America hasn’t seen much in the way of horror films since the “slasher”/thriller sub-genre overtook and killed the flow of films in the 1980’s. Now that we have two high profile, but polar opposite, domestic products released at nearly the same time, perhaps we should review what it takes to make a good horror show.
In one corner, we have a piece of work produced by a veteran action director with top-of-the-line production talent, all the money in the world, an extremely talented cast (well, most of them), and a truly great horror film as its basis (“The Haunting”). In the other corner, we have a film made with no money and an inexperienced cast in the middle of nowhere by two first-time directors from Florida with one great idea (but that’s one more than the other guys had). This would be “The Blair Witch Project”. So which do you think ends up as the better film?
In “The Haunting”, Liam Neeson stars as Dr. David Morrow, a psychologist who has gathered under pretense three insomniacs to the reputedly haunted Hill House to conduct an experiment in fear. One of them, the long-suffering Nell (Lili Taylor) seems to have an unusual connection to who or whatever inhabits the house.
In “The Blair Witch Project”, three student filmmakers, Michæl and Josh led by the domineering Heather, hike into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland to shoot a documentary on the legend of the “Blair Witch”. At the onset, we are told they disappeared and what we are about to see is their footage which was found a year later.
Now, what exactly constitutes a “horror” film? In a broad sense, you begin with a regular character, or characters with which the audience can identify. The characters, acting as surrogates for the viewers, then encounter something, a monster or some sort of “force”, outside of their experience that gradually strips away the illusion of peace and order of their existence. What differentiates a horror film from, say, a natural disaster flick would be that the force is actively malevolent and at least some aspect of it can not be rationally explained, not with our accepted scientific view of the world. A great white shark, however hell-bent on killing, can be dealt with rationally, allowing the protagonists to fall back on a science for a resolution. Ghosts and witches can not be explained so easily, so our heroes will just have to come up with something on their own. In the process, the heroes will be stripped down to their basic character as their normal, rational behavior will not get them out of this mess.
It all comes down to the generation of fear. In the end, what are we all afraid of? THE UNKNOWN. The reason why is that when we encounter the unknown, we don’t really know how to react. This reaction becomes a test of character, and forms a natural basis for drama.
So, how successful are these two new releases as horror films? Let’s go over some basic elements:
1) Can you identify with the main characters? ^ Haunting: NO. ^ Blair Witch: YES. ^
2) Do the filmmakers try to rationally explain the malevolent force ^ Haunting: YES. ^ Blair Witch: NO.
3) Is the malevolent force believably frightening? ^ Blair Witch: YES, it plays on all our fears of the irrational. ^ Haunting: Only if you can’t separate videogames from reality and thought “The Phantom Menace” was pretty good. ^
4) Is darkness used to it’s best effect? ^ Blair Witch: Yup. You can’t tell what the hell is out there, only that it’s THERE. ^ Haunting: Nope. This is the most well-lit horror film I’ve ever seen. Dreamworks paid a lot of moolah for that house set, and Jan De Bont will be damned if he isn’t going to show it. ^
5) How is tension initially generated? ^ Blair Witch: They tell you up front that it ain’t going to end well. ^ Haunting: You can’t figure out which is more ludicrous: the characters or the special effects. ^
Soooo, is “The Haunting” successful on any level? The film pays so much more attention to the production design, at the expense of character, story, and believability, you’d think Warner Bros. had made it. From the final product, not only do I not think Jan De Bont has never seen the original Robert Wise film, I don’t think he’s every actually seen a horror film. Have you ever seen a single computer generated effect that scared you, more than just the unexpected sound of a door slamming behind you?
The studio reportedly spent around $8 million to build the house set, a drug-addled vision combining San Simeon and The Winchester Mystery House. Despite this, even though the house has been supposedly unoccupied since it’s original robber-baron owner died at the beginning of the century, it has a quantity of electric light rarely witnessed outside of Las Vegas.
Did anyone think this film through? Was this picture the result of anyone’s long held vision? Did the studio not have any cash left over to polish the script? It wouldn’t be so galling if the cast didn’t include a guy (Owen Wilson) who actually co-wrote two GOOD films (“Bottle Rocket”, “Rushmore”). Writer/directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made mistakes, but at least they knew where they were going with “Blair Witch”. I can’t tell what anyone was trying to do with “The Haunting”.
There are a lot of horror films due out over the next year. A lot of great directors, particularly in the 1970’s cut their teeth in the genre. If you want to see good horror films continue to be made, you’ve got to be discerning in what you see. You shouldn’t support crap like “The Haunting” any more than crap like “Wild, Wild West” or “The Avengers”. If so, maybe filmmakers like Myrick and Sanchez will give us back something other than “Twister” and “Speed 2”.
SPECIAL WARNING FOR THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT: ^ If you’re like me, you like to sit in the first 10 or 15 rows of the theatre so the screen fills your field of vision. This one time, do yourself a favor and sit in the back of the theatre. As the film is actually shot by the three actors using two handheld cameras, there’s a whole lot of “shaky-cam” in use, especially when they’re holding the cameras and running through the woods. I sat close to the front and about half-way through, I could have really used a hit of drammamine. I guess I should have eaten something before the movie. It’s the first film in a while for which I can say, “it made me sick to my stomach”, but not in a good way. ^