Italian filmmaker Ruggero Deodato's 1980 horror/exploitation movie Cannibal Holocaust is the first proper found-footage movie, as far as most film historians are concerned. Still, there's no denying that it was 1999's The Blair Witch Project that catapulted the genre and its techniques into becoming something that your everyday moviegoer would be familiar with and recognize as, well, an actual genre (complete with its own narrative and character tropes) instead of just a stylistic flourish used to make a movie seem more "realistic".
In the 21st century and in particular over the past decade, found-footage offerings have dominated the horror film landscape in a manner that recalls the popularity of the slasher sub-genre, back in the 1980s. Even non-found footage movies are sometimes mistaken for being found-footage, due to their similarities in visual presentation and form - see, for example, 2012's Chernobyl Diaries (co-written by Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli, tellingly). TV series have even begun to do their own found-footage episodes in the way that they have, say, musical episodes, as was the case with the Doctor Who season 9 episode entitled 'Sleep No More'.
Cut to the present in 2016 and Blair Witch - the third installment overall in the Blair Witch franchise and the first direct sequel to the original Blair Witch Project (sorry, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2) - is now in theaters. The third Blair Witch film is all the more interesting to discuss because it's a project that has clearly been influenced by changes in the world of found-footage over the 17 years that have passed since the first Blair Witch was released. However, Blair Witch (2016) also harkens back to the techniques used by its predecessor and begs the question: what comes next for found-footage?
Before we get there, though, let's look back at how the found-footage genre has evolved since the days of Blair Witch Project - in particular, the changes that have led to Blair Witch (2016).
Whereas Cannibal Holocaust was banned in several countries and its director even charged with making a snuff film (the charge was, of course, dropped) over the public's confusion about whether or not the events depicted in the movie were actually real, The Blair Witch Project was far more effective in using the public's lack of familiarity with the found-footage genre to its advantage. Blair Witch Project is generally credited for being the first movie to have a proper viral marketing campaign, with its official website being loaded with clips from fake interviews and police reports playing up the idea that everything shown in the film is real (an idea that the people behind the movie played up even as it toured the film festival circuit).
Not everyone fell for all that trickery of course, but enough did to help make Blair Witch Project a noteworthy box office hit - in the process, making viral marketing a common practice embraced by everything from other indie films to big-budget franchise blockbusters like Jurassic World. That was certainly the key to success for director Matt Reeves' found-footage giant monster movie Cloverfield, ahead of its debut in theaters in 2008. Viral marketing for Cloverfield didn't bank on the idea of tricking moviegoers into believing that the film was "real", but it did successfully maintain a shroud of secrecy around the project - encouraging people to show up and find out just what this thing was even about (and the enigmatic giant monster therein).
Meanwhile, around the same time that Cloverfield was starting to build buzz ahead of its release, a little film called Paranormal Activity was generating buzz of its own on the film festival circuit. Whereas Blair Witch Project, as was mentioned, played up the idea that it features footage captured by a real-life doomed documentary crew, Paranormal Activity got people talking based on the idea that it's one of the most terrifying filmgoing experiences ever. In the end, Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity all became lucrative investments for their producers despite their differences in marketing - kicking off three new franchises (for better or worse) in the process.
This brings us to Blair Witch (2016): a film that has used conventional and viral marketing in the tradition of Blair Witch Project, but also built up buzz through its showings on the film festival circuit a la Paranormal Activity. On top of all that, Blair Witch (2016) maintained a level of secrecy on the level with what Cloverfield managed for quite a while, by being at first promoted as an original horror movie titled The Woods - before its true identity was publicly unveiled, following its screening at the San Diego Comic-Con 2016.
Funnily enough, the existence of this year's 10 Cloverfield Lane (the non-found-footage "thematic sequel" to Cloverfield) was also kept secret until a couple months before its release, a la Blair Witch (2016). So the question now is, whereas Blair Witch Project made it all but impossible for any found-footage films that followed to also pretend to be "real" to attract attention, will any movies in the future be able or even attempt to fly under the radar in the manner that Blair Witch and 10 Cloverfield Lane did? It's certainly plausible, but it will be even more difficult than before.
Case in point: conspiracy theories have already started sprouting up, claiming that Cloverfield production company Bad Robot's currently in-development original sci-fi film The God Particle is, in reality, Cloverfield 3 in disguise. We'll find out next year if there's any real fire behind all that smoke.
One of the criticisms that found-footage has long faced is the claim that the genre is limited by what it can and can't do stylistically. Some movies have attempted to combine standard filmmaking techniques with found-footage as a means of expanding the genre's potential - be it by making historical film-recording technology a key part of the narrative (as the 1970s-set Hammer Horror movie The Quiet Ones does) or simply adding a proper soundtrack to the proceedings (something that even Cannibal Holocaust tried out). Other found-footage movies have added flashy visual effects and/or used modern tech (security cameras, iPhones, even webcams in the case of Paranormal Activity 4 and Unfriended) to mix things up accordingly.
