THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
(Written and Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez)
(Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams)
Plot: Three film students (Donahue, Leonard, Williams) vanish in the Burkittsville woods while making a documentary about a local legend known as ‘The Blair Witch’, but the tapes containing their horrific final days are recovered in this iconic ‘found footage’ feature.
I remember the ambitious media blitz which accompanied “The Blair Witch Project” and how it convinced the masses that they were watching authentic recordings of the terrifying and mysterious final days of three real people.. Sure, if these tapes were ‘real’, there is no way they’d be edited and distributed for our entertainment. And yeah, the marketing campaign plagiarized “Cannibal Holocaust“…But that movie had somehow vanished from peoples collective memories during the 90’s, despite being so realistic that the local authorities ended up arresting the director and charging him with making a snuff film…Okay, how did we fall for this again? You’d think someone would investigate this story a lot more thoroughly, or at least remember the promotional materials from “Cannibal Holocaust“, but I can’t remember any skeptics getting coverage. Maybe we all knew it was fake, but allowed ourselves to be carried along for the ride because that made the experience a lot more interesting. I don’t think there will ever be anything like “The Blair Witch Project” again, as the internet has evolved into an omnipresent being that will cast all of your secrets into the light….except, as it turns out, for those producing sequels under different names…But in the context of 1999, social media was still in its infancy and it was such a small project that it could successfully shroud itself in mystery. One can even argue that the true artform on display was the marketing campaign, with the movie only serving as an extension of it, which might explain a lot of the back-lash that the movie itself experienced over the years. For many, “The Blair Witch Project” was only scary when accompanied with the idea that it was real. Now it is common knowledge that the film is a work of fiction, so it’s forced to stand on its own two legs and many would argue that it has very little to offer. While they might concede it casts the illusion of authenticity, they’ll criticize the minimal plot, generic characterizations and lack of structure. Of course, there are still passionate defenders who consider it to be terrifying, maybe even being among the scariest horror features of all time. So who is right and who is wrong? Much like how there are no rules as to what makes us laugh, what we find scary is rooted in emotion rather than intellect, so it’s an often unpredictable, chaotic feeling. “The Blair Witch Project” is perhaps the definite example of fear being subjective, because if it doesn’t frighten you, it will bore and annoy you…As it once did me…
I saw this when it first came out on video and I found myself bored, confused and incredibly disappointed. This was during a time period when I demanded carnage in every single film I watched, so I confused ‘subtle’ with ‘nothing’ and probably fell asleep. I must’ve not paid attention to the expository interviews, because I had no idea what was going on during the finale and was furious that we never got to see the witch. Years later, I decided it was time to revisit my old nemesis…alone…in an empty house…at night…The experience was so haunting that I spent the remainder of the night fighting off the jitters, convincing that something horrible was lurking within the darkness…probably my copy of “Meet the Spartans“…It should be noted that I don’t frighten very easily, at least not to the extent where I am left in a nervous state hours after having witnessed a work of fiction. Now that the upcoming “Blair Witch” sequel is being released, I felt obligated to face my fears once more and I was left shaken again, although I found ways of quickly relieving my stress (“The Bare Wench Project“, mixed in with some alone time ;). So what changed? How did hate change to love within the time span of maybe 10 years? Obviously our tastes evolve and mutate as we get older and my own began to favor the stimulation of my imagination- which is usually going to be far scarier than anything the film industry can produce. The best part of “The Blair Witch Project” is the sound design and the actors’ reactions to it. “What is that noise?” is a question the characters and audience members constantly ask themselves, as most of these noises don’t sound quite right. They’re not overtly sinister either, yet they’re chilling when matched with the darkness that the cameras can’t seem to penetrate (great, simple visual). There is so much ambiguity here, as there are never any explicit signs of the supernatural. Maybe disgruntled locals are terrorizing them. Maybe there is a conspiracy amongst two members of the group to kill the third? Maybe the Blair Witch isn’t haunting the woods, but serial killer Rustin Parr is? What lurks in that black void, dammit!? I MUST KNOW! I love that “The Blair Witch Project” never tells us anything, only leaving vague clues that you might notice if you look between the lines and pay attention. This makes the events that much scarier, because our imagination is having wild sex with the movie. I am aware that this strategy can be perceived as laziness, but if that was the reason here, the behind-the-scenes story behind this picture would’ve been a lot more mundane. The filmmakers wouldn’t have experimented with the entire production process, nor would they have spent an unusual amount of time in the editing room, cutting through 19 hours of footage. Nevertheless, many viewers will be frustrated by the lack of answers and pay-offs and I don’t look down upon them for it. “The Blair Witch Project” reviews should be less about the ‘good and the bad’ and more about their ‘likes and their dislikes’, because there is a difference and I can’t emphasize the subjectivity here enough.
