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Five Lessons We Hope “Paranormal Activity 2” Learned From “Blair Witch 2”

Five Lessons We Hope “Paranormal Activity 2” Learned From “Blair Witch 2”  (photo)

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When “Paranormal Activity” came out last year it was hard not to think about “The Blair Witch Project”: two heavily improvised, found footage horror films shot independently on shoestring budgets that became enormously profitable hits thanks to ingenious internet marketing campaigns. So with “Paranormal Activity 2” opening this week, it’s hard not to think about “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” which, like “Paranormal Activity 2,” was rushed into production to capitalize on its predecessor’s surprising success and made by a different creative team than the original film.

Based on the “Paranormal 2” trailers it’s clear they’ve already avoided a few of the pitfalls of “Blair Witch 2,” most notably maintaining the original’s docsploitation visual style instead of shifting to a more conventionally shot fiction film. But Paramount has kept a tight lid on just about everything else. Having enjoyed both “The Blair Witch Project” and the first “Paranormal Activity,” and having suffered through “Blair Witch 2,” here’s five lessons I hope “Paranormal 2” writer Michael R. Perry and director Tod Williams learned from that unholy mess.

Lesson #1: Don’t Make a Movie About Weirdos

“The Blair Witch Project” was an ingeniously simple movie: the supposed documentary footage of a crew of student filmmakers who went missing investigating a legendary witch and were never heard from again. Heather (Heather Donahue), Mike (Michael C. Williams), and Josh (Joshua Leonard) might have come unglued by the end of the film but they weren’t psychopaths: they were ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances. But the scenes everyone remembered were the ones where they looked kind of crazy, like Heather, boogers dripping from her nose, apologizing to Josh and Mike’s moms with her face millimeters from the camera lens.

At some point, someone decided this was what people wanted from a “Blair Witch” sequel: people acting bananas. So instead of three college kids, “Book of Shadows” follows a former mental patient (“Burn Notice”‘s Jeffrey Donovan), a witch who speaks to ghosts (Erica Leerhsen), and a goth chick with vaguely defined psychic abilities (Kim Director), plus a couple (Tristine Skyler and Stephen Barker Turner) too dumb to survive in normal society (who brings the only copy of their manuscript on a camping trip to the haunted woods?). The keys to “Blair Witch” were believability and relatability, being able to accept that the events of the film could have happened, and that if placed in a similar situation, we in the audience might have done the same. Unless you happen to be a psychic witch, neither is true of “Book of Shadows.”

Lesson #2: Don’t Let the Characters Know About The First Movie

The title card that opens “Book of Shadows” reads “The following is a fictionalized re-enactment of events that occurred after the release of ‘The Blair Witch Project.'” And all the nutters in the film make their way to Burkittsville, Maryland to take part in a tour of the film’s shooting locations. That dumb couple is looking for evidence for their book, the witch wants to prove that witches are nice people, the mental patient is looking to profit from the “Blair Witch” craze. They all say things like “Newsflash everybody! That was just a movie!” but eventually they all get possessed, think they’re having sex with each other, imagine they’re being tormented by little children wearing eye shadow, etc.

Here’s why this is a problem: it makes the characters idiots. Because if they know the movie, then they have to know the movie is fake. If there was a real documentary that featured kids actually dying at the hands of some kind of supernatural presence (or even just an old hill country hag) it would set off a media firestorm, an FBI investigation, and get the entire state of Maryland quarantined. But if that was the case, you wouldn’t have much of a horror sequel. “Paranormal 2” trailers suggest the film is about relatives of the characters of the first, which is a good sign. But if they happen to find the footage from “Paranormal 1″…

Lesson #3: Don’t Make a Generic Horror Movie and Call It A Sequel

The worst part about “Book of Shadows” is that the references to the first “Blair Witch” are essentially window dressing for what is otherwise a very generic horror movie. After the first half hour in the woods, it’s basically just a bunch of obnoxious people hallucinating and yelling at each other in a dumpy loft. It would not surprise me in the slightest to learn that “Book of Shadows” began its life as an unrelated screenplay about hallucinating tourists that some producers found and sprinkled a few Blair Witch references on. Because that’s what it feels like. “The Blair Witch Project” was scary because it didn’t look like a scary movie. “Blair Witch 2” isn’t scary because it looks like every scary movie.

Lesson #4: Don’t Let Your Think Pieces Go To Your Head

Again, “Blair Witch” was a simple film. But it was so rigorously designed, and was such an interesting mix of objective (since we only see what the camera sees) and subjective perspectives (since we only see what Heather, Mike, and Josh’s cameras see) that it produced a lot of interesting writing about its take on mediated reality, point of view, and the thin line between documentary and fiction. But none of that was commented upon in the film, that was what people read into it.

Well, there was no need to read anything into “Book of Shadows,” because it conveniently spelled it all out for the viewer. “If people believe something, isn’t it real? Perception is reality!” a characters points out during one of the many arguments about whether “The Blair Witch Project” is real or not. The First “Blair Witch” was a phenomenon. You know how not to recreate a phenomenon? By deconstructing that phenomenon onscreen during lengthy philosophical arguments.

Lesson #5: No Evil Owls

This one speaks for itself.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.