Hollywood Tries to Resurrect 1999 With a New Blair Witch
The surprise announcement of a sequel to the horror classic lays bare how much has changed in moviemaking in the last 17 years.
For months, a small horror film called The Woods has sat on the 2016 movie schedule, notable only for being the latest feature from the up-and-coming genre director Adam Wingard (who made low-budget hits like You’re Next and The Guest). Rumors began to build up around the project’s vague title and general plot ambiguity, and at last week’s Comic-Con the film was screened with an entirely new title: Blair Witch. It turned out Wingard’s film is a stealth sequel to The Blair Witch Project, that classic of indie horror and progenitor of the found-footage boom, and it’s due to hit theaters in September.
Like many sequels or reboots, Blair Witch is easy to dismiss as a cynical bit of Hollywood moneymaking. It’s looking to cash in on nostalgia, trading on an established name even though the Blair Witch “franchise” (which amounts to just two movies, including a largely derided sequel) has been long dormant. But it’s also easy to see the appeal of The Blair Witch Project, not just for its surprising box office, but for the era it represents. It was one of the crown jewels of 1999, now regarded as a standout year in Hollywood history, with films that cast a long, influential shadow over the future of the movie industry. In fact, if you take a closer look at the films of 2016, it’s obvious studios are trying to recapture that magic—for better and for worse.
Some of the titles in 1999 are very familiar. At the top of the box office was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first go-round at reviving the most successful franchise of them all, a process that began again last December with The Force Awakens. There are Disney hits, including Pixar’s Toy Story 2 (the fourth entry hits theaters in 2018) and Tarzan (one of the last successful animated Disney musicals before the genre’s revival with Frozen). But at the time, there were also a tremendous number of original films, a conspicuous lack of superheroes, and a number of low-budget, out-of-the-box successes that are still being vainly copied to this day.
The Blair Witch Project was the ultimate little engine that could, grossing $140 million against a $60,000 budget on the back of a “viral marketing campaign” that somehow took hold in a pre-YouTube, dialup internet age. It helped spawn a finely tuned economic model, with independent companies like Blumhouse Productions churning out a handful of micro-budgeted horror films a year, most of which are almost guaranteed to turn a profit thanks to their low financial outlay. Some of the year’s biggest profit-makers are tiny horror movies like Lights Out, which opened to $22 million last weekend on the oldest premise there is: Don’t turn out the lights, because there are monsters in the dark. Blair Witch will be aiming for a similar audience response.
Despite The Blair Witch Project’s success in 1999, it was overshadowed by an even bigger horror movie, The Sixth Sense, a simpler ghost story that remains the biggest career success both for its director M. Night Shyamalan and its star Bruce Willis. Dispensing with cheap scares or supernatural CGI, The Sixth Sense was the kind of old-fashioned chiller that built momentum through word of mouth, a then-rare horror film that found an audience in the otherwise action-packed summer months. After some lean years for the “classic” horror genre (i.e. anything that didn’t involve found footage), it’s now roaring back into popularity. The Conjuring 2 is one of the biggest hits of the year despite violating every rule of the lame horror sequel: It’s incredibly long (135 minutes), light on jumps, and heavy on religious allegory.
The rest of 1999’s hits also prove how drastically Hollywood norms have changed. That year’s Best Picture Oscar went to American Beauty, a dark adult drama that became a box-office sensation; these days it would likely struggle to even be released by a major studio. Most of the other big-budget dramas of 1999 likely wouldn’t thrive in today’s studio system: Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut, Three Kings, Election, and Being John Malkovich. In 2016, those kinds of offbeat films are made for much smaller amounts of money and rarely get the wide releases they deserve—though the internet has made at-home viewing easier, which might help movies like Swiss Army Man, The Witch, A Bigger Splash, and The Invitation have a longer shelf-life.
The top 10 films of 1999 featured just three sequels (The Phantom Menace, Toy Story 2, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) and one remake (The Mummy). Among the wholly original films that cracked that list: The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, and The Matrix, an R-rated cyber-thriller with stylized visuals that rippled through every modern action film that followed it. There was also Runaway Bride, a straightforward rom-com reuniting Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. The last time a rom-com cracked the year’s top 10 films? 2003’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
For comparison, seven films in 2016’s top 10 thus far are sequels or remakes (the others are the animated hits Zootopia and The Secret Life of Pets and the action comedy Central Intelligence). Expand that to the top 20, and 16 are sequels or remakes; of the top 30, 23 are sequels or remakes. Hollywood has hit on formulas that audiences love—superheroes, gag-heavy comedies, and cute animated hits—but outside of that, it’s not trying hard enough to recall the best films of its last golden age, outside of simply remaking them. Blair Witch may well be a fun, terrifying sequel in its own right. But regardless of how good it is, it remains a throwback to a better era of mainstream filmmaking. As the movie industry tries insistently to emulate one of the most interesting years in recent film, it’s missing the ingredient that made that year so successful—originality.