Last night I finally caught up with the rest of the world and watched 1999's The Blair Witch Project.
I'll give you a moment to catch your breath.
Yes, it's hardly an earth-shattering statement to make for some, but for me it was a pleasant revelation, mostly because I was under the delusion that it would be a film that I would hate. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the truth was the exact opposite of what I had expected.
Part of the reason it took me so long to watch he Blair Witch Project was the fact that I was nine years old when it first came out and my love for horror stories never fully materialized until the late high school years. And even then, I still had little to no interest in the film, thinking it was bargain bin trash. Part of this strain of thought had to do with the fact that I was a bit of a snob in high school, and the other part was due to the fact that all I knew of found footage filmmaking was the slew of knock off films that followed in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project.
Although The Blair Witch Project is hardly the first faux-documentary found footage horror film, it is still responsible for being the golden child of the genre. It's the film that spawned mainstream America's obsession with the cheap, low-budget style of filmmaking. Like Jaws and Pulp Fiction before it, Blair Witch spawned a legion of wanna be follow-up movies, trying desperately to be the next big thing in this genre. The problem of course is always that while imitation may be the highest form of flattery, it results in most filmmakers completely missing the point of what made the original film such a gem to begin with.
The Blair Witch Project started as a fake Sci-Fi channel documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch and an ominous website full of "information" about the legend. The film was marketed as real footage of teenagers lost in the woods that had been unearthed, truly earning the moniker of "found footage." One could argue that the marketing and presentation of the film was a cheap gimmick and that with time and the revelation of the fact that the film is fictional, there isn't much left to appreciate in the flick.
I'd strongly argue against that.
The Blair Witch Project feels just as fresh and well done today as it must have been when it first premiered. The reason? It actually does everything right that hardly any other found footage movie (with a few exceptions) that followed it does.
First and foremost, this film actually has the look and feel of a real documentary. This feels like old, damaged footage that was discovered by a pair of filmmakers and then carefully and artfully edited together to make a narrative of the children's final days. Most other found footage films feel like the footage is simply there for the service of a forced plot. There is no real reason for it to be found footage other than the fact that it's incredibly cheap to make them. In The Blair Witch Project the narrative is sculpted through approximately 19 hours of footage captured by the actors. The narrative comes from the footage itself, the way a real documentary would be made.
That narrative itself is also fully engaging, playing like a modern day cautionary ghost story or urban legend. It draws you in with the eerie footage of locals telling tales of strange encounters. Then you can't look away as the three students slowly go mad. The characters in this movie work, more so than characters usually do in found footage films. The reason? I think it's because their slow descent into madness is entirely believable. The film doesn't dive headfirst into the chaos nor does it drag its feet. It patiently takes its time to create a portrait of these kids losing their minds. What starts as a seed of annoyance slowly and fascinatingly grows into a tree of absolute horror as they come to terms with the fact that they're never getting out of these woods and that they're hopelessly (and maybe even supernaturally) lost. The improvised footage edited together with the atmospheric 16mm black and white footage of the surrounding forest visually aids the sense of mounting dread.
All of this climaxes into a short yet highly effective ending scene. At first I wondered whether or not this was an anticlimactic ending yet then I had a revelation that kept me up way into the night. The famous final image of the film, the Joshua character standing in the corner while Heather screams, is terrifying on more than one level. Why? Because of one of the early interviews with a local about one of the stories of The Blair Witch. He recounts that the kidnapped children were forced to stand in the corner while the murderer hacked victims apart on the other side of the room. This is how Heather finds Joshua. She's screaming. But what is she screaming at? Where's Mike? More importantly, what is happening to Mike? And with that final shot, The Blair Witch Project expertly showcases what makes everything about this movie so scary. You never see anything, and not in a Paranormal Activity sort of way, but in an unnerving sort of way. The things that scare you and get under your skin is your imagination. The fact that you never see a witch once in this movie is amazing. You can picture the witch out in the darkness making those noises, or Joshua crying out in the dead of night. Those images in your own mind are scarier than any sort of images the filmmakers could have crafted.
And that is why The Blair Witch Project still holds up today, not only because it is such a well crafted urban legend, but because it is a shining example of what the found footage genre can be and should aspire to be. That, and it really is absolutely terrifying. I had the hardest time falling asleep last night, mostly because I was too unnerved by the idea of facing the dark, having no idea what could be in there.