As Joe Berlinger will no doubt tell you, The Blair Witch Project was a tough act to follow. The setup for the film was deceptively simple, the sort of thing that makes would-be filmmakers slap their foreheads and say, "Why didn't I think of that?" The really funny things about the film's success are first, that the creators of Blair Witch had a terrible time drumming up support for their project -- everybody thought they were nuts -- and second, that once they'd unleashed their creation on the world, it proved to be absolutely inimitable. And so, a movie made for a measly few thousand bucks proved to be the most profitable film of all time... and all over America came the sound of grinding teeth, as producers across the country wondered in vain how to exploit the movie's success to their own advantage.
Blair Witch's legitimate promoters put the final nail in the coffin by over-merchandising the film, releasing further "lost footage", pseudodocumentaries, Fotonovels, comic books and stick-figure tchotchkes until everybody was truly, truly sick of it. So unlike The Exorcist or Dawn of the Dead, Blair Witch was a cultural phenomenon which left very few overt copies in its wake1. Not even its "official" sequel dared to follow the path into the woods which the original had blazed.
But there are still people in the film business whose lack of common sense exceeds even their lack of imagination, and it is to these people that we owe the existence of The St. Francisville Experiment.
You can almost see in your mind's eye how the planning must have gone. Well, they thought, let's see:
I imagine around this point in the discussions, some weedy little junior executive might have suggested stranding the cast on a desert island with their camcorders, than waiting as they went crazy in the hot sun, eating bugs and rats, and playing little power games against each other to survive. I can see the greedy little lights flaring up the producers' eyes... only to flicker out again as they realize it would be too expensive to produce. As one of their number slinks down the hall to call a TV guy he knows, the others turn their attention back to the sad, sad business of our movie for today:...the first film was about a witch, so we'll have to make our film about something else. A ghost maybe? Yeeaahh, that'll do: we'll get some kids with camcorders, and instead of the woods, we'll set 'em loose in a haunted house. The... Something... Ghost Project. Oh, but we can't say "project": they'll think we're plagiarizing, and heaven knows we would never be guilty of that. What's another word for "project"? Thesis? Action Item? No, no, those will never do: how about Hypothesis? Nah, nobody could pronounce it. Wait a minute: EXPERIMENT! Yes! That's got just the right feel to it.
... the great thing about a ghost movie is that ghosts are invisible, right? So we don't have to show them. And that's what made the Blair Witch thing so spooky: they never showed the monster.
Well, someone interjects,
... I don't think it's quite that simple. That isn't the only thing that made Blair Witch seem so frightening.
The other producers think for a minute. Then, tiny little Christmas bulbs go off over their thick, heavy-browed skulls. Of course! they say:
... it was also badly filmed! All that hand-held camera stuff; made audiences run out of the theatre vomiting. I'm telling you, it's just like The Exorcist. People must really love a good vomit.
Oh, it shot itself, all right. In the foot. Test audiences hated it so much that the film was withdrawn from consideration for theatrical release, and was instead sent straight to video. The audiences were particularly furious about the cop-out ending, which apparently had the kids waking up outside the haunted house with no recollection of how they got there. The film makers cut out the original ending and substituted some lame title cards, the last of which is so stupid and so funny that it almost made up for the rest of the movie.
(I won't tell you what's on that very last title card. I suffered through the movie to get to it, so I'm not going to make the task any easier for you. I will, however, sprinkle this review with inane little quotes from the body of the film. If you find them painful as non sequiturs, imagine how they sound in context...)
I love the ghosts... I love all the ghosts...
First, the movie gives us some Real World style introductions, in which we get the first hints that our four principals aren't very good at improvisation. Say what you want about Blair Witch, the three leads in the earlier film did a fine job at creating characters. Lots of people hated them, but even those that didn't warm to them believed in them (Some, in fact, believed them a little too much, but that's a subject that makes me leery.. I'll go into that another day).
Instead of three flawed but complex characters, whose incompatible personality traits do as much as the supernatural to destroy them, St. Francisville gives us some shallow stereotypes: the new-age girl (Madison), the easily-scared girl (Ryan), the guy who wants to be brave but is secretly terrified (Tim), and the tough guy who's determined not to get spooked (Paul). The old, original Scooby-Doo cartoons had better-drawn characters than these. Come to think of it, the opening of Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, which showed us the Gang grown older, living their separate lives and working in the real world, brought a lump to my throat... two dimensional they may have been, but I came to care about Scooby and Shaggy and the others, which is more than I could say about the four ghost-hunting kids in St. Francisville.
