Monday, June 22, 2009

Ripping off the Blair Witch

Over the weekend my daughter introduced me to a film from 2008 that I had neither seen nor even known about. It is called Cloverfield and is basically a combination of Godzilla and War of the Worlds (the Spielberg version) and The Blair Witch Project. Cloverfield was produced by J.J. Abrams, the director of the recent Star Trek remake and the co-creator of the television series Alias, Lost and Fringe.

The most entertaining aspect of Cloverfield is that the film makes no attempt to explain what the giant and smaller monsters are that are attacking lower Manhattan. As in "real life" this disaster is "just happening" to the characters in the film, without them (or the viewer) understanding any details. Where did they come from? Why are they even attacking? We don't know anything.

It is all done in "shaky cam" - that hand-held style of film first made famous by Blair Witch. It attempts to achieve realism and suspension of disbelief by making the whole film seem like a home-made video. Most scenes are long, extended, shots with few edits. This adds to the "real feel" of the film.

The special effects are very good but not overly done. After all, this is supposed to be a home video, so the film can't show you too much. Indeed, part of the appeal is that you don't really get a good look at the large monster or the smaller creatures - until briefly at the very end of the film. Still, there's plenty of destruction, rubble, and burning buildings. The scene where the Statue of Liberty's head comes flying down the street like a thrown baseball looks pretty realistic.

After watching Cloverfield I told my daughter that it reminded me of Blair Witch. She was not aware of that film. So, last night I returned the favor and turned her on to the older movie.

To me, Blair Witch is a better film. Though aspects of it were done before, it was still a pioneering venture when it came out in 1999. Blair Witch is masterful at building up suspense over basically nothing. Hardly, anything actually happens in the film yet the entire movie is a slowly building, creepy roller coaster ride.

The "special effects" in Blair Witch are a bunch of sticks hanging from trees and some piles of rocks on the ground. Its very low budget (about $22,000) was dwarfed by Cloverfield's $30 million even though the latter film is comparatively low-budget by today's sci-fi / thriller standards. The effect of Blair Witch, however, is to establish a sense of realism and then exploit that comfort zone with the audience by placing the characters into increasingly bizarre circumstances.

They venture deep into the woods to make a documentary on an old witch legend. They become disoriented in the woods. During the nights they hear sounds in the distant. They eventually become lost. The night sounds get closer and now include voices. They keep stumbling across evidence of primitive witchcraft that is detailed with a sprinkling of background revealed in the first 20 minutes of the film.

Then everybody dies. And the "raw footage" of the documentary they were making is supposedly discovered about a year after the events.

Cloverfield is exactly like this, only with more special effects. It was a decent film but obviously influenced by Blair Witch which makes the latter film more original.

Blair Witch has the distinction of being the most profitable film ever made on a per capita basis. When it came out ten years ago it was a world-wide phenomenon. In contrast Cloverfield, while a good, entertaining picture, never reached this level of recognition.

At any rate, it is great to be engaging my daughter in conversations about films, that she can introduce new films to me that are at least moderately enjoyable and, in turn, I can show her films that are new for her. Once she got past her preconceptions of "I don't like old movies" (meaning anything made before her comprehension of film existed) she could appreciate how Blair Witch influenced Cloverfield.

Even though she insists that Cloverfield is a better movie, she was merely thrilled by it. On the other hand, Blair Witch went beyond thrilling her. As the tension builds, there were moments when my daughter literally could not watch the screen. So, it was a fear of another color. To my way of thinking this is better film making, especially given the fact there is far more action in Cloverfield than in Blair Witch. But, in the end, my daughter remained more entertained by the flash and effects than she was by the high level of sustained tension.

That's cool. To each their own as art goes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, Cannibal Holocaust was before the Blair Witch.

I belive it was the first in its category, and even lead to criminal charges for the Italian director Ruggero Deodato, because some authorities belived that the footage was real.

I do not recommend this film for the squeamish, because it can put quite a strain on both the psyche and the heart. It's one of those films that cannot be erased from memory afterwards.