31 Screams in October, #26: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Posted: October 27, 2014 in Movie Review
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The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Directors: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez

Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, Joshua Leonard

Sights unseen are are always the most frightening. It is not the monster hiding under a kid’s bed that scares him/her at night. It’s the idea that a monster is hiding under the bed which causes the poor child to lose sleep. Some who are afraid of ghosts are fearful not because they’ve ever actually seen one, but because the idea of the ghost has them seeing it in all manner of dark, creepy corners.  Certainly, there are very real things in this world which are horrifying, but isn’t it the unknown that turns us back into that little child, paralyzed with fear?

In 1999, a new breed of horror film arrived on the scene with what may have been the most excellent campaign any movie ever had. “The Blair Witch Project” was hyped as very real footage which had been found of three missing young documentary filmmakers who had journeyed into the woods of Maryland and never returned. Because all three had never before appeared in a movie and addressed themselves on-screen by their real names, that lent credence to the ruse that this was legitimate. T-shirts with a missing persons report were printed, confusing some as to whether the faces on it were of people the person wearing the shirt actually knew. Also helping the movie out was the slim budget. $60,000 isn’t enough to do very much in the way of special effects, meaning that the scares would all have to come from the reactions of the characters to things they see and hear, but which the audience never does. Very few horror movies, or movies of any genre, could have asked for the dominoes to have fallen into place quite so perfectly as they did for “The Blair Witch Project.

The film tells us that, in 1994, the team of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams traveled to Burkitsville, Maryland to film a documentary on a local mythological figure known as the Blair Witch (named for the town’s original name), and that the footage was found three years later. A lot of the townspeople seem to be convinced that this creature exists, and they know all about the stories of people who’ve gone missing over the years, their disappearances attributed to the Blair Witch. These interview segments are so natural that the interviewees could be either actors or just random people off the street. They’re really the former, but it’s that convincing. It’s also extremely important not to dismiss these interviews, because much of what is said will come into play later on.

As soon as the group enters the woods, you know where things started to go wrong when Heather first tells Josh and Mike, “I know where we are.” Famous last words. After days pass and much fumbling around with the map ensues, tensions begin to mount between the three. Heather’s judgment continues to fall under scrutiny. Mike “agreed to a scouted-out project,” and Josh becomes agitated that Heather is so hellbent on filming “everything.” Eventually, the map goes missing, and the group can do nothing but pick a direction and hope that’s the one which will lead them out. During all of this time, the group has become somewhat sleep-deprived, being kept awake by strange, unnerving sounds in the woods. On one of their worst nights, they hear what seems to be children’s voices outside their tent, followed by someone or something shaking the tent itself.

The extent of the visuals you get in this movie come in the form of little trinkets left by… who? Citizens of Burkitsville? Inbred rednecks living in the woods? The Blair Witch? Signs would seem to point to it all being the work of the Witch. First, our filmmakers locate piles of rocks outside their tent, then they find a lot of curious-looking voodoo-type of items hanging from the trees. Later, the contents of Josh’s pack are strewn about, with some slimy substance smeared all over them. Then, while the others are sleeping, Josh disappears.

Because the three have been declared missing, it’s easy to guess that Heather and Mike will try and fail to locate their friend, only to meet a similar fate. It is this climax that still leaves some viewers disturbed, others confused. If it is indeed the Blair Witch (or someone under the spell of the Blair Witch) who is responsible for everything that happens to Heather, Mike and Josh, we’ll never know for sure because this person/entity was never seen by their cameras. Perhaps the best thing this movie does is that it defines nothing while telling you everything.

As a result of the huge success of “The Blair Witch Project,” an entirely new subgenre of horror was born, even though this wasn’t the first movie with those elements to it. Just as “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” made the slasher genre popular by adopting elements from earlier movies, “The Blair Witch Project” takes its cues from both 1980’s “Cannibal Holocaust” (the first true “found footage” movie) and 1998’s “The Last Broadcast.” Since 1999, there have been many imitators, all of which have the same conceit that “everything must be filmed” so that the illusion can continue and so that the audience can continue to witness the proceedings. These movies include the monster movie “Cloverfield,” the superhero flick “Chronicle,” and the “Paranormal Activity” horror franchise. Even George Romero got into the act with his 2007 zombie film “Diary of the Dead.” None of these examples have had the same effect, nor can they have expected to do so.

Whether because of the advances in the Internet or because audiences, having been fooled once, are no longer able to suspend their disbelief, it will be harder from now on for a movie like “The Blair Witch Project” to capture the kind of attention that it did, and harder for such a film with actors whose performances have been so ridiculed despite being so completely natural. I really don’t think I’d be able to do Shakespeare in the woods if I were sleep/food/water-deprived for days and scared out of my wits. Likewise, the actors should not have been expected to do much “acting,” rather to just behave normally. In fact, this latest viewing having been the first time I watched this movie with stereo sound, I felt as involved with a horror movie as I have in a very long time. That’s about the biggest compliment I can give to any movie. That’s the true legacy of the “Blair Witch.”

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Comments
  1. adminlmg says:

    I really liked this movie when it came out. I liked the realness of it, compared to how “professional” most movies seem. That was its charm. Nice review!

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