In the spirit of "documentary filmmaking" (snort), we in the audience are given more clues into the back story of the haunted house than the ghost hunters are. Building on a gruesome bit of New Orleans history, the film makers suggest (none too convincingly) that the mansion may have been the home-in-exile of a sadistic woman who tortured her black servants. The four teens are supposedly kept, ahem, in the dark about the house's "history" so they won't be influenced by preconceived notions.
Any lingering doubts that this might be an authentic "experiment", and not just a staged prank to cash in on hmm hmm hmmm, are removed as soon as the party arrives at the house. Immediately we notice that the group is holding their flashlights to provide the maximum lighting on their faces, rather than using them to really see what's around them. This little trick goes on through the whole movie: there always happens to be just enough light at exactly the place where it's needed... something that just wouldn't happen if the actors weren't extremely conscious of how they looked on camera.
Next, the cameras themselves always seem to be in just the right places at just the right times. Again, this is a trap Blair Witch did not fall into... and could not, because of the meticulous planning and attention to detail that went into the making of the film. In Blair Witch, if there was anything to see at all, you could count on the camera being at just the wrong angle to see it, or the light to be insufficient to capture anything clearly. A few minutes into the "documentary" footage of St. Francisville, and you know that this is fake footage you're watching.
...protected by the Flaming White Light of Love...
The four "investigators" are locked into the old house for the night. Immediately it becomes obvious that this "old, abandoned haunted house" has been meticulously cared for. In fact, it looks as though its owners have graciously stepped out for a few hours while the film crew goes about its business. Certainly it's wired for modern electricity; I kept waiting for somebody to turn on the flipping lights. Evidently the film makers guessed I'd be feeling this way -- that's one point for them -- since they do, very gradually, work up to having one of the boys try the light switch.
BANG! Sparks fly from the switch! And the electric chandelier falls from the ceiling, narrowly missing one of our heroes! One point removed from the film makers for thinking that a.) bad wiring is supernaturally scary; b.) that a miniature chandelier, such as might cost $200 at Home Depot, makes a plausible weapon in the hands of an angry ghost. They're probably ripping off the remake of House on Haunted Hill, where falling glass was the first evidence of the house's displeasure.
The four settle in and, Road Rules style, read the instructions that have been provided for them. Setting up camp in the living room, they set off together to investigate the house. Madison, the "psychic" new-age chick, insists that they sit down and ask the house's permission to do the things they intend to do. She says an insipid little prayer, asking that God bathe her and her companions in the "white light of love". Shudder. For about two-thirds of the seventy-seven minute movie, Madison's lines are the scariest thing on screen.
For them most part, the team's improvised dialog is limited to little exclamations like "What was that? Did you hear that?", as creaks, voices and moving shadows disturb the peace just off-screen. However, the shifting camera setups remain infuriatingly perfect to catch what needs to be caught (oh: and note how the focus returns time and again to the girls' busts, even though they stay modestly clothed through the whole film). As the group moves from room to room, I kept noticing things that spoiled the illusion for me: a modern-looking comforter, for example; or an old-looking lamp that I know you can buy at Target... in fact, I have one just like it on my night stand.
Occasional eerie moments are ruined by the sheer implausibility of it all: descending into the shadowy cellar, the kids find a conveniently-placed wooden box. The fact that it's crammed in next to the water heaters somehow detracts from the feeling of menace. Anyway, when they open the box, they find an old medical bag inside... and in the bag are some nasty looking, peculiarly stained implements. Now: what would you do if you found something like that? Would you go Ewwwww!, put it back and run up the stairs to the next scary tableau? All right, maybe you would, but wouldn't you be just a little suspicious about something so obvious, left in an otherwise perfectly maintained house?
Bit by bit, we discover that the house in St. Francisville is haunted by the shadows of long-dead horror movie gimmicks. The movie has the gall to pull the old cat-jumping-out-at-the-camera routine. This time the poor puss is obviously being hurled right at the camera, further spoiling the illusion that what we're seeing is cinema vérité. The cat subsequently disappears from the action, and is never mentioned again.
