Lately, the #Fav7films meme has circulated around Twitter. It has appeared before, in different incarnations, but this time I decided to actually assemble my list. The process made me realise that, alongside the choices that spring instantly to mind, such as The Evil Dead, Goodfellas, Fight Club and John Carpenter’s The Thing, one of my favourite seven movies is The Blair Witch Project.
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s 1999 low-budgeter might sneak under the radar when you first dredge your brain for obvious classics. You might initially think of your favourite iconic actors, or of plush cinematography, or of stunning one-take shots of characters entering restaurants among hundreds of extras. There’s also no point, of course, in denying that The Blair Witch Project polarises people. Some folk hate it and this is fair enough. It’s arguable, mind you, that the film’s occasionally frosty reception was partly due to the staggered nature of film releases around the world back in the day. The film emerged in July in the States, amid much hype which in turn aroused even more hype. By the time it arrived in the UK, three whole months later, cinema audiences inevitably included plenty of people with their arms folded, either through expecting more than the movie could ever deliver, or having simply decided not to be scared. Gotta love those tough guys who tell you at length how scared they weren’t by a scary movie. Always huge fun at parties.
I first saw The Blair Witch Project in a mall multiplex cinema somewhere in America. One of its three stars, Michael C Williams (who played Mike in the movie), was signing at a table in the foyer, but even this unwelcome intrusion of reality couldn’t rob the film of its fearsome power for me. (They could at least have put him on a corner table…) By the movie’s final ten minutes, as our protagonists charge up and down rickety stairs, in a truly malevolent house decorated by runic symbols and tiny hand prints, I swear I was practically hyper ventilating. Completely immersed in the terror, I projected the contents of my own subconscious mind onto the ingeniously all-but- blank canvas provided by Sanchez and Myrick. How could The Blair Witch Project not be in my #fav7films list, when no movie has provoked such a beautifully terrifying rush before or since?
Prior to The Blair Witch Project, the found footage conceit had already made its presence felt in a few unnerving movies – see Peeping Tom (1960) or Man Bites Dog (1993) – but no example of the subgenre had ever been this frightening or this profitable. Besides, no animals were harmed during the making of Blair Witch, which sadly couldn’t be said for Ruggero Deodato’s otherwise very potent Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Blair Witch came along at the right time, too, following a long cold winter for horror. The likes of Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Scream (1996) and Event Horizon (1997) might have kept up appearances during the Nineties, but it was far from a banner decade. So the release of Blair Witch seemed to offer fresh new promise for horror in the new millennium: maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be all right…
I was sold on the whole shaky-cam phenomenon and submerged myself in as much of the inevitable post-Witch flood as possible. Obviously, this meant suffering through a whole load of monkey-see- monkey-do crap. But for every five dire or so-so found footage flicks, there’s been a deeply pleasurable discovery like Paranormal Activity (2007), REC (2007), REC 2 (2009), Cloverfield (2008), The Last Exorcism (2010), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), The Sacrament (2013), Creep (2014), The Taking Of Deborah Logan (2014) or The Visit (2015), to name but ten.
I certainly never expected to incorporate The Blair Witch Project’s filmmakers into my novel The Last Days Of Jack Sparks, but that’s what happened. The novel centres on an arrogant celebrity journalist who sets out to write a non-fiction book debunking the supernatural, only to wind up dead. I wanted readers to know upfront that Jack’s journey ends with his demise, and so the book-within- a-book format made sense. As a result, I found myself writing a found footage novel. We’re presented with the manuscript of the book that Jack died writing, newly bookended by an afterword and foreword by his brother Alistair, who has also inserted new material between chapters. These interview transcripts and witness accounts often seem to contradict Jack’s own accounts of his global quest for the supernatural.
The novel’s second major found footage aspect comes into play when a creepy 40-second video materialises inexplicably on Jack’s YouTube channel. Paranoia leads him to suspect the video may secretly be a viral effort aiming to promote “Paranormal Activity 17 or something”, and so he drives around Hollywood, knocking on doors. And of course, which two filmmakers are going to be Jack’s prime suspects? That’ll be Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, the men whose innovative online marketing campaign once convinced many people that three students really had gone missing in the hills of Burkittsville, Maryland.
Even though Sanchez and Myrick only make a fairly brief cameo, my publisher Orbit Books and I wanted to secure their permission. I was blown away when the duo quickly and gracefully gave us the greenlight. Right from my early days as a rock journalist, I’ve generally found that the most successful people give you the fewest problems. For some reason, it’s the ones who have yet to prove nearly so much who try to smother you in red tape.
It’s been such a privilege to include the originators of the supernatural found footage genre within the world of The Last Days Of Jack Sparks, which is in itself a supernatural found footage affair. I can’t wait to see the much-awaited new movie in Sanchez and Myrick’s franchise, entitled simply Blair Witch, in the hope that I can relive some of that good old-fashioned hyperventilation.
I’m crossing fingers. And twigs.
The Last Days Of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp is out now via Orbit Books and has been described by the mighty Alan Moore as “a magnificent millennial nightmare”.
Guest Feature Writer: Jason Arnopp