Format: DVD from Morris Area Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.
The first time I tried to watch The Blair Witch Project I couldn’t get through it. The reason was simple—the constant hand-held camera work nauseated me. I don’t mean that I didn’t like it—I mean it literally made me feel sick to my stomach. I considered taking Dramamine to counter it. I didn’t and I did manage to make it through. It’s a film I’ve been planning to see for some time. My brother Tom, who is also going through The List on his own terms, considers this one of the scariest films he’s ever seen.
I’ll disagree with him on that. I don’t disagree that there’s some boo factor here, but I found The Blair Witch Project a lot more unsettling than actually scary. The genius of the found footage genre—the genre that this film started—is that it’s low cost and shows only exactly what you can legitimately suggest to the viewers that the person holding the camera would see. Because of this, the film (and generally the genre) depends on the idea that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. We’re in luck with this one—this film is smart enough that what we don’t see really does have some scare factor.
The film starts with a disclaimer, saying that three people disappeared in the woods in this area and that a year later, their camera with the following footage was recovered. We are quickly introduced to our three characters, each playing a character of the same name. They are Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams. Their intent is to make a documentary about something called the Blair Witch, a creature reputed to be haunting the woods near the town. They begin their documentary and interview a few locals about the Blair Witch. They manage to drag up a couple of stories, too. The most important of these is about a series of missing children from the 1940s. A loner named Rustin Parr kidnapped children in pairs and murdered them. It’s important that we learn that Parr forced one child to stand in a corner while he killed the first. This will become important later.
After a night in town, the trio heads off into the woods to look for signs of the Blair Witch, hoping to find a reported graveyard and anything else of interest. At night, they camp and are disturbed by sounds that they can’t explain. The next day, they find that they are completely lost in the woods and tempers flare as Mike and Josh blame Heather for their being lost. Each night, the disturbances become more and more pronounced. At one point in the forest, they discover a series of human stick figures made of bound twigs. That night, the disturbance is particularly violent, and the three run from the camp. When they return, they discover that Josh’s stuff has been picked through and is now covered with an unexplained slime.
It soon becomes evident that they are walking in circles. The nighttime noises become distinctly human in sound, and one morning, Josh is simply gone. Heather and Mike search for him in vain despite hearing what sounds like Josh in the distance both calling to them and screaming in pain. As the film draws to a close, they discover a boarded, mostly destroyed house in the middle of the woods and hear Josh inside it.
I won’t reveal what happens, but we know from the start of the film that none of the three are ever seen again. What does happen in the house, though, is a piece of brilliance. It is completely minimal, and consists of spliced footage from the two cameras—we see Mike’s view, then Heather’s and back. We get very little information from this, seeing only enough to get the mind working. Some of what is on the wall (particularly in the upstairs) is really disturbing. As might be expected, the film ends very suddenly.
I won’t beat around the bush here--The Blair Witch Project is a really effective piece of filmmaking. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez are bright guys, as evidenced by exactly how much mileage they get out of a very minimal film style. The twig figures, which became iconic when the film was released, are simple and disturbing. For my money, though, the single most frightening image is not what happens in the basement at the end, but what is on the walls in the upstairs of the house. Again, this is minimal, but offers some seriously horrible implications.
As expected, my biggest problem with The Blair Witch Project is the camera style. I expected this, and realized that I’d need to take breaks from watching periodically to let my stomach settle. And really, I’ve seen films that were more difficult to watch in this respect (Cloverfield comes to mind). Perhaps just being prepared for it made it easier to deal with.
So, bottom line, is it scary? For the right viewer, I think it is. Horror fans, those capable of understanding why a minimal style can be really effective and those willing to engage their imaginations will find that this film offers pretty good bang for the buck. Those who want to see the monster through the whole film (or at all) and need gore to get them going will find it completely boring. If you don’t mind a slow build and are willing to let your darkest imaginings come forth, it’s a pretty good way to spend 80 minutes or so.
Why to watch The Blair Witch Project: The beginning of the found footage boom.
Why not to watch: Motion sickness.