Masked murderers. Blood and gore. Creepy kids. Some of the things that aren’t in The Blair Witch Project. Phallic weaponry. Scary monsters. Virginal ‘final girls’. Some other things that aren’t in The Blair Witch Project (and yes, that is the first time I’ve used the word ‘phallic’ in three consecutive articles on my blog). These are extrinsic horror movie conventions. The Blair Witch Project, however, plays upon universal, intrinsic fears – isolation, the woods, being lost, the dark, sightlessness, unidentifiable sounds, and subtle disturbances to normality. Consequently, few films from the last fifteen years can match the pure, primal, plausible and psychological horror of Blair Witch.
Three young filmmakers – Heather, Mike and Josh – are making a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch, who according to legend, has been haunting the woods of Maryland for years. When the documentarians venture into the woods, they quickly lose their bearings and cannot find their way out. Gradually, eerily unusual effigies appear, the sounds of screaming children permeate the night and the filmmakers start to get the sense that they are being watched. But by whom?
Made on a measly budget of $22 500 – legend says that directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick tried to refund the cameras they used at Walmart after finishing shooting – the marketing of the film was similarly cost effective. Blair Witch was one of the first films to utilise the Internet as a marketing tool in a highly effective way, and other found footage films like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity owe much of their success to the marketing path laid by Blair Witch. The advertising emphasised the film’s verisimilitude, and never made clear that the movie is a mockumentary, not a documentary. Consequently, many people watching Blair Witch in 1999 thought the film was real – a documentary made up of actual found footage. It isn’t, but it’s easy to see why it was thought of as such.
The self-reflexive obfuscation of the lines between falsehood and fact, fiction and reality, and natural and supernatural is what makes Blair Witch as creepy as it was nearly fifteen years ago for first-time viewers. The bickering and invective-ridden dialogue is almost nauseatingly naturalistic, and the performances from the three co-leads are quite excellent. Consequently, the film transcends the inherently simplistic and monotonous premise of kids getting lost in a forest; instead, the film acts as an exploration of the inevitable human descent into madness when faced with alienation, isolation, cyclic repetition, and the company of people you come to despise. It plays out like a schoolies trip to a remote part of Bali, only less horrific and with fewer Bintang singlets.
For a found footage film of this nature, the characters are surprisingly well developed – for a film that yields finite and often banal situations for the characters to respond to, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick avoid using on-the-nose dialogue to explain the characters’ emotions and values. Instead, the subtle changes to the way the characters physically behave charts their emerging psychosis, reacting to the disturbing images and sounds that encompass them in slightly different ways.
Mike (Michael C. Williams) is the first to succumb to the haunting occurrences, throwing their one beacon of hope for survival – a map – in the river, signifying his emerging nihilism. Towards the end of the film, Josh (Joshua Leonard) disappears bar a bloodied tooth wrapped in a pile of sticks; a manifestation of his torturous hopelessness. Heather (Heather Donahue) is the last to crack; even though her climactic, straight-to-the-camera monologue is a tad on-the-nose, we’ve been so enraptured by the film until this point that we don’t care. Her monologue has an elegiac quality, and even though her apologetic admissions of culpability for their situation are tinged with guilt and regret, the egocentricism that underpins her character as the self-appointed leader of the group remains. She’s really providing her own self-interested eulogy through a medium that will outlive her – the film she is making.
But the mockumentary form does not merely facilitate strong, fragile performances; it also heightens the believability, nay plausibility, of the ambiguous, borderline metaphysical disturbances that strike the characters, right up to the breathtaking finale. However, upon repeated viewings, Blair Witch becomes almost unwatchable because of this. I’ve watched Blair Witch four or five times now, the latest earlier this year, and each time I watch the film it becomes duller and duller. This is because the discussions had by the characters are deeply disinteresting, insubstantial and repetitious, and the film is predominantly made up of these discussions.
I love movies where ‘nothing happens’, because more often than not, the topics discussed by the characters are, though inconsequential and unimportant, inherently interesting – nothing really happens in Slacker, but the dialogue is centred on a myriad of contentious or unique issues. I could even read Waiting for Godot again. But the dialogue in Blair Witch, while heightening the verisimilitude and tension through its realism the first time around, is so banal and repetitive that, when you know the entire plot of the film and where the scares are, the film becomes pretty tedious.
Yet while this compromises the film’s re-watchability, Blair Witch is a very good movie. I’d go as far to say it’s a great movie, formally and thematically. But I wouldn’t recommend watching it more than a couple of times, because after one viewing, the scares and characterisation dwindles as the film’s innate boredom comes to the foreground.
P.S. This film has provided me one of the best horror movie porn parody titles I’ve ever come up with: The Blair Witch Projectile Cumshot. The second best one of mine is Rosemary’s Labia.