Behind a convenient hole in the wall, our heroes find what appears to be a mummified baby. They react with squeals of disgust, but they all stay gathered around to unwrap it. Hmm. Personally, if I had been there, there would be a trail of yellow liquid going down the stairs, leading up to a me-shaped hole in the wall, but these four -- even Ryan, the girl whose one salient personality trait is to be scared -- stay and take off the filthy bandages. Of course, it turns out to be a dusty doll. OK: dolls are scary, and small wrapped bundles are also scary, but in the hands of these four never-believable characters, we know immediately what to expect. Here I thought of Bruno Mattei's The Other Hell, which featured scenes of dolls hung by chains swinging in the shadows. When a movie compares unfavorably with a Bruno Mattei film, you know it's in serious trouble.
Here I also thought of a movie that scared the crap out of me when I was little: years and years ago, back in the 70's, I saw the network television premiere of Cruise into Terror, in which the son of Satan was discovered inside a tiny sarcophagus. At the end of the film, the sarcophagus was tossed into the ocean, where it sank to the sea floor... and you could see the sides of the sarcophagus swell and contract, swell and contract, as it breathed under the water! Good grief: I lost sleep for years thinking of that image. Now, as an adult, I look back and cringe at my early fears. For crying out loud, even if the thing inside was breathing, the sarcophagus wouldn't breathe with it! Yet I still have a grudging respect for the movie, because it did manage to inspire such terror in my young and undiscriminating mind. So all right: half a point to the film makers for coming up with a disquieting, if unbelievable, image.
How dead is it?
It's when the party gets to the attic that things really start to happen. I was amused to see that up in the "abandoned" attic, someone's put camera-kitty's brand new litterbox. So much for mystery. Anyway, the investigators complain about the oppressive atmosphere of the attic, when suddenly an off-screen stagehand pulls a chair across the room on a wire.
Uhhh, I mean...
A chair suddenly goes flying across the attic, all by itself. Later in the movie, the investigators replay the digital footage they've shot of the flying chair. As usual, one of them is filming the action, so we have a video of the video... but even though they review the footage twice, each time the observing camera pulls away before the actual chair-yanking takes place on the monitor. I guess this is because the film makers realized how cheesy the effect was, and that repeating it would only be an embarrassment.
The team takes a little break for dinner: turkey sandwiches, evidently. How appropriate. Ryan -- say, isn't it odd that both the girls on the team have boys' names? -- where was I? Oh: Ryan has a huge, disgusting cockroach clinging to her sandwich. She pretends to be unaware of the bug as she brandishes her sandwich in front of the camera. Why, it's almost as if she was calling special attention to it. We cut away for a moment, and when we return, she takes a big bite out of the sandwich. Bleagh. I'm sorry, but I've lived with roaches of all sizes, shapes and temperaments. When I was living in Japan, I made the acquaintance of armor-plated mecha-roaches that would have given Godzilla a run for his money. And I can tell you that NO self-respecting roach would ever allow himself to be eaten in a sandwich. Unlike the writers of this dreadful little film, cockroaches simply aren't that dumb.
Next, the four attempt a séance. I hope they remembered to pay a royalty to Parker Brothers for using the William Fuld "Ouija" Talking Board so prominently. Heck, a large portion of the Blair Witch budget went to the creators of Gilligan's Island for the throwaway lines the characters ad-libbed around the campfire. Anyway, through the séance, Madison makes contact with a spirit called "Charles", who appears to have known her in a past life (collective groan from the audience). Just as things seem to be making themselves clearer, there is an ominous THUD. A pair of heavy manacles has dropped out of the chimney.
Obviously, we're meant to connect this with the legend of the sadistic New Orleans woman, who kept her cook tightly chained to her stove, and who kept an attic room filled with barbarically tortured victims. Me? I thought maybe Santa Claus was getting a little kinky. Here, though, scared-girl Ryan breaks out of character completely, and goes to be the first to look into the chimney. More strange noises come from the flue, and soon a length of chain drops to join the manacles.
Do you have your incense lit?
Madison, encouraged by the successful contact she's made during the séance, is determined to "cleanse" the house. She gives everyone copies of a prayer she's brought along to help lead the troubled spirits of the house to peace (another collective groan from the audience). In order to maximize the impact of the blessing, Madison suggests the most groan-inducing idea of all: the party will split up and bless individual rooms of the house.
