Friday, October 30, 2009

Sanchez & Myrick Revisited

With all the buzz surrounding Paranormal Activity, another entry in the “found footage” genre, it got me thinking back to the one that started it all – The Blair Witch Project. Hard to believe, but it’s actually been a decade since that came out. I’m sure many of you remember what a phenomenon that was, eclipsing somewhat the release of The Phantom Menace. I’m not sure if this is still the case, but at the time it hit the achievement of being the most successful film ever in terms of money made vs. cost to produce. While feelings about the film vary widely, it was unquestionably a watershed moment in horror film history. I personally found it to be extremely effective, and remember having more than a little trouble falling asleep the night I saw it. Its creators, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, not only produced an amazing marketing campaign, but understood just how effective our imagination is in creating the scares. The film shows you absolutely nothing in the way of an actual monster, but is all the more frightening because of it. There are only a couple of other films that I’ve ever found unsettling (e.g. The Exorcist), and this one may just be the best of the bunch. So after such a huge cinematic splash, these guys became big time filmmakers right? Well not really . . . but in my mind that may not be a bad thing, and I’ll explain why.

In the year following Blair Witch, it came as no surprise that there was an eagerness to capture lightning in a bottle twice. So just in time for Halloween 2000 came Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. At the same time Haxan Films, the production company co-founded by Sanchez, Myrick, and friends, produced the television series FreakyLinks for Fox. So these guys were staying active out of the gate, make no mistake about it. I remember being incredibly psyched about both, but particularly getting wrapped up in the Blair Witch mythology. You see the duo had also conceived a multi-part video game series and tie-in novels, further expanding the legend of the Blair Witch. While I never read the books, the video games were on par with the chills produced by the film. Particularly one that took place in the Civil War era. By the time Blair Witch 2 came out, I was ready to be thrilled again (just as I’m sure millions of others were). And then something interesting happened. Blair Witch 2 turned out to be something completely unexpected . . .

Instead of being either a retread of the plot points of the original with new characters, or an Aliens type follow-up where marines go into the woods, Blair Witch 2 went after the psychosis that develops around media frenzies like . . . well, like the Blair Witch. The film follows a group of Blair Witch devotees who sign up for a tour of the sites believed to be traveled by the doomed members of the student film crew. After a drunken night of camping the tourists wake up to find a rather unsettling scene at the camp site, and have no memory of what took place. The rest of the film deals with them trying to figure out what exactly happened. It’s not really scary, with a few exceptions, and is more about examining our reactions as a society to pop culture reality entertainment. It’s even directed by celebrated documentarian Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper), which in itself is a pretty inspired turn of events (Sanchez and Myrick wrote and produced). While the film doesn’t quite manage to completely come together in the end, it’s still pretty fascinating as a left field turn of events for a sequel to a blockbuster. My guess is that Sanchez and Myrick, feeling the pressure to have another run at the material, decided to blatantly go in another direction as a rebellion of sorts. I could be wrong, but it sure has that feeling about it.

Not surprisingly Blair Witch 2 was a box-office disaster. Fans and newcomers were bewildered, with very few singing praises for the experimental approach taken. The fact is though, like it or not, you have to admire the duo for trying something different. That’s what made the first film great after all. It defied expectations, and may not have achieved classic status, but it was nevertheless interesting. So against the new guys came their first strike, but there was still FreakyLinks. This series for Fox followed a group of young folks who investigated the paranormal via their website FreakyLinks.com. It had an X-Files type vibe in that it was comprised of standalone stories, with occasional story arc episodes involving the death of the main character’s brother. The show even utilized Blair Witch style marketing gimmicks by actually putting up a FreakyLinks website. Unfortunately the show got canceled pretty quickly, a victim of the Friday night graveyard (see Firefly, Millennium, Harsh Realm, etc.). For some reason X-Files has been the only one to survive there. Strike Two.

After FreakyLinks these guys completely went off my radar. For all I knew they left the business and were enjoying a life of ease and riches from their Blair Witch fortune (sort of the way Dolph Lundgren fell off my radar after Johnny Mnemonic). Well that may be, but as it turns out they were also staying busy with other projects (albeit not in collaboration with one another). For the sake of this writeup, I’m going to stick strictly to their directorial efforts so as not to muddy the waters, but you might want to do some independent investigation into their other endeavors if you are so inclined. Although I haven’t gone completely through their respective filmographies as of yet, the work I have seen is proof positive these guys were not one hit wonders. They each have produced their own consistently unique body of work in the horror genre, even though their stuff isn’t released wide theatrically. Most of their films appear modestly budgeted, but they make the most of what they have. And frankly, the fact that they aren’t under big studio type pressure is probably why their films have remained so interesting. What follows is a rundown of their works, with brief commentary where I’ve actually seen the film in question.

Daniel Myrick:

#1 – Believers (2007) – Two paramedics responding to a call find themselves smack in the middle of the internal struggle of a religious cult. After being kidnapped by the cultists, an attempt is made to convince both men of the validity of the cult’s beliefs (which are based on mathematics and astrology). And the clock is ticking, as the group claims the end of the world is only hours away. Commentary: Cool little movie that does a fantastic job of blending science and math with the supernatural (think John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness). While the twist ending is a little predictable, the vast majority of the film is solid and engaging.

