Directed by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
#ThrowbackThursday Film Review by Joseph Banham
The ‘found-footage’ gimmick has become not much more than a joke in recent years. Cynics view the extremely low budget, deliberately amateurish mode of filmmaking as the studio’s attempt to maximise their profit margins with the smallest amount of effort possible. Just take a look at the Paranormal Activity series. The first Paranormal Activity (2007) grossed $193 million worldwide with a miniscule production budget of just $15,000, giving it one of the best cost to earning ratios ever. If studios could produce a film that is even half as successful as Oren Peli’s low-fi haunted house movie on a similar cost, they would be sitting quite comfortably on a rather handsome sum.
And hence, in recent years following Paranormal’s success, there has been a barrage of shaky P.O.V. horror flicks. A lot have rightfully been lambasted as awful (2012’s The Devil Inside comes to mind) while others are genuinely very good (last year’s Creep, which I can’t recommend enough). For today, however, I’m going to look at the first notable example of the sub-genre, one that came along a whole decade before the trend was set, The Blair Witch Project (1999).
First of all, I have to say that The Blair Witch Project was not the first of its kind. There were, in fact, a few other filmmakers to play around with the faux-documentary style, such as the disturbingly titled Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and the equally obscene Man Bites Dog (1992), before Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick came up with the idea to send three petrified actors off into the woods. So while Blair Witch isn't completely innovative in this sense, it is still noteworthy for being the first found-footage film with mainstream appeal as well as the first film to have a successful viral advertising campaign on the internet.
The pretense of the film is that it is the recovered footage of three missing film students who set out in 1994 to make a documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch, a hostile spectre said to haunt the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland (formerly known as Blair). What starts off as a regular student film project soon turns into something a lot more sinister as the trio become lost deep in the woods and start to feel a malevolent presence surround them.
The film is very scary in its ambiguity. This is not a film that ever tries to leap out at you and scream in your face. Instead, it makes the most out of the power of suggestion, relying on the imagination of its viewer. The plot moves very quickly through its expositional phase, consisting of about 5 minutes of interviews with the Burkittsville townspeople, each sharing their stories of supposed encounters with the witch. The action then moves into the woods where the young filmmakers try and get a closer look at where the strange occurrences were reported to have happened. I found this to be one of the most admirable things about Blair Witch, as it never spoon-feeds information to its audience. I can’t count the number of horror films that instantly become less terrifying as soon as we are given a long account of the antagonist’s backstory. The witch, on the other hand, remains shrouded in mystery, told through a few vague accounts from the locals whose recollections of the stories seem dubious. The lack of any clear explanation of its monster works very much in the film’s favour, leaving the viewer to put the pieces together and come to their own chilling conclusions.
The poor camerawork that comes part and parcel with the found-footage style is decidedly not for everyone. The constant movement of the camera has been known to trigger motion sickness in some viewers as well as simply being irritating to others. This is unfortunately true of Blair Witch, which is filled with numerous shots pointed at the ground as the characters plod, and later sprint, through the woods, ending up with footage that might cause even Paul Greengrass to feel dizzy. This problem arises from the film feeling too authentically amateurish for its own good, something that should really be seen as praise.
The camerawork does have its upsides, however, if you are willing to stomach it. One point is that it emphasises the disorientating effect of the woods, especially in times of stress. Secondly, it gives an immense feeling of intimacy with the characters, having a very personal ‘home-video’ feel. The nature of the film means that you are kept in their point-of-view and are never given any other information than what they are seeing, so when they are lying awake in their tent and hear some very eerie noises, you are as confused and frightened as they are.
Blair Witch feels very real, which is due in part to the fact that it is (well, sort of). The three unknown actors all use their real names (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams) and are essentially playing themselves using improvisational techniques under staged circumstances. Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick did genuinely send the three off into the woods by themselves, entrusting them to operate the video and sound equipment on their own, and tried to interfere as little as possible. They communicated daily directions by leaving the actors notes in milk crates that they had to find in certain locations around the woods. The notes would give the actors vital actions they needed to do, but not much else. In addition, the crates would also contain their food for the day, which gradually decreased in the amount allowed during the eight-day shoot in order to match the characters’ diminishing supplies. The different sound effects and movements heard during the night scenes were set up by the crew, with the actors not knowing what to expect, they just knew they had to be prepared to react. It’s because of this that you’re never really sure how real what you’re seeing is. When Heather and Michael start screaming at each other, is it because they are trying to put on a scene? Or is it because they are genuinely exhausted and angry from the gruelling shoot? This mixture of reality and fiction seems fitting for a film released just before the turn of the century, where reality television was about to have its first big boom.
That leads me to what is truly the most unsettling thing about Blair Witch. It isn’t really to do with the supernatural forces stalking the three students but rather their own growing feeling of despair and hopelessness. It’s because Heather, Josh and Michael’s camaraderie at the start feels believable that it is so effective when things start to break up. We feel their despair when they realise they have just gone around in a huge circle with no pathway in sight; we feel the same anger when it’s revealed one of them has lost the map; and we feel the same anguish when Heather breaks down into a tearful apology during the film’s most famous scene. The building tension between all of them is certainly distressing to watch, especially as the audience already knows their fate.
The film was released to some harsh audience backlash, some of which it still experiences today. I imagine that this was partly due to the massive amount of hype the film received on its initial release. As mentioned earlier, the film was the first example of how the internet can be used effectively to market a film through word-of-mouth, being released in a time where the worldwide web was still a relatively new invention in households. The idea behind the ad campaign was to continue to treat the story as if it was true. The film’s website was set up under the guise of being an investigative site on the case of the missing teenagers as well as giving a more detailed background to the legend, allowing people to understand the film further. At the time of the film’s release, a fake documentary was aired on the Syfy channel titled The Curse of the Blair Witch, which examined the aftermath of the film’s events and served as an extension to the film’s lore. All of this, along with a brilliant critical reception, helped build up the reputation of Blair Witch as one of the scariest films ever made. It is inevitable that when something comes with such high expectations people will always be disappointed. Some audience members outright hated the film, with many complaining that it wasn't scary in the slightest. As someone who is too young to have been in tune with all the marketing and hype that surrounded the film in 1999, I can honestly say that, watching the film today, I think it holds up as a deeply effective psychological horror. When I watched it for the first time a few years ago, I did feel at times that it was a bit slow and wasn’t quite sure where it was going. But there is no denying that when the final 5 minutes came around, my heart was racing more than it had done in any other horror film I can recall.
I think that The Blair Witch Project is a film that deserves to be seen by any horror fan, even if it’s just for its cultural impact. It offers up some disturbing moments, the power of which only dawns on you after the credits have rolled. I feel that it is a far more interesting film than others from the same voyeuristic family, ignoring jump scares in favour of real drama and tension.
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