You know, and I know, and the makers of Scream knew, and most if not all of the intended audience of this ridiculous film also know, that the one thing you must never, ever do in a spooky situation is split up. And yet this is what they do. Team leader Tim spends a convincingly long time poised at the top of the stairs, too terrified to go any farther, too ashamed to go back. Again, half a point to the film makers for a good idea, even if it isn't handled all that well in practice. Madison, Ryan and Paul all go to their individual downstairs rooms -- note that no one goes to the basement, with its bloodstained tools.
The ghosties do not take kindly at all to the yattering about white light. Ryan's room begins to shake uncontrollably. Tim puts his foot through the floor of the attic, then drops his flashlight through the hole; as he goes to retrieve it, he gets a nasty splinter in his arm. OK, you're right: I fail to see anything the least scary about Tim's episode. In the meantime, Madison... well, we'll get to Madison eventually.
Paul has what's easily the eeriest experience of the movie (in spite of the fact he is frightened by his own reflection in a mirror, the second-worst lapse in the film after the jumping cat, and followed in silliness by the discovery of some cute little grey-and-white rats under a bed). Creeped out by the atmosphere of the room, he babbles to himself for reassurance. He admits to the camera that he thinks the whole "Charles" thing is a put-on. He is further spooked by ominous creakings from the closet door. Entering the closet, Paul finds another door. Beyond that door are some clothes, swinging as though they had just been disturbed, and behind them is yet another door.... leading to a dark corridor with even more doors. I have to admit, this endless succession of doors disturbed me (pleasantly) much more than all the flying chairs and screams of "Did you hear that?". After all, the doors are real.
Even more disturbing, once Paul goes through the final door, into a claustrophobic little alcove, the door slams shut and locks itself behind him. No one knows where he is, or is likely to hear his screams for help. The overall effect is spoiled somewhat by the unbelievably convenient "accidental" camera placement.
In the meantime, Madison is trying to send "Charles" to peace, but things do not go as she had expected. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read or seen Hell House that there is no benign "Charles" waiting to commune with the new-age girl, but rather a hostile and contemptuous force that wants to use her belief in the "white light of love" to destroy her faith. Or at least, that's what it would be doing in a better movie. As Madison realizes that she is not in control in the house, she begins to panic, and her emoting gets more and more shrill.
The easiest way to exploit an audience is to force an emotion on them: if you show people laughing, the tendency is for an audience to start laughing, too; show people crying, and the audience will get a lump in their collective throat. This is the cheap way of inspiring emotion. The more elegant way is to let the actors and the material inspire the audience to form their own emotional reactions. The St. Francisville Experiment, however, is not an elegant movie. All through the film, especially towards the end, we are shown people pretending to be scared. "I'm so scared!" they tell us, over and over: "I'm really really scared!" (comically enough, it's Ryan the "scared girl" who is least convincing in her hysteria). And by this point, in the darkened house, with each character alone and isolated, the viewers will indeed start to feel the hairs on the backs of their necks start to rise. I think only the most impressionable, least sophisticated viewers will be anything but mad at the movie for provoking this response.
You're not Charles!
As Madison whimpers and swivels her camera all around the room, she pauses to shoot directly at a mirror (tell me again that this isn't staged, and I'll gladly knock your block off). As the girl works herself into a panic attack, holding the camera all the while so that her face is clearly visible, the movie drops its last pretense at dignity: it gives us a real, honest-to-God, "Rah! Rah! Boogety-boogety!" Monsta.
I saw the movie on VHS, so I'm unable to say exactly what it is that reaches up out of the darkness and puts its hand/claw on Madison's shoulder. On my grainy print, though, it looks like a dark shape, with visible teeth and fingernails. A cheap thrill, yes, but also a cop-out, and one which makes me lose any trace of respect I may have had for the movie. By this time, I'm sure they realized they had a real piece of crap on their hands, and only the appearance of an unmistakable bogey would save them. Or perhaps they thought they were fixing what was what was wrong with That Other Movie: its refusal to show anything, or to dispel the ambiguity. A lot of audiences have trouble with ambiguity, and perhaps a good number of film makers do, too.
