What I remembered: I hate scary movies. Like most people, I remember the Blair Witch Project being a big deal when it came out. Like a really big deal. There had never been anything like it before. The film is a movie built around the idea of some “found footage” of three young filmmakers going out into the woods to make a documentary about the local town superstition, the Blair Witch. All of the advertising was built around the idea that the film was actually true. The advertising was ahead of it’s time as this was one of the first movies to have it’s own website. You gotta remember this was back in 1998 when the internet was riding piggyback on people’s phone lines and page load times were measured in tens of seconds. The website had photos of the film crew before they disappeared and even pictures of the abandoned car found on the side of the road as well as photos of the “found” film canisters all dirty after a year in the woods. If it’s on the internet then it must be true syndrome kicked in and a lot of people bought it. I swear there was even a 30 minute TV show on the Discovery channel of all places that had a documentary about the missing crew. The hype built around this movie was huge and as a result many people got hooked by it and insisted the film was authentic and real as a result.
I got dragged by friends to go see the film the first weekend it came out. I didn’t want to go. I thought the whole Blair Witch myth thing stupid. But a lot of people didn’t as the theater was packed. I also remember sitting through the movie and becoming quite bored. Bored enough that at a few points I turned around and instead watched the audience and their reactions. You can tell a lot about a film by watching it’s audience. Are they disinterested as they pick out the black ju-ju bees from their box? Or are they on the edge of their seat with wide eyes glued to the screen? Are they sleeping? Are they watching you? For the Blair Witch I remember people watching and generally looking scared. Terrified even. I didn’t get it. A lot of the film was in black and white, the camera was so jumpy at times it was hard to see what was going on, and all the film seemed like was a bunch of boring home movies from a camping trip gone awry. When I walked out I was convinced it was one of the stupidest films ever made.
My friend swore he’d never go out into the woods alone.
That said, my teenage daughter loves the Paranormal Activity movies. She loves, loves, LOVES them. She goes to see each one as soon as it comes out, re-watches them over and over again on Netflix and can explain the whole convoluted history behind each one from a standing start . To her, the Paranormal Activity films are the epitome of what a scary movie should be. Last week we were looking for a movie to watch as a family and found nothing on TV until my wife stumbled upon the Blair With Project. To my surprise, my daughter hadn’t even heard of the film before. What? This is the grand daddy of your favorite film franchise yet you’ve never even heard of it before? How is that even possible? Kids these days. Well that settled it. If nothing else I’m always down for a good history lesson so we fired up the film to give her an education in found footage.
The Film: The film opens with text over a black screen identifying the premise of the movie. Three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods back in 1994 and a year later footage of their journey was found. The film comes off looking amateurish right from the start. Lots of shaky camera movements and impromptu dialogue as the students arrive in the town of Burkitsville Maryland to prepare for the next day’s shoot. A lot of the footage in the film was actually shot by the cast members and it shows which helps make the film feel authentic. This is hugely important to create the sense of realism that Blair Witch lives and dies on. If the film can’t create the illusion this all really happened then it’s failed from the start. While shooting there wasn’t even much of a script, as the actors were given general directions, but allowed to ad lib the dialogue during scenes. When tall these elements come together the film just works. What also jumped out at me was the old 90’s camera footage. A lot of the film is in black and white, grainy at times, out of focus, and poorly shot. Compared to today where everything today is so HD crisp and clear, it’s jarring. But the poor video quality really takes you back and makes the movie seem all the more real. The end result is that the film comes off very unpolished and unproduced as it should. Maybe this all didn’t really happen, but in the back of your head it sure looks like it could.
After some interviews with the local townsfolk about the legend of the Blair Witch the crew finally departs for the woods. It’s a kick to see the crew in full 90’s garb. Grungy flannels, long pony tails and unshaven beards abound. I have quite a bit of nostalgia watching this movie. I’m surprised. The mood is light and airy as they begin their full day’s hike to film on the location of some brutal murders committed by the Blair Witch many years ago. They find the site, at the aptly named Coffin Rock. Here the driven director Heather reads about the fate of five poor men who died horrible deaths there. Bound to each other the men were forced to watch as one was taken to the rock and had his intestines torn from his body. His screams echoing through the still and serene woods. The mental visual of the torture is chilling and sets the stage for what is to follow. For The Blair Witch Project, like other really great horror films, wholeheartedly subscribes to the idea that what our minds can imagine is far far worse than anything we can see onscreen. The Blair With has no special effects, no gore, no real jump scares. The budget wouldn’t allow it. Instead the film builds a sense of dread and tension in thick layers like few movies do. Compare this to the popular Blair Witch imitator, Paranormal Activity and you can see the difference. Paranormal Activity tries to be slick. Many shots come from mounted security cameras or tripods in the scariest of places, a pristine house. A door may open silently, a sheet may flutter for no reason, or a shadow is cast that can’t exist, but you see these things all the same. It puts a limit on to how scary they can ever be. In the Blair Witch, your imagination is your own worst enemy as it takes what little the film gives you and then screws with you. It’s way more effective. Way more scary.
