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.
I made the mistake of not paying very close attention the first time I watched this - it's just a dumb horror film isn't it? - so I missed the bit about the other child having to face the corner, so the ending didn't have as much impact as I think it was supposed to. On second watch it was much more effective.ReplyDelete
Fortunately I didn't have the motion sickness issues either, but I've known some other people who have.
This time through, I was ready for the motion sickness, so it wasn't that bad. Cloverfield was really hard to watch, though. I needed to do parts of that one in five-minute bursts.Delete
As for the smarts of this film, no one is more surprised than I am. Like I said, my brother claims it as one he finds really scary. Knowing that probably helped me--I likely paid closer attention thanks to the information I got from him than I might have otherwise.
I've long debated this film with a good friend who also considers this to be one of the scariest movies of all time. Perhaps i still need to pay closer attention, but give me Paranormal Activity any day for a good cheap scare!ReplyDelete
I can see that, although I'll side with your friend. My problem with Paranormal Activity isn't that it's not scary (it is in particular places) but that the guy in the story is an idiot. I don't feel sorry for what happens to him--he earned it by sticking around. Still, I will say that Oren Peli is a very smart filmmaker--he just needs to write smarter characters.Delete
I don't really like this very much, but I respect what the directors/producers were trying to do. Films like this and Paranormal Activity just aggravate me. I think my mind is closed off to this form of cinema.ReplyDelete
A fair opinion, I think. I don't have a great deal of love for found footage, but there are a few (like this one) that I can appreciate.Delete
When it comes to watching this, think of it less as a great film and more as seeing it for the innovation it represents.
I'm going to agree with your brother on the scariness. Horror films that show gore don't do a thing to scare me; they really just bore me. Films like this (and 1963's The Haunting), though, are far scarier for exactly what you said: what you don't see. The last shot of the film had my hair standing on end. And this film is only rated PG-13, showing you don't need ultraviolence to be scary (for me anyway).ReplyDelete
And I am a big hater of shakycam, but the camera work in this film did not bother me at all. Why? Because the cameraperson was actually a character in the film. We're not really supposed to be seeing anything when he is running through the woods at night (for instance) so I just looked away during the worst motion parts. Contrast this with a regular film, though, and I know I need to keep watching the screen at all times because you never know when the director will deliberately put something on screen that will be important.
Good point about the camera work. I wish I'd considered that the first time I tried to watch this, because it would have made it a lot easier on my stomach.Delete
The less is more strategy does work with horror films, but only if the director is really smart. A smart director knows what to do to ramp up the scary. Of course, in general, it takes a relatively smart director to even consider that as a way to go.
I live in Maryland and the woodland scenes were filmed near here. I saw it in the theatre and liked it and have enjoyed it on home video. It's not something that you watch more than a couple of times, but it is creepy and effective. The movie also inspired one of the first, if not the first, viral Internet ad campaigns.ReplyDelete
Good memory! I remember that campaign and the chatter that the footage was actually real and that the people involved were actually missing. Like I said, smart filmmakers.Delete