A couple of teenagers want to make a movie about a local legend involving witches. The teenagers get a camcorder and head into the heart of the haunted area. The teenagers, of course, are the Capeside crew, good ol' Dawson Leery, Joey Potter, Pacey Witter, and Jen Lindley. 1999 was the year of The Blair Witch Project. The film took Hollywood by surprise and inspired many aspiring filmmakers to grab their camera and make a movie with just a camcorder and friends. Dawson hails the movie for blowing the doors off the industry with only a camcorder and three actors. "Escape From Witch Island" is the answer to the "What Happened When The Blair With Project Influenced Dawson's Creek?" question. The episode is a mess and a precursor to the miserable Halloween episode of season five. Why? Read on.
"Escape From Witch Island" aired on November 17, 1999, mere months after The Blair Witch Project opened. Dawson's Creek loved to be the show known as having its finger on the pulse of the hot thing in popular culture. In 1997, Kevin Williamson ripped off his own movie, Scream, in the season one episode "The Scare." The characters were hyper-aware of cultural trends, so it follows the new show runner(s) would want to tackle Blair With but with an ironic detachment that actually hurts the episode more than it helps. A sure sign of laziness in any creative medium is a character, or characters, directly mentioning which story is being ripped off in their story. Of course, Tom Kapinos, the credited writer for the episode, or his bosses Paul Stupin and Greg Berlanti, would defend this accusation of laziness with a statement about meeting the storm before the storm hits them or any number of clichés with a sentiment about averting criticism by embracing future accusations of being a hack.
Joey walks into the local video store to rent The Crucible, but Dawson tells her the video is currently out. Joey runs her hands through her air in a distressed manner. The movie is needed for her paper (Smart Girl Joey doesn't think of borrowing the play from the library). Dawson sits behind his counter, hands behind his head, listening to Joey lament her station in life. Dawson decides to be her white knight after the sob story is completing, alerting her to his genius plan to avoid writing a crappy five page paper about Salem witches through making a documentary about a local Capeside witch legend. Joey accepts Dawson's offer to assist in the project after lamenting her imagined future if she fails to produce a five page paper. Through their conversation, though, is an undercurrent of hurt feelings and choked words. They haven't been close friends since Joey's father got caught selling drugs out of The Ice House. Eve, a bombshell blonde, came through town promising sex for Dawson, which isolated Dawson and Joey from each other even more. Now, in the video store, Dawson doesn't know why she stopped working at the docks or how she did on the SATs; and Joey wasn't aware Eve left town. They are tortured soul mates.
Dawson's plan for the documentary is a direct rip-off of Blair Witch. Joey calls him on it. Dawson smiles like a jackass and continues putting away movies, one of which is near Varsity Blues, the 1998 football classic starring The Beek as reluctant-but-great high school quarterback in Texas, while he defends his idea as original; see, Dawson plans to comment on hypocrisy in religion, so he wants to bore the audience whereas Blair Witch aimed to scare the shit out of everyone in a completely new way. The writers knew they'd get ripped on for ripping off Blair Witch. Dawson's defense is their defense. The first act opens with the foursome walking casually walking to class while discussing the movie the episode is ripping off. Three of the four teens criticize the film. Not only does the show directly and unapologetically rip off the premise of the show, it insults it as well. The writers are essentially saying, "Yeah, we are stealing this idea and turning it into shit, but the movie is a piece of shit anyway SO WHO CARES!" There's a cheeky scene as the teens are about to board a boat to Witch Island where the operator pulls out a camcorder because he's filming a documentary about people filming a documentary about Witch Island. Dawson squints and looks ashamed but asks his questions anyway about the island and learns no one should stay after dark because the ghosts of murdered witches come out and cause some serious nonsense in the woods.
So far, when Dawson's Creek is inspired by The Blair Witch Project, nothing but insults are thrown at the film. The worst offense of the show, though, is turning "Escape From Witch Island" into a love story about an imprisoned witch and her devoted boyfriend which, of course, mirrors the present day soul mates Dawson and Joey. The Blair Witch premise is a jumping off point for a typical angsty Dawson/Joey story that neither clarifies their status nor makes the pairing more interesting. The Witch Island story adds flourish in minor places, but it's really a case of what David Foster Wallace wrote in The Pale King: Every ghost story is a love story. Wendy the tour guides tells the story of William and Mary, two 17th century lovers separated by the girl's forced imprisonment on Witch Island by her family. Joey devours Mary's story because she identifies with it. Joey feels like she's been forced away from Dawson; she sits alone in her house wondering why they can't be together, why he rejected her the night she offered herself to him, and whether or not they really will find their way back to each other. Are they soul mates? Mary's fate is unknown. Wendy theorizes William rescued her before the fire that killed the other girls. Joey isn't so sure Mary reunited with him just as she's unsure of Dawson.
Dawson barely uses the camcorder. Joey's presence distracts him. Dawson leaves the place with enough footage to pass the assignment. The teens just hang out in the old church. Pacey and Jen make out and agree to have casual sex while Dawson and Joey make themselves miserable by actively choosing to remain apart. Dawson reasons they'll find their way back to romance if it's meant to be; Joey's sad Dawson's become a stranger to her life, which fact stings The Forehead. "Escape From Witch Island" is the worst rip-off of The Blair Witch Project. Dawson presents the film to the class with the 'love story' thesis and receives tremendous praise despite ignoring the actual assignment to write about the history of the Salem witch trials. It's a not a film class, though Principal Green probably taught that, too (Green teaches EVERY CLASS).
"Escape From Witch Island" doesn't ignore the spooky element. While the general stance of the show on the movie is bad, they need to pay off the Witch element. Blair Witch has the iconic scene with the girl repeating "I'm so scared." "Escape From Witch Island" needs its crazy sequence of terror. Dawson's Creek executed scary stories really, really poorly. It was horrible whenever they tried to scare the audience. "Escape From Witch Island," "Four Scary Stories," and "Living Dead Girl" include scenes which do not track with what's been written, which seem thrown in there because someone thought it was cool, and which lack a source and a resolution. "Escape..." includes numerous POV shots of the church where the teens are, with heavy breathing and soft voices, as if the witches’ spirits are closing on the property. I wrote about "Four Scary Stories" two years ago, which is just an abomination of an episode. "Living Dead Girl" ends on a cloaked figure turning out the lights because why the hell not it's season six and everyone but Joshua Jackson gave up on the show. There is no build to the 'terrifying' sequences. Something happens and then it's forgotten about. The sequence in "Escape From Witch Island" includes the sound of angry villagers, fire balls, fire outside of the church, jammed doors, and then nothing. Joey theorizes Wendy and boat guy were responsible, which would explain the image of a man and woman in 17th century garb standing on the docks watching the teenagers flee the island. The insane fire ball that comes within an inch of Dawson's face is never mentioned; Dawson's more interested in expressing his opinion of the ghosts of Mary and William being reunited for all eternity.
Inevitably the episode needed to return to the 'heart' of the show, which is the Dawson and Joey nonsense. I would've thought the terrible way in which they handled the 'scary' element of the episode would have deterred the writers from trying it again. Nothing good came from Blair Witch directly inspiring Dawson's Creek (the Jen/Pacey thing is fun in this episode), but this is what happened when that inspiration happened.