Night falls as our trio set up camp in the pitch black of night next to a creepy cemetery full of mysterious stacked rocks. The next morning they set off to find a distant abandoned cabin where the witch would kill children by making them face the wall, for the final shoot of their film. But their hike begins to take a turn for the worse. The crew begin to fight and accuse each other of getting lost as they drudge ever farther into the woods. Their only sense of direction comes from a paper map that proves to be hard to read. After walking in circles they soon realize they are truly lost and begin to question if they’ll ever find their way back or be rescued, so deep into the woods they’ve walked. The fighting adds even more tension to the film as the actors, who are really doing the hiking, over 90 hours of footage was filmed of them in the woods, are growing visibly tired. They camp in a clearing next to a bunch of those now iconic hanging twig shaped humans. (My friends and I would spend hours after the movie building our own versions of these twig men ourselves. They were good at scaring girls) The next night as they camp they are woken up by the sounds of thrown rocks and cracking branches off in the distance and it… is… creepy. The sounds are unsettling. The woods is already a pretty scary place at night and these acoustic attacks don’t help any. In you’re head and theirs you know somebody must be making the sounds. But who? Why? And how? The students are literally in the middle of nowhere. Have they been followed? Is it the Blair Witch? Locals? Or something else?
When they wake up the next morning a twig man has been placed by the tent mysteriously. They continue walking into the day only to discover the map, their only hope of getting, out has been lost. No GPS back in those days boys and girls. Animosity towards each other turns to anger as each blames the other for losing the map. You feel the tension build with each pointed finger. Instead of working together they are at each other’s throats. All they can do is keep hiking when they discover it was the new cameraman Mikey who threw the map into a river yesterday. It was useless anyways he says, in a fit of frustration. And with that their reality finally sets in. You can literally see the hope drain from their faces.
They are screwed and they know it.
Another night, another campsite. While hiding in their tent they are attacked as the tent suddenly shakes violently from unseen assailants. The crew runs for their life, guided only by the light from their cameras, into the darkness. As the sun rises they edge back to their camp and find grungy Josh’s backpack has been marked with slime. With no question anymore that they are being followed, they pick up the pace of the day’s hike. Wanting to avoid a repeat of yesterday night they decide to sleep in shifts and keep one person up on guard duty. Chillingly, when Heather and Mikey awake the next day from a restful sleep Josh is gone. Scarier still is that there doesn’t appear to be any signs of a struggle. He has simply vanished. Their screams of his name go unanswered. Again, this is a pretty effective scene accomplished with so very little. With no other options Heather and Mikey keep on, trying to stay one step ahead of danger. The next night as they camp Josh’s screams can be heard off in the distance. He is in agony and suffering. Is he being tortured? Or worse? Like a game of mad libs, the movie invites you to fill in the holes with whatever crazy notion you can think off. None good. When they finally wake up in the morning a piece of Josh’s flannel is found by camp wrapped around an extracted tooth. This is also as gory as the movie gets.
At this point in the movie you begin to feel as exhausted as the crew. The same dreary forest scenery begins to grate on your nerves. The shaky camera work is straining your eyeballs, many people actually got sick in theaters because of this, and Heather’s shrill screams have turned into nails on a chalkboard. You can almost smell how dirty the crew have become. If you could only taste their trail mix the film would be an assault on all five of your senses. It’s at this point, when the film is at it’s lowest that we get to it’s most famous scene. Surrounded by the darkness of a moonless night Heather turns the camera on herself and gives a snot nosed, teary eyed, hysterical, video confession where she finally accepts responsibility for all the horrible events that have befallen them. It’s a pretty powerful scene and has become iconic for a reason. In a film full of forgettable home movie footage this is the one point where the Blair Witch actually looks cinematic.
Soon after Heather and Mikey hear Josh’s screams again and rush off to go save him. Josh’s voice lures them towards a derelict cabin. Done playing the role of victims, they enter, armed with cameras in hand and search high and low for their friend. A faint voice can be heard from the basement as Heather rushes to follow Mikey down the stairs. When she enters her camera records Mike, alone, facing the corner of the wall. Heather screams as a viscous thud is followed by her camera dropping to the floor. Cut to black.
On second thought: I must admit. I came away quite impressed having rewatched the movie after all these years. It holds up very well. It’s simpleness becomes has become timeless and this is what sets it apart from so many of the other imitators and copycats we see today. While not jump out of your seat scary, the only jump scare is at the very end, the whole movie builds towards it, the film is hard to watch. It makes you feel uncomfortable. It creeps you out. At times it’s gut wrenching It’s also very serious. The jokes are few and far between. Every minute of film is devoted to slowly ratcheting up the pressure, making things go from bad to worse. The fact the movie was able to do so much with almost nothing is incredible. With a budget of only $25,000 the film made almost $250,000,000 back.
Looking back, I think I watched this movie for the first time with a chip on my shoulder. I was determined not to get suckered into it’s fake reality and as a result I formed a negative opinion of this movie for a long time. An opinion that was formed unjustly. I’d love to see this movie get re-released so a new generation of Paranormal lovers could see what a high quality scary movie really looks like.
Then again maybe not. My daughter hated it.