Monday, October 27, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project

Portions of these reviews originally appeared in 2011.

 In some ways, it's hard for the Cap'n to believe that The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project have been out there for fifteen years. They don't feel that old, which is not to say they don't feel dated in different ways - both are distinctly products of the turn of the millennium - but it doesn't seem like it's been that long. Maybe the Cap'n is just getting older, which is funny, considering that I saw them when I was in college and technically speaking I'm not that old. Old enough that I can't have Horror Fests into the wee hours of the morning anymore, but y'know, comparatively speaking, not that old. Movies from 1999 just don't feel like it was that long ago, but someone born the year The Sixth Sense came out is getting their learner's permit now.

 Here's a look back at what it was like in those halcyon days of pre-Y2k, when people thought The Phantom Menace might not be terrible and that M. Night Shyamalan had promise. Oh, who am I kidding? At least we weren't tired to death of "found footage," although my friends were very concerned that the "scary bonus footage" on the Blair Witch Project soundtrack was three people bickering in the woods. If we only knew...

(For good measure, I'll throw in the now fourteen year old Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, because nobody's going to be talking about it's fifteenth anniversary next year.)


editor's note: if, for some reason, you actually don't know anything about The Sixth Sense, this is absolutely the wrong review for you. However, if you found this review by Google-ing "Sixth Sense Spoiler," you're going to get it. Consider that your warning.

Long before people hated (or had forgotten about) M. Night Shyamalan, he was the "hot new up-and-comer" with his debut film* The Sixth Sense. If you were somehow drunk for the entirety of the summer of 1999, it's possible that you didn't hear about this suspenseful ghost story with a wicked twist**, and have somehow never seen or heard of the movie where Haley Joel Osment (remember him?) "sees dead people."

 Specifically Bruce Willis (SPOILER), who plays a child psychologist killed in the opening scene by one of his former patients (Donnie Wahlberg). Of course, he doesn't know that until the end of the film, even if eagle-eyed viewers can see that Dr. Malcolm Crowe never physically interacts with anyone during the film and nobody talks to him other than Cole Sear, the kid who sees ghosts. The ghosts, by the way, are spooky and sometimes quite gory (like the accidental gunshot victim kid), but aren't actually dangerous to Cole. Most of them are sad or lonely or need to pass something on. This doesn't stop Shyamalan from milking every ghostly encounter for the maximum creepy factor, but you have to remember that I'm writing this from the perspective of someone who's already seen the film.

 When The Sixth Sense came out, all we really knew about the movie was the "ghost" angle, and that there was a twist. The ghosts are played for scares, and it's quite effective, in the same way that The Haunting (not the one that came out in 1999) or The Others are. It's a clever move not to make the ghosts actually menacing, until you watch the movie again, and then it's just a lot of building tension to mess with the audience in order to pull a switcheroo. The same problem exists with the twist, because a) if you know there's a twist, chances are you're looking for it (I was), and b) the best twists make you want to watch the movie again. If you figure out the twist early (say, when Crowe is "having dinner" with his wife at a restaurant), then there is no rediscovery in watching the film again - you did it the first time. All of the color coding is easy to figure out and The Sixth Sense becomes an elaborate game of "follow the rules" twist filmmaking.

 Maybe I'm being meaner than I ought to be, because I bought the Shyamalan promise - that he was a spiritual successor to Steven Spielberg - through Unbreakable, a movie I also used to really like (and probably still enjoy more than The Sixth Sense) but it all fell apart during Signs. I gave up after he started lifting narrative beats wholesale, and have only seen one of his films sense - The Happening. Most of you know that The Happening is a colossal failure in almost every respect, and is hilarious because of it; I either subjected you to the film or you've heard about it from me. In the interest of fairness, The Sixth Sense is still highly regarded by just about everywhere in the critical community, and people still seem to love the movie. Don't take that old Grumpy Gus Cap'n Howdy to speak for the consensus opinion here.

 After Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan is pretty much a joke - audiences reported laughter when his name appeared on trailers for Devil - and even his die-hard fans have given up making excuses for the lousy writing, awkward editing, bad performances, and the pompous, thin-skinned auteur / actor himself (Lady in the Water features Shyamalan as a writer who is destined to "change the world," while the least likable character is a film critic). Nobody knows what he's doing next, and I'd go so far as to say they don't care, either.

 The reason I really wanted to bring up The Sixth Sense, which was for 1999 a highlight of an already packed summer of great movies (and The Phantom Menace) was because I have, as usual, a story related to events surrounding the film. The air conditioning was out in the auditorium we saw the film in, so the staff propped a door facing the back of the theatre open, and crickets got in. We knew this because the whole audience could hear them chirping. A colleague of mine (Professor Murder) eventually got up from his seat, crawled under the screen, and we heard "THUMP THUMP THUMP" and the chirping stopped. The packed auditorium gave him an ovation, and he cut the back of his head on a curtain staple. Forgive me if I look back at that night and consider this moment to be the highlight of seeing The Sixth Sense.

* Which was not actually his debut film - he made this and this beforehand, and he wrote Stuart Little. Seriously.
** My own fake poster quote, but here's what the New York Observer's Andrew Sarris wrote at the time: "An effectively understated and moodily engrossing ghost film with a surprisingly satisfying jolt at the end."


