The early 1990’s sucked for horror movies… I mean, really sucked. Movies like Dr. Giggles (1992), Man’s Best Friend (1993), and Cemetery Man (1994) failed spectacularly, for me, to scratch the itch unlike the 1980’s or the 1970’s. Sure, we had The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Army of Darkness (1992), and In the Mouth of Madness (1994); but you get my point.
And in Orlando 1996 as a recent graduate of the UCF film program and an occasionally-working SFX makeup artist (mostly on Alabama-based David A. Prior movies), I was both excited and concerned about my filmmaking future. Would I end up having to take a “respectable” job one day in lieu of chasing a dream which probably started the first time I watched John Carpenter’s The Thing or The Howling on HBO?
At the time I was living near downtown Orlando, about a block away from my film school friend (and graduate of Army Survival School) Gregg Hale. We’d attended two different film schools together, he’d produced my first short film, and we’d both made thesis films with genre aspirations. Gregg had taken a job in LA in the art department on the first season of “MADtv,” and he’d come back cash-rich (to me, anyway) to Orlando during the hiatus. One night I was over at his house (a short walk from where I lived at the time) catching up on what we’d been up to. I probably told him about The P.A.C.K, another Alabama-based low-budget monster movie for which I’d just designed the monster for Dave Prior again – and Gregg stopped my yammering with an intriguing question:
“Have you ever heard of ‘The Blair Witch?‘” He said.
“Do you mean ‘The Bell Witch,'” I asked, assuming he’d gotten it wrong and meant the famous spook story from Adams, Tennessee. He hadn’t.
“No,” he said. “‘The Blair Witch.’”
In addition to being horror-obsessed from childhood, I was also paranormal-obsessed. I was a subscriber to Fortean Times, occasional reader of Fate Magazine, and even sometimes delved into Paranoia: The Conspiracy Reader. I was a pre-“X-Files” obsessive about alien abductions and had rarely encountered the creepy piece of folklore or a labyrinthine conspiracy tale I didn’t want to tell everyone about. So this was a new piece of folklore I’d never heard of, but it sounded like a lot of folk tales: familiar, but in a fresh and unexpected way.
Gregg proceeded to tell me a very loose version of the mythology familiar to Blair Witch Project fans now, but there were no names, no specifics. In the late 1700’s, an old woman was ejected from a city named Blair in Maryland, then the crops died, then everyone disappeared, but there were traces of atrocities. Then a book called The Blair Witch Cult is published. About 40 years later a girl is pulled into a river by an unseen hand. Then about 60 years later the hunting party goes out looking for the missing girl and is massacred. On and on. Gruesome, mysterious, horrific.
I was hooked.
Then Gregg said, “So here’s the crazy part: Ed Sanchez has some friends he went to community college with up in Maryland before he came to UCF. You know Ed, right?” I didn’t know Ed personally, but there were only sixty people in our film school. Along with Dan Myrick, he was two years ahead of me.
“Sure,” I said.
Gregg said, “Well Ed’s friends decided to make a documentary about the Blair Witch two years ago.”
“Really? Cool,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “But the crazy part is that while they were making it, they disappeared in the woods. Nobody’s seen them since.” I got an actual chill. Poor bastards, did they get lost? Eaten by a bear? This felt like it could have happened to me or anyone I knew.
“No shit,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, baiting the hook even further. “So a year later, their footage turned up, buried under the foundation of an old house. Cans and cans of film,” He said.
“NO FUCKING WAY,” I said. “What’s on that footage?”
“Well, that’s what we’re going to find out. Dan, Ed and I are going to analyze that footage.”
Dead serious, I said:
“You guys are gonna fucking die.”
All I wanted was to see that footage. To know what was on it.
He shifted. “Everything I just told you is made up.” I deflated a little, knowing I’d been taken in. I couldn’t believe I’d fallen for it, and at the same time, I’d fallen for it. It all sounded just plausible enough to be a real folktale, and one with a modern connection I could almost touch. Familiar in an unexpected way.
He then read me into the plan for “Phase 1” of a film called The Blair Witch Tapes. Actors would be cast, taken out into the woods, and basically agree to be in an improv exercise inspired, in part, on Gregg’s experiences in the Army Survival School where participants were deprived of food and forced to exercise a great deal, woken up in the middle of the night, and basically broken in the same way a theoretical enemy would break you if they wanted to get you to spill secrets. My inner paranormal nerd, theater nerd, and horror nerd all loved this idea. If it could be done right, this would be better than any horror film I’d seen in years; plus the story of making it would be one of actual danger.
“Phase 2” would be more straightforward, documentary-style analysis of the footage the actors were going to create in the woods, which I will talk about in a later post.
“Please,” I said. “Let me work on this with you. I’ll sweep the floors. I love this idea. I will do anything.” There was no money yet. I didn’t care – I was working as a substitute teacher by day/waiter by night. The resulting film? Maybe it would play a festival or two; maybe it would get released on home video like literally every David Prior movie I’d worked on.
So a year before the movie would shoot (we didn’t know if it would ever shoot), I was on the team.
Because of my nerdiness around folklore, mythology, and the paranormal, my first task was to write the mythology. The backstory. To take the yarn (twine?) Gregg had spun and flesh it out, name the characters, put hard dates on things, maybe create photos or pull images. I was a little obsessed with anagrams back then, so I started with the witch herself – Elly Kedward, which is an anagram of famous British occultists Edward Kelly (who, along with John Dee, was said to bring dead people back to life). Rustin Parr’s name began as an anagram for Rasputin… You get it.
In 1996, this involved a lot of research at an actual library (there was no Wikipedia!). I had to create the only archival copy of the book The Blair Witch Cult, so Jay Bogdanowitsch and I went to a local history museum and asked if they’d let us put our old prop book under their display glass. I delivered these elements to Gregg, Dan, Ed, and our friend Mike Monello, who – using an application I didn’t understand at all called Adobe After Effects – built something we’d call a “rip reel” today, using the copy I’d written, images I’d copied and snapped myself with a disposable camera, some video they’d shot, and some actual footage from Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922).
That June, indie film impresario and Sundance Kingmaker, discoverer of Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Michael Moore, John Pierson was at the Florida Film Festival shooting an episode of his IFC show “Split Screen,” and the same Mike Monello who’d edited the rip reel, working his day job as the marketing director for the festival, paired Pierson up with a great cameraman he knew, Dan Myrick. They shot for several days together, and at the end Dan asked John if he would look at a tape for a film he was working on, handing him the reel we’d made. John smiled and agreed to watch it and went back to New York. Who knows what John thought an unknown cameraman in Orlando might have just slipped him? How bad must he have assumed our homespun horror movie could be?
Then, about a week later, Dan got a call from John Pierson.
He said, “This footage? You have it? You’ve seen what’s on it? What’s on it?!”
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT MONDAY