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A relic from the brief ascendancy of The Blair Witch Project – Blair Witch: Dark Testaments #1

January 18, 2013

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More than ten years on, it’s interesting to look back with some perspective on what a phenomenon The Blair Witch Project was. Produced on a shoe-string budget, with no-name actors dropped into the woods, isolated, and given vague instructions about where to go and what to do, it wound up a cinematic touchstone. It was an early indicator of just how effective the internet could be in spreading a hype brush-fire, while its 200+ million dollar gross made every Hollywood bean-counter push up their green visor and take notice. The jumpy tale of three amateur filmmakers lost in haunted woods was viciously effective storytelling and gripping horror, and that’s not even bringing in the fleeting, delicious moment when people didn’t know whether it was all real or not. These are things that sometimes get lost now that the whole enterprise has become the foundation for tired cliché, right alongside the take-away moment of Heather Donahue’s snotty camcorder confessional. The producers didn’t originate the concept of found footage, but they took it about as far as it would go, as the successors to Blair Witch have mostly been unworthy (Cloverfield, though you could never for a moment believe it was real, shared a number of marketing/quality points). And the less said about the standard, rushed, run-of-the-mill studio sequel, Book of Shadows, the better.

Blair Witch and its direct and indirect progeny aren’t the only offshoots to the mystical underbelly of the real-life (with fake witchcraft backstory) Burkittsville, Maryland. Several comic books were produced during the brief two-year ascendancy of things Blairy Witchy, before people grew tired of it all, moved on and Book of Shadows hammered the last nails in the coffin. There was a concurrent comic that built up to the original film’s release, as well as a four issue mini-series in 2000. Then, later that same year, in the final lead-up to Book of Shadows, Image released the comic featured here today. Is Blair Witch: Dark Testaments as groundbreaking as the first film? No, but how could it be? The good news is that it’s far better than the muddled sequel, and a decent story.

Written by Ian Edgington with art by Charlie Adlard, it has as its narrator Davis Crane, a retired(?) teacher in Burkittsville, a decent man with a connection to his hometown’s dark past. The tone is set on the first page, which has him about to smother twin babies with a pillow — cheery!:

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He fails (phew), and the book’s narration comes as he sits in a prison cell, waiting for whatever fate awaits people who try to kill infants in cribs. He looks back on his childhood (his Dark Testament, as it were), when he was friends with the Parr twins, Dale and Rustin. Devotees of the film(s) will recall that Rustin Parr was the murderer whose forest cabin was part of the quest of both films’ dopey youngsters. He’d take kids to his basement, kill one while the other stood in the corner, then kill that one. Again — CHEERY.  We learn here that in childhood it was actually Dale who had the serial killer precursors (violence to small animals, much like Jeffrey Dahmer), as well as the ominous connection to the Blair Witch. But gentle, genial Rustin had his share of creepy, too:

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A kid with shadowy eyes carving a deer out of wood. Is that creepy? Maybe?

We’re shown how darkness settles on the Parr boys, how the curse of the Blair Witch transfers from Dale to Rustin, how Dale haunts from beyond the grave, and how poor Davis, even when he tries to get out, gets sucked back into the whole mess. Oh, and why killing babies seemed like a sane thing to do at the time. Lest you’re worried that there’s an acute lack of blood and sticks tied together in a sinister manner — trademarks of the franchise — let me assure you, they’re here too. Hey, here they are! Both!:

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There’s violence. There’s gore. There are kids getting killed. But make no mistake, this is actually solid storytelling for a one-off comic. There’s a fine balance maintained between answers and ambiguity, and some of the imagery used is genuinely effective. (A disembodied shadow clinging to a man’s leg is surprisingly hair-raising.) The studio execs that made a hash of the film sequel could have learned some lessons, if not from this comic’s material, then at least from its sensibilities. Sadly, they don’t seem to be of the lesson-learning breed.

There have been rumors bouncing around for years about a rebirth of the Blair Witch franchise, and it’s a surprise that no one has come along to wring the last bit of spilled juice out of that dish rag. We live in the age of dopey reboots, and all the filthy lucre of old has to be tempting. It could very well be that the success of the first film was an alchemy that can never be replicated. Possible. Yet old comics like Dark Testament argue that there might still be some evil seeping through its closed coffin lid.

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