At this point, it's almost been so long since The Blair Witch Project came out that people have by and large forgotten all about the film. Considering that we're still feeling the impact of "found footage" movies, including no less than three that I can name released in the U.S. this year (The Troll Hunter, [REC]2, and the upcoming Apollo 18). That's not including [REC], Quarantine, Diary of the Dead, Paranormal Activity 1 and 2, The Last Exorcism, Cloverfield, The Zombie Diaries and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. These are, in one form or another, the offspring of The Blair Witch's Projects success; a low-budget horror film passed along like an urban legend until it was time to explode in the mainstream. It captured the zeitgeist at a time when horror was winding down from self-referential Scream knockoffs, and scared the hell out of a lot of people.

 And then there was that second film. Yeah, I don't blame you for not remembering Book of Shadows.

 Back to the success story - The Blair Witch Project was a movie I'd hear about long before I saw it. In 1999, the internet was agog about this "found footage" of three film students making a documentary in Burkittsville, Maryland about the "Blair Witch" legend. Something went horribly wrong and they were never heard from again. In fact, I bet you remember the tagline:

 In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary...A year later their footage was found.

  Very few people knew who Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were, and since The Blair Witch Project ended without credits, there was good reason to perpetuate the myth that this WAS "found footage" and not a horror movie designed to make you think it was real. By the time it opened wide in the U.S. (in the summer of 1999), internet savvy geeks already knew it wasn't (online critics love to be the people who have the "scoop" that shows the seams of an illusion), but there were plenty of "John and Jane Moviegoer"'s who didn't know. I was taking some summer classes at N.C. State, and there was a guy in one of the poetry classes that I overheard talking about having a bootlegged copy of the film. A clerk at Schoolkids Music claimed it had already been in "secret" screenings in Raleigh when I purchased the soundtrack (containing footage from the film as part of a CD-ROM feature). I always seemed to be one step behind The Blair Witch Project.

 And then it opened at The Rialto, and the next part is not going to endear the Cap'n to theatre owners. I can only say that it's something I did once and never again, and not something I would do again. Some friends were in town to see The Blair Witch Project with the Cap'n and friends, and the midnight showing was SOLD OUT. But we needed to see that showing of the film, so while standing in front of the vacant box office, we noticed that instead of using special tickets, The Rialto (at the time) had the kind of tickets one could purchase at, say, an Office Max. So we maybe kind of bought a roll of tickets from Office Max, tore five off, and got in line early. And it worked. It was a shitty thing to do, but it's the kind of thing you'll do at twenty to see the movie everyone wants to see. Our ruse wasn't a total success, as before the film started the manager came out to say that he knew some people got in when they weren't supposed to, and we shrunk in our seats a little. The moral of the story is don't do this, kids - you'll feel shitty about it twelve years later.

 The movie? Well, if you were old enough to see it in 1999, then you already know what The Blair Witch Project is like. It's a nice setup, a whole lot of pointless bickering, some carnival tricks to rattle you, and a baffling ending that's really only effective with an audience willing to be scared shitless already. The reason that nobody remembers The Blair Witch Project is that when people know it's a film and are watching it at home with no suspension of disbelief or desire to really let the adrenaline take over, the film is a total bore. There's virtually no rewatchability to The Blair Witch Project, and other films have taken the crude elements and refined them with less believable but more effective narratives and gimmickry. The success of Paranormal Activity is in large part a reflection of how much it borrowed from The Blair Witch Project in publicity and execution (appropriately ten years later, following an excessive cycle of gory horror films often lumped together under the moniker "torture porn").

 By the time that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 came out, nobody was that interested in the film anymore. The curtain had been lifted, the actors done the publicity rounds, and the directors moved on to make... well, not much for seven years. They didn't even want to make Book of Shadows, and instead acted as executive producers for new director Joe Berlinger, a documentary filmmaker best known for the Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three. Book of Shadows was Berlinger's first (and, as far as I can tell, last) narrative feature, which he co-wrote with Dick Beebe (the House on Haunted Hill remake). It attempted to look at the Blair Witch phenomenon, but quickly devolved into a terrible movie about possession, murder, and surveillance footage wrapped up in a pale Rashomon "multiple perspective story" mold.

 It took quite a while for me to muster up any memories about Book of Shadows, which should give you some idea how forgettable the film is. Until I looked it up, I'd completely forgotten that it involved two different "Blair Witch" tours in Burkittsville or that one ended up butchered and everyone else went to a house with excessive closed circuit cameras. I vaguely remembered people being picked off and someone being accused of being the witch, as well as stock stereotypes of Wiccans, Goth Chicks, hippies (?), and mentally unstable characters.

 Looking at the film from a distance, it's kind of funny how many people I recognize for roles they took after Book of Shadows: Jeffrey Donovan is now better known for being the lead on Burn Notice, Kim Director worked with Spike Lee before and after the film, and Erica Leerhsen played virtually the same role in the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Only Tristen Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner haven't done anything I noticed since 2000. Oh, and there's that Kurt Loder guy; wasn't he in Get Him to the Greek or something?

 While it should come as no surprise to people that I saw a movie with Cranpire where he fell asleep, I can't honestly fault him for nodding off during a late showing of Book of Shadows. There's nothing in the movie worth staying awake for, and I think he got more out of the nap than I did the movie. The only other fun tidbit is that when the DVD came out, Artisan was desperate for a gimmick, so they tried a variation on the "flipper" disc: on one side, the movie; the other had the soundtrack. The problem was that the disc was often too heavy for CD players and when it wasn't, the film portion scratched easily, meaning you could never sell the damned thing when you got bored of having it around. And yet, I suspect if you go anywhere with used DVDs, you'll find a copy of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 in the "three for $1" bin. It's still not worth it.

No comments: