The Blair Witch Project
was a bonafide phenomenon when it was released in 1999.
Perfectly timed to benefit from lingering ignorance about the internet and what strange things might be lurking there, the huge success of the film was greatly informed by the hint of ambiguity that surrounded its origins.
Pretty much everyone knew it was staged, but the tiniest amount of doubt went a long way towards enhancing the mythology of the film and helped audiences move beyond the non-existent production values.
It was a wholly singular film-going experience. And that's the problem. Every subsequent found footage movie has suffered for lacking that ambiguity, however minuscule it was.
Now that we are well into the information age, it feels like a scenario that will be impossible to replicate again. Audiences are simply too savvy.
Then there is the other big problem with found footage movies: the question of why characters keep filming when their lives are clearly in peril. This comes up every single time.
In the Instagram/Snapchat era, it is more believable than ever that someone might continue to document something while their life is threatened. But it remains a suspension of belief-destroying aspect of all found footage films. Nothing is gained from the pretence that any of what we're seeing "really happened". It simply raises too many questions. Questions for which no found footage movie has ever really provided satisfactory answers.
This week sees the release of Blair Witch, a late-arriving third entry in the "franchise" that appears to ignore the awful quickie sequel that came out in 2000.
Filmed in secret as a film called The Woods, the new Blair Witch movie was written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, the talented indie horror collaborators behind You're Next and The Guest.
It brings the found footage genre into the world of personal cameras and drones, but then again, so did The River, an interesting, admirable attempt at an hour-long found footage TV show that was inevitably hamstrung by the storytelling restrictions of the format.
According to some early reviews, the new Blair Witch plays pretty fast and loose with the found footage pretence, which makes you wonder why they bothered.
Then again, it's a technique District 9 pulled off with unique aplomb by starting off with completely found footage and developing into a more traditional filmmaking narrative as the stakes increased.
I haven't seen the new Blair Witch yet so I probably shouldn't rag on it, but I can't deny that I'm strongly compelled to skip it altogether.
Whatever potential the found footage sub-genre once had has been wholly squandered thanks to the endless, endlessly unimaginative derivations that came in the wake of the success of Rec (2007), Cloverfield (2008) and Paranormal Activity (2009), the first found footage movies to really build on what The Blair Witch Project started.
Of these three films, only Paranormal Activity offered up an interesting rationale for how and why the footage would exist, but the film's default sequels ran its thoughtfulness into the ground. Not to mention the endless low-budget ripoffs that went straight to DVD and streaming.
It's not hard to see the appeal of the sub-genre to budding filmmakers, but it takes considerable creativity to make the form work.
Crummy production values aren't the issue - it's the very idea that the footage was in anyway "found". The recent minor indie breakout hit Tangerine was shot entirely on iPhones and couldn't look cheaper, but the film carries you along with its spry characterisations and the spark of its story, two elements that are never hindered by questions about how this footage came to be.
I was excited for Ti West's The Sacrament because I love movies about cults, but the found footage format sucked all of the air out of the tension. As well-articulated in this review, it also obscured the filmmaking talents of West, whose movies are usually dripping with stylisation.
Another painful recent example was Exists, which came from Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of The Blair Witch Project. A horrible, suspenseless affair to be sure, its greater crime was setting back the cause of a decent Bigfoot movie by at least a decade.
Nothing makes me hunger more for traditional narrative cinema than watching a found footage movie. It's time we placed a minimum five-year moratorium on the sub-genre to allow it to regain a sense of mystique.