I’ve always found the production itself to be fascinating, even if it’s not the most responsible kind of filmmaking. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez handed the cast a few cameras, some supplies and notes as to where they needed to go, before proceeding to put them through real stress throughout the (admittedly brief) duration of filming. The story goes that they were given less food every day and were never told what was going to happen next, which is why their reactions feel so real. Their dialogue was all improvised, with even the more pretentious lines feeling natural coming out of their mouths. They convinced me that they were genuinely afraid and their fear was contagious, as I began to feel it too. I thought it was interesting how their dynamics gradually shifted, as Heather is initially the one trying to hold things together, but her arrogance only alienates the other two. Mike is initially the most confrontational, but as Heather’s relationship with Josh gradually deteriorates, he slowly emerges as the leader. Josh initially is the most likable, but his personality goes down a much darker path and some of his interactions with Heather are downright creepy. Yet I do like how they could be at each-others throats one moment and then will have reconciled the next. They’re going through the different stages of grief and their relationships usually reflect their moods at the time. “The Blair Witch Project” is not really about a supernatural entity preying upon these kids, as much as it’s about the psychological deterioration of these kids as they are being preyed upon. This elevated the tension for me and added to the illusion of authenticity, which is a large part as to why I found this film scary. I thought the pacing was perfect, as the initial interactions with the unseen menace are harmless, but gradually grow more sinister and unnerving. By the time they reach ‘the house’, I was already chewing my nails in dread and the location was spooky as hell. The ending…it’s not very satisfying, but I guess it ties into the realism and provides a lot of material to debate over. It didn’t really impact my viewing experience as an adult, even though I was furious as a youngster.
But “The Blair Witch Project” is definitely working a gimmick and there are warts which often accompany it. The hand held camerawork can be very disorienting and the yelling can be headache inducing, staples of the ‘found footage’ subgenre. Yet the biggest problem surrounding “The Blair Witch Project” is that it HAS to scare you in order for you to like it, as that is the only thing going for it. You can take other horror classics, such as “The Shining“, “Alien“, “Jaws“, “Dawn of the Dead“, etc. and love them without being frightened, as they have other attributes you can embrace. Even the fans of “The Blair Witch Project” won’t likely boast about the cinematography, editing, story, acting and dialogue, even though all these elements likely contributed to them being afraid, because they are all designed to stimulate that fear and nothing more. The cinematography, for example, is intended to disorient you because the characters’ hands are shaking or they’re running. These visuals aren’t intended to be attractive, stylish or even striking. That would distract us from the illusion of realism, but it also means that the cinematography will do nothing for you if you aren’t afraid. That is why “The Blair Witch Project” inspires so much hate from its detractors, because fear is subjective and they didn’t find the movie to be scary, therefore it had nothing else to offer them outside of maybe a cool marketing gimmick. But I did find it to be scary, which is why I hold the film in such high regard. Unfortunately, the backlash did not help the careers of anyone involved. I occasionally see Josh appearing in small roles, but Heather in particular struggled finding acting gigs until she retired. You’d think that the directors would be given the keys to Hollywood, but they wouldn’t direct anything for 7 years and they have yet to do anything that catches fire. Yet “The Blair Witch Project” was very important in developing the found footage genre, redefined viral marketing and browned the underpants of many viewers over the years. It was a fluke of a project though that had the right idea that could’ve only worked at the right time, which is why I consider it to be one of a kind.