Tim comes barreling down from the attic and finds Madison out of her mind with terror... which she signifies by doing the "Lucy Ricardo" impression that bad horror-movie actresses sometimes lapse into ("WAAAAAAAAAAAH, Rickyyyyy... I wanna be in your SHOOOOWWW!"). Together they follow the sounds of screaming to the secret passageway. Behind a door they find -- I am not making this up -- Ryan tied to a table, and Paul chained to a wall. A wine-press in the background is supposed to suggest that this is some sort of torture chamber. The kids drop their lights and cameras is astonishingly convenient places as they rescue the others. They all run out together, as the camera just happens to catch some weird motion among the dust motes. We fade to black, and some text screens give us some idea of the fates of our four protagonists. The last title screen serves as an unintentional punch line for the whole film. The end.
For the amount of money they spend these days on even the worst films, I could hire people to wait in every theatre in the country and whack patrons on the head with a two-by-four as they walk in. Frankly, that would resemble honest entertainment much more than a number of recent movies. It would certainly be a better experience than having to watch The St. Francisville Experiment.
In case it isn't clear from my other comments, I am an admirer of The Blair Witch Project, which this movie seems to want to be. I thought that Blair Witch was a triumph of editing, and well improvised by its cast-cum-crew; but more than that, it was an amazingly successful attempt to do something genuinely new. The fact that it became a huge commercial success has helped other innovative film makers sell their ideas to a market that is now more inclined to give them attention.
My wife and I went to see Blair Witch in the theatre when it first came out. I have to point out that under normal circumstances, the two of us do not agree at all on what constitutes a good movie. She won't watch anything scary if she can help it, and thinks my Italian horror films are just about the dumbest things she's ever seen. Her idea of an enjoyable bad movie is a comedy inspired by an SNL sketch (shudder), and she prefers full-screen to widescreen. But when Blair Witch ended, and the locals began leaving the theatre (cursing and throwing their popcorn at the screen), we just turned to each other and nodded: we knew we'd just seen The Real Thing. The film surprised me later, too: I thought the effect of the film would never survive the transition to the small screen. I was amazed to find it was every bit as effective in my living room as it had been in the darkened theatre. I have no time for the merchandise, or the "extra footage", or the scads of mockumentaries that followed it, or the parodies, books or analyses. I'm as sick of all that crap as anyone else. But I am unapologetic about my affection for Blair Witch.
Remember, too, that Myrick and Sanchez invented -- and documented in detail -- a bit of fictional folklore which took on a life of its own. It's even been accepted as fact by a bewildering number of people. The St. Francisville Experiment comes off lazy by comparison, in this respect even above all else. For St. Francisville, the film makers went to a location already known to fans of the paranormal as one of the most frequently haunted locations in the United States. Louisiana in general is such a mix of races, religions and traditions, and has had such a long history of piracy, slavery, sin and death, that it would be surprising if there weren't so many stories of ghosts and black magic everywhere. To create their basic story, the writers simply extended a bit of New Orleans legend. I'm unimpressed: it doesn't take much to come up with a ghost story in Louisiana.
And yet, it was in Louisiana, in New Orleans, in a tourist-oriented voodoo shop in the French Quarter, that I heard a young woman involved in a passionate discussion with one of the clerks. She was talking about the Highlander TV series, and it was clear from her conversation that she believed in it. She actually thought the show's mythology of dueling immortals was the gospel truth. That sounds like a silly thing to say, and you might be excused for thinking I was oversimplifying, or that I had misunderstood what little I heard. But I'm telling you: she spoke with the zeal of a true believer. I only wish I could convey how serious she was about that awful show. I remember looking around at the assorted masks, and bones, and dried animal parts -- many of them authentic -- and I thought about the voodoo religion which had inspired this store, with its roots in African mysticism and Roman Catholicism; and I looked back at this poor woman and thought: how could anyone be content with so little, in a place like this?
I was reminded of that strange episode when I saw The St. Francisville Experiment, because I found myself thinking the same thing. If you want a good horror film about New Orleans, watch Fulci's The Beyond or Angel Heart instead. And if you want a good horror film about some kids with camcorders coming up against the unknown... you probably already know the best place to go. And now that you've read this far, you also know the worst place to go. The choice is yours. Have fun deciding.
1. Naturally, excluding parodies.
1. With apologies to the originator of the phrase, Dr. Freex.