Dick Johnson Is Dead

Typically, people only die once but the titular character in the stellar new Netflix documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead dies quite a few times. The octogenarian psychiatrist is the father of filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, who came up with the concept for this film around the time of her dad’s retirement from his practice due to his worsening dementia. As a way of battling the anxiety of inevitably losing her only remaining parent with pitch-black humor, she conceived of shooting staged versions of her dad dying in cartoonish and irregular ways. Whether he’s getting knocked out with a falling AC unit or fatally slapped with a 2×4 from a clueless construction worker, Dick and the stuntmen that stand in for him play out these macabre, Harold and Maude-esque fantasies both with good cheer and technical precision.

However, not all of these fantastical scenes are quite so morbid. Kirsten Johnson also stages an elaborate sequence in heaven, in which confetti appears to constantly fall in slow motion as Dick gleefully plays clarinet for jitterbugging historical figures. One transcendental shot depicts Dick slowly floating in the air along with his favorite chair and ottoman as he seems to either rest or meditate in his high-rise New York office. Jesus even makes an appearance, washing Dick’s malformed feet until they are miraculously made whole once again. Outside of these cinematic reveries, Kirsten spends the rest of her documentary sharing candid conversations between herself and her father with topics ranging from religion to chocolate cake.

This is obviously tricky and extremely personal material and half the fun of watching Dick Johnson Is Dead is marveling at director Kirsten Johnson’s ability to gracefully maneuver the tightrope of tonal management. We always get the sense that Dick is in on the “joke”, as it were; “I’ve always wanted to be in the movies!”, he assures his grandkids in the film’s opening moments. Though we never see Kirsten explicitly explain the nature of her unconventional documentary to her dad, he seems game for these silly stunts and opines, “you see a lot of weird stuff in movies that never happens.” As production assistants explain the mechanics of a device that shoots out fake blood for one of his stunts, he clarifies that he doesn’t want to use his actual blood for the pump, reminding the young assistants “I like my blood, I’ve become accustomed to it!”

Those quotes should give one an idea just how good-natured, convivial and, frankly, adorable Dick Johnson comes across throughout this wild experiment of a movie. There’s something so rewarding about watching a film so fixated with mortality and disintegration of the human body also center itself around a protagonist who has the best possible attitude and perspective on the subjects. In a country where discussions about death are still often regarded as taboo, audiences may initially blanch at this cinematic equivalent of “whistling past the graveyard” but it’s easy to be drawn in once the poignant and playful rhythm of Kirsten Johnson’s film is established.

Much like last year’s outstanding The Farewell, which also tenderly dealt with the prospect of losing our loved ones, the film furthers this cultural conversation in a similarly amiable manner. To give her movie another layer of unconventionality, Kirsten Johnson implements metatextual touches that blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, as when she uses a skywriter plane to outline a passage of time in the “narrative”. Despite its unique approach to its themes, the film is far from inaccessible and those who stumble upon it while aimlessly browsing Netflix’s seemingly infinite catalog may be pleasantly surprised by it. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a powerful reminder that nobody lives forever but thankfully, movies do.

Score – 4/5

New movies this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Hubie Halloween, a horror comedy starring Adam Sandler and Julie Bowen about a Salem resident who’s out to save his hometown’s Halloween from monsters.
Opening in theaters is The War with Grandpa, a family comedy starring Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman about a prank war that starts between a boy and his grandfather when they’re forced to share the same living space.
Available to watch on Hulu is Books of Blood, an anthology movie based on the Clive Barker horror book series starring Britt Robertson and Anna Friel which interweaves three terrifying stories.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

No Sleep October: The Blair Witch Project

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I remember spending more time than I’d care to admit getting lost in the woods. As someone who wasn’t especially outdoorsy, I still couldn’t resist the urge to go over to friends’ houses during summer break and waste hours and hours going through whatever nearby forests we could find. There was something about exploring “uncharted” territory away from adults and the endless possibilities of discovery that never seemed to get old. But no matter how deep in we went, we always found our way out. It never even occurred to me that one day, maybe we wouldn’t.