#2 – Solstice (2008) – Haven’t seen it. From the synopsis/reviews it sounds like a bit of a slasher type scenario, with supernatural elements thrown in. Most comments say it is executed in a way that makes the material fresh, and that is certainly consistent in regard to my experience with Eduardo/Myrick.

#3 – The Objective (2008) – Set in November 2001, shortly after the U.S. enters Afghanistan, a C.I.A. operative leads a Special Forces team into a remote region of the country to find a high ranking Muslim cleric. But that’s only the cover story. The real target is something otherworldly, and more deadly than any WMD. Commentary: It’s interesting to see genre films now using the War on Terror as a backdrop, and this one certainly does a great job with the setting. Often with this sort of thing the filmmakers tend to veer into the realm of political commentary. That can be okay as long as it doesn’t overwhelm the effectiveness of the story and entertainment value (e.g. Land of the Dead). Here Myrick is most interested in crafting a suspenseful tale, rather than making a statement about the war. If there is a message I would say that he’s highlighting the potential for trouble in failing to properly understand cultural differences. In this case Myrick seems to be indicating that his perception is that Afghanistan is a pretty mysterious place, and that one can accidentally land in alternate dimensions there. Whether that’s true or not, it makes for an exciting movie. Not to overstate the case too much, but this is one of the best genre films I’ve seen this year.

Eduardo Sanchez:

#1 – Altered (2006) – Alien invasion on the micro scale. After being abducted years earlier, 3 small town friends manage to capture one of the creatures who imprisoned them. Unfortunately they didn’t plan anything beyond the capture, since they figured the first part of the scenario was impossible. Desperate, they take the creature to an isolated cabin owned by their estranged friend who was also abducted. What ensues is a rollercoaster ride as the four friends try to make their next move, somewhere between revenge and foiling a fullscale invasion. Commentary: This is one fantastic film! I saw this shortly before Monster Fest and was pretty blown away. It’s not so much that it is a deep or thoughtful endeavor, but it is one of the most entertaining movies of its kind you’re likely to come across. Imagine if something like Fire in the Sky had actually been exciting, and perhaps directed by Sam Raimi during his Evil Dead years. Something like that. The premise is great, there is a strong focus on the characters, and the tension never lets off from the word go. If you see one film from the Sanchez/Myrick post-Blair Witch era, this is the one to see.

#2 – Seventh Moon (2008) – A honeymooning couple in China follow a day of soaking up local culture with a cab ride into the country to visit the groom’s family. Unfortunately it also happens to be the night of the seventh moon festival, in which demons roam the countryside. When the couple’s cab driver abandons them in the middle of nowhere, things go from bad to worse. Commentary: This is a pretty creepy film, and has a nice payoff with the finale. The only negative is that the whole thing is shot in shaky cam mode. Those of you following the blog for a while know I’m not the world’s biggest shaky cam fan. Some will argue it creates a sense of urgency or excitement, but in most cases I just think it makes it hard to tell what’s going on. If that counts as excitement then mission accomplished I guess. Don’t get me wrong I’ve seen it work well (e.g. [REC]), but it’s a risky proposition. In the case of Seventh Moon Sanchez doesn’t quite pull it off. Nevertheless it’s worth checking out.

#3 – ParaAbnormal (2009) – This is listed on IMDB as July 2009, but it hasn’t hit video yet. Looking forward to it though.

Those are the highlights, and I think they form a pretty good track record for these two. They just keep making small, interesting films that tend to get the job done. As an interesting parallel, Blair Witch came out the same summer as The Sixth Sense which became sort of an event as well (also eclipsing The Phantom Menace . . . Star Wars had a rough summer all things considered). It marked the emergence of M. Night Shyamalan as an A-list filmmaker whose gimmick became the clever twist ending. He kept getting big budgets and lots of press, but I would argue that he never did anything after that initial splash as good as the least of the works of Sanchez and Myrick (and I’ll lump BWP2 in there as well). It’s a perfect example of how having Hollywood backing isn’t always a good thing. In looking into Sanchez/Myrick I came across an entry on Wikipedia claiming the two are reteaming for Blair Witch 3 in the near future. With almost a decade gone by since BWP2, I have to say I’m very interested to see what they might do with the material at this stage of the game. Maybe this time around they will send the marines into the forest. Either way I bet it will be worth watching.

2 comments:

Daniel said...

Yaaaay! Someone else who thought Blair Witch 2 wasn't a complete disaster. I haven't watched the orginal since it hit video. I thought it kinda lacked its impact on the small screen for some reason....then again maybe I need to revisit this one.

Blair Witch 2 was rather entertaining and I liked the approach. It wasn't a watershed moment for sure but still a well constructed film in my opinion.

I had no clue about Freakylinks until they started showing re-runs on Chiller (Direct-tv channel devoted to horror). I find these to be well done as well.

The other projects from these two I should check out. Thanks for listing them Jim!

Jim Blanton said...

It's definitely not the affront to horror cinema that some would have you believe : ) It just had the misfortune of following something that was wildly successful Exorcist 2 is another example this phenomenon. It's not a great film either, but I look at it as something experimental. Even if it's not successful, it's so out there that it's interesting to watch.

I think you'll like those other movies a lot. Particularly The Objective and Altered which are pretty terrific!