Violence: Rated R, but only for language. There is one grisly part though.
Overall: “The Blair Witch Project” is a movie you will either love or hate, but regardless, you should risk watching it.
DISCARDED MATERIAL (the original review)
–The following is an older writing, made back when I was a lesser critic and writer, although this was still a better example of my works during this time period. My opinions on the movie haven’t changed though, so only read this if you’re curious as to what my style used to be like or if you’re feeling nostalgia for my freewebs days.
I may have alluded to this in previous reviews, but I HATED “The Blair Witch Project“ when I first saw it, which I think was probably 10 years ago. To me, it didn’t make sense, it was boring, and I was furious that we never got to even see the witch. Of course, being as I was maybe 14 years old at the time, I was much more interested in watching “Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla“ or whatever gorefest I could get my hands on. But my initial reaction to it warped me feelings to an unfair degree. Because I hated this movie, I refused to give it a second chance, I grew to detest the found footage style of filmmaking and I liked to boast my knowledge about how the marketing campaign blatantly ripped off ”Cannibal Holocaust”. Yet here I am, stating that ”The Blair Witch Project” terrified me. How in the hell does that happen? Well, that’s simple. When you watch a movie like this alone in an empty house, the fear level is amplified and I was so shaken up that I had to watch a comedy to get over my jitters. Funny how things work out like that.
When the movie first came out, it was advertised as ‘real’, which fooled a lot of people. To add to the realism, the characters shared the same names as their actors. The film is the supposed missing footage of the three missing people. Heather, Joshua and Mike are film students who go out to a small town to film a documentary about a local legend, the Blair Witch. After learning about the legend, they take their equipment to the woods to see if they can find proof-. The movie starts off slow, but when the terror kicks in, the terror “kicks” in. Soon, my stomach was in knots and it was a feeling that stayed with me even after the movie finished. As I sat alone in my own house, which seemed to be teasing me with all of its own squeaky noises, I had to turn on “Meet the Spartans“ to calm down my nerves…How many people can claim something like that?
Nothing in this movie is really explained, at least to a point. This is definitely a movie where you have to listen to the local legends, or you might miss some important information(the ending, which frustrated me, is actually explained quite clearly when you think about it). But the who, why, and how is never brought up at all. This can backfire, making your film nonsensical, but at least here it s believably nonsensical. Why would three kids find out any of the motivations? I dread when the inevitable remake somehow has them discovering every little secret surrounding the witch, because that’s the only way a remake would be justified.
But really what keeps it together is how natural the actors feel. Everybody comes across as 100% realistic, even when they become irrational or irritable. When they get angry, we feel it. When they get scared, we feel it. They are all shown to be flawed, vulnerable human beings and when something happens to someone, it feels like it really happened. Yes, the reason why people loved this so much is that it actually convinced so many that it was real. It’s not like “Cloverfield“ or “Diary of the Dead”, which are obviously works of fiction. The film never becomes too fantastical that it can be easily dismissed as fake, even though it is.
But as I described in the other documentary styled film, ”Paranormal Activity“ , what doesn’t’t scare you will bore you. If I told you this is the scariest film ever made, I’m just setting you up for disappointment. I was expecting to dismiss this movie once again, so my expectations were low. Some horror movies can get away without scaring you. Even if ”Alien” fails to scare you, you still can appreciate the films merits (the directing, photography, acting, etc.). But other horror will films put all of its skill and effort into scaring you, and if it fails, it really does fail. It will bore the pants off you. ”The Blair Witch Project” is universally lauded for its acting, but can you really view the photography or directing objectively? If you aren’t scared, I don t think so. But it did scare me, and I don t think I’ve ever had such a strong reevaluation of a movie I previously hated. “The Blair Witch Project“ is a collaboration of every lingering nightmare I’ve ever had, and it seems that it has worked its spell on many, but not everyone.