This simple but haunting notion is just one of many that permeates the brilliantly effective and rightfully iconic The Blair Witch Project. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 1999 and later scaring up almost $250 million that following summer, the film remains one of the most profitable horror movies of all time. The concept of a fictitious Blair Witch was first developed by co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez back in 1993 but as we all know now, the movie’s most salacious marketing hook was that audiences didn’t know the legend was entirely made-up. Shot on a combination of 16mm and VHS in October of 1997 (their last day of shooting was, appropriately, on Halloween), the largely improvised project featured three unknown actors — Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard — going into the woods to document the seemingly real Blair Witch legend.

While The Blair Witch Project didn’t create the found-footage technique, it gave it terrifying renewed potential. If you go into the film ignoring the indelible cultural impact that it’s had over the past 20 years and try to approach it as a factual account of these three student filmmakers getting in way over their heads, it remains one of the sub-genre’s crowning achievements. Its credibility starts early, with Heather haphazardly holding her ever-present camcorder as she meets Mike and recruits Josh for their new project. “I really want to avoid any cheese; I want this to be as straightforward as possible,” she forewarns her male cohorts as they pack the video gear into their car. Myrick and Sánchez wisely apply this thesis statement to their approach for the film’s simple and subtle scares.

After setting the table with some terrific naturalistic acting of Maryland locals recounting stories of the Blair Witch legend, the movie follows Heather, Mike and Josh as they begin their hike through the leaf-covered Black Hills forest. The first few days go about as well as planned, as they capture footage of a creepy graveyard and the equally creepy Coffin Rock while Heather narrates in a perfectly overwrought film student manner. What Myrick and Sánchez do so shrewdly over the remaining runtime is show how little it takes to psychologically break these people down and erode their very sense of being. It’s as if the filmmakers studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and thought “what if we slowly chip away at all of these from the bottom up until there’s nearly nothing left?”

First, it rains and the chilly autumn breeze turns into a stiffer and more unforgiving wind. After the fourth day, food and water become scarce and random noises throughout the woods make certain that a good night’s sleep is nigh impossible. Their bags are raided in the night and cairns are insidiously placed right outside their tents, indicating that they won’t be safe wherever they choose to camp out. Trust and whatever notion of “friendship” these three have slowly erode as they become more lost in their treacherous surroundings. Josh is seemingly kidnapped and tortured as Heather and Mike fruitlessly attempt to locate him amongst the array of identical-looking trees. After all of these awful events, we finally get to the top of Maslow’s pyramid when Heather tearfully admits to Mike “this is all I have!”, realizing that her dreams of becoming a revered filmmaker will never come true.

All of this leads to a spellbinding finale set in the abandoned house of a hermit who allegedly kidnapped and killed children under orders of the Blair Witch. The production design is terrific as Heather and Mike investigate the bloody handprinted walls and decrepit condition of the building. Myrick and Sánchez deftly juggle between Heather’s 16mm camera and Mike’s camcorder, ratcheting up the tension as Mike hastily makes his way to the cobblestone basement ahead of Heather. My favorite detail of the film’s chilling final minute is how we’re seeing the footage from Heather’s camera but hearing the audio from Mike’s camcorder, even though it hits the ground once he finally gets to the basement. That way, Heather’s shrieks become louder and louder until she finally gets to the room and sees Mike standing horrifyingly still in a corner of the basement.

It should go without saying but the mystique of The Blair Witch Project will likely never again be replicated in film history. Thanks to the ever-watchful entertainment industry, spoiler-ridden trailers and constant chatter on social media, we practically know everything about a given movie before it’s even released. This film’s marketing campaign went viral before “viral” was even a concept, utilizing the internet in ways that Hollywood hadn’t even begun to think about. Sure, Space Jam had a website (that, for some reason, still exists today) but it didn’t have nearly the depth of content of Blair Witch’s link-heavy web index. The convincing narrative that the site put forth even had message boards buzzing, long before the days of Reddit and 4Chan when internet conspiracy culture wasn’t an embarrassing hellscape of alt-right propaganda.

Indeed, there may never be another horror movie quite like The Blair Witch Project but that’s all the more reason to get lost in its wilderness when fall rolls around each year.