self-referential post-modernism of Scream, we wouldn’t have such films as Cabin in the Woods, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and Tucker and Dale versus Evil.
The Blair Witch Project follows a group of film students into the Maryland woods while making a documentary about the local legend known as the Blair Witch. This film has no special effects and relies primarily on the psychological to frighten its audience, and it works. The Blair Witch Project uses its “low-budget look” to great advantage. By using a documentary style, the audience is a given a shortcut into the personalities and situations of the characters. We are meant to feel the terror at the heart of this film instead of focusing on plot or story. This film shoots from the hip and it definitely pays off. The significance of Blair Witch, with regards to the current horror film climate, is its introduction of the “found footage/documentary/cinema verte style” to modern audiences. Other films had done this sort of thing before (Cannibal Holocaust, Man Bites Dog and The Last Broadcast). However, through an effective advertising campaign, which winkingly suggested that the footage was real, The Blair Witch Project proved that a low-budget film could achieve major buzz and great financial returns. The success of this film hinged almost entirely on its style and with everyday use of YouTube and camera phones, we are now more than ever used to the concept of homemade video. So if you’re looking for something to blame for the glut of found footage films these days, you can place your blame squarely at the doorstep of The Blair Witch Project, the first super successful, “found footage” horror film.
If you want to look at the state of post-modern horror films, look no further than the two films mentioned above. Blair Witch gave us found footage and Scream gave us self reference and though these films don’t permeate every aspect of the genre, they have each dug a trench that horror continues to follow and occasionally fall into.