Blair Witch (2016) similarly incorporates cutting-edge audio recording equipment, drone cameras and smart cards (among other forms of modern technology) into its storyline. Nevertheless, the sequel has thus far been unable to escape criticisms that these elements fall short at thematically-enhancing the larger narrative and/or adding a subtext that wasn't present in The Blair Witch Project (that humanity and its technology will never be a match for good old-fashioned "forces" that we do not fully understand). The third Blair Witch installment, when all is said and done, does indeed often boil down to visually-familiar sequences of characters running away from something offscreen and shaking the camera too much for the audience to get a good look at what's after them - even with its advancements in video recording tech.
On the other hand, it's possible that filmmakers will see Blair Witch and come up with fresh ideas for how to make a found-footage film, after being inspired by the technical components that the third Blair Witch brings into play. After all, this year's Hardcore Henry shows that, if nothing else, a film shot entirely in the first-person perspective can be done (questions of how much potential for creativity there really is in the concept of first-person POV filmmaking aside). Maybe a found-footage movie filmed entirely via drone cameras will be next, for better or worse?
Found-footage is still predominantly associated with horror/thrillers (Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity and so forth), but by now it has branched out to encompass several other genres too. The past decade has seen the release of found-footage style movies about people who gain super-powers (Chronicle), raunchy teen comedies (Project X), gritty cop drama/thrillers (End of Watch) and even 1980s sci-fi kids adventure throwbacks (Earth to Echo), among others.
While some of these films have been done in the found-footage format for a clear thematic purpose (Unfriended, for example, is about cyber-bullying), others have arguably been guilty of employing found-footage to lowers costs for what could have otherwise been done as a typical genre film (see the horror/thriller-meets Indiana Jones-style romp As Above, So Below for example). By comparison, Blair Witch is filmed in the found-footage style in part as an homage to The Blair Witch Project - which again, itself used found-footage to maintain the illusion of being "real." Yet, Blair Witch (2016) clearly aspires to infuse the format with a more polished look and feel than found-footage necessarily demands. Question is, does that also enhance the movie's substance in the process?
Our Blair Witch (2016) review sums up the movie as being "What The Blair Witch Project would be if the original had been made today - which is both a compliment and concession." One look around online and it quickly becomes clear that more critics than not agree with that assessment, for good and bad. Blair Witch (2016) director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have an established practice of balancing homage with innovation, with their feature-length horror genre throwbacks (You're Next and The Guest) and work on the V/H/S horror anthology films alike. However, whereas You're Next and The Guest earned wider acclaim for being subversive throwbacks that break new ground, it's looking unlikely that Blair Witch (2016) is going to be remembered for doing the same for found-footage.
In other words: found-footage movies used to have an easier time of getting away with having plots and characters that are only partly formed, so long as they delivered an engaging in-the-moment experience (see The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity). Nowadays however, found-footage projects are called out more frequently for short-changing things like story development and not having enough thematic substance.
Conclusion/What Lies Ahead
As we've discussed here, Blair Witch certainly harkens back to the original Blair Witch Project - yet at the same time, it's not a throwback in the same way that Wingard and Barrett's previous work is. Instead, Blair Witch builds directly on the foundation that was placed down by the many found-footage horror/thrillers before it, in terms of not only how the film itself was made, but even down to how it was marketed to the masses. Still, it doesn't necessarily leave the found-footage in a place where there's a clear direction forward, hereon out.
It's a tricky spot to be in for the genre. Found-footage itself has become something of a dirty word for horror enthusiasts nowadays - to the point that just the possibility that the next Friday the 13th movie could found-footage prompted a wide backlash (inspiring the film's producers to assure fans multiple times that found-footage and Jason Vorhees will not be mixed). Problem is, it seems as though most of that discussion has revolved less around figuring out the question of how found-footage would even function in the world of Friday the 13th and more around which of the sub-genre's tendencies people tend to dislike the most (shaky cam, sudden endings, under-developed characters and so on).
Because of that, it's difficult to say at this point whether or not found-footage can continue to evolve in ways that don't involve simply combining the genre with other genres and/or horror/thriller sub-genres (or, if you prefer, using found-footage as a "gimmick"). Blair Witch will probably not be remembered as a big game-changer the way that Blair Witch Project is - but as discussed here, it does illustrate that found-footage has in fact changed as a genre since the Blair Witch franchise was born. Perhaps this film will encourage more discussions about where the genre could/should go next, for that reason.
Blair Witch is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide.