New ‘Blair Witch’ shows up out of ‘The Woods’

Film, cloaked in se­crecy for 3 years, picks up from 1999

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Bryan Alexan­der @BryAlexand USA TO­DAY

Fit­tingly for a shock hor­ror film, the new Blair Witch per­fected the cloak-and-dag­ger dark art of movie se­crecy.

The film (in the­aters Fri­day) was kept so hush-hush dur­ing its 31⁄ 2- year cre­ation that even some crew mem­bers thought they were work­ing on a hor­ror flick called

The Woods, not know­ing it was a se­quel to The Blair Witch Project.

The news was kept fully un­der wraps un­til di­rec­tor Adam Win­gard and col­lab­o­ra­tor-screen­writer Si­mon Barrett un­veiled Blair

Witch at Comic-Con, steal­ing the San Diego fan con­ven­tion and cat­a­pult­ing pre-re­lease ex­cite­ment. Barrett says the sur­prise was nec­es­sary to min­i­mize ex­pec­ta­tions and cyn­i­cism.

“We didn’t want it to be, ‘We’re mak­ing a Blair Witch movie, is that a good or bad idea?’ We wanted the con­ver­sa­tion to be, ‘We made a new Blair Witch movie. And we just showed it to you,’ ” Barrett says. “Peo­ple’s minds were blown.”

It was an ap­pro­pri­ate sur­prise for the ter­ri­fy­ingly re­al­is­tic Blair

Witch Project, which sneaked up and spooked the na­tion in 1999. The “found-footage” ap­proach, shot on hand­held video cam­eras by un­known ac­tors seem­ingly ter­ror­ized in the Mary­land woods, seemed all too real. With In­ter­net hype, di­rec­tors Daniel Myrick and Ed­uardo Sánchez’s $60,000 film turned into a $248.6 mil­lion cul­tural mon­ster at the world­wide box of­fice.

But Blair Witch as a fran­chise got lost in the woods. A tra­di­tion-

ally shot, crit­i­cally panned 2000 se­quel Book of Shad­ows: Blair

Witch 2, helmed by Joe Ber­linger, maxed out at $47.7 mil­lion glob­ally. Then there were years of si­lence as in­ex­pen­sive found-footage fran­chises dom­i­nated hor­ror, from Para­nor­mal

Ac­tiv­ity to Win­gard and Barrett’s V/H/ S. Lion­s­gate, which owned the Blair Witch rights, ap­proached the duo in 2013 with a top-se­cret found-footage se­quel con­cept in­volv­ing the younger brother lead­ing friends to find his miss­ing sis­ter Heather Don­ahue in the cursed woods. The film­mak­ers, de­voted fans of the orig­i­nal, jumped. “It was weird keep­ing it a se­cret,” Barrett says. “I was writ­ing a film called The Woods, my con­tract even said The Woods, and not telling any­one what I was re­ally do­ing.”

Ac­tors were kept in the dark dur­ing au­di­tions with faux scripts. The real script came, on eerie blood-red pa­per to pre­vent copy­ing, just be­fore board­ing for the lo­ca­tion. Even the set had “a dou­ble-se­cret name” to throw peo­ple off, says Barrett — a fake vam­pire movie, Stakes.

Two weeks into pro­duc­tion, James Allen McCune, cast as Heather’s younger brother, ut­tered the movie’s true ti­tle while shoot­ing.

“The cam­era op­er­a­tor puts the cam­era down, looks at (Win­gard) and asks, ‘Is this a Blair Witch movie?’ He had no idea,” McCune re­calls. “Peo­ple worked the en­tire shoot not know­ing. That’s pretty spe­cial.”

Paul Der­garabe­dian, se­nior me­dia an­a­lyst for comS­core, says he be­lieves Blair Witch will ap­peal to both young hor­ror fans and movie­go­ers who loved the orig­i­nal “now that there’s enough dis­tance from the crush­ing dis­ap­point­ment of Blair Witch 2, which had a stink on it.”

Myrick, who didn’t work on

Blair Witch but earned ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer sta­tus and “gave his bless­ing,” was pleas­antly sur­prised af­ter “cring­ing ” through the first se­quel.

“This new film has some gen­uinely scary mo­ments, which is all I ask for a film pur­port­ing to be a scary film,” Myrick says. “The fans will em­brace it. And peo­ple are talk­ing about Blair Witch again, which is cool.”

CHRIS HEL­CER­MANAS-BENGE

James Allen McCune stars as Heather Don­ahue’s brother in Blair Witch.

LION­S­GATE

Do they never learn? Cal­lie Her­nan­dez heads into the woods.

AR­TI­SAN EN­TER­TAIN­MENT

Heather Don­ahue faces the cam­era in an iconic scene from The Blair Witch Project.

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