The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Every year in the run-up to Halloween, I watch as many horror movies as my little horror-loving brain can stand. I also attempt to rectify the oversights of past years and see some classics (cult or otherwise) that have somehow managed to escape notice. This year, the first up is The Blair Witch Project, the horror smash from 1999 that inaugurated our ongoing obsession with the found-footage sub-genre.
Contrary to popular belief, The Blair Witch Project is not the first found-footage horror film. That distinction goes to Cannibal Holocaust, the controversial Italian cannibal film made in 1980. But Blair Witch definitely established some of the hallmarks of the sub-genre that we now see today.
The story is pretty simple: three student filmmakers (Heather, Mike, and Josh) embark on a documentary trip into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland to make a movie about the local “Blair Witch” legend. After they vanish, their footage is discovered and edited into the film we see. The film combines the faux documentary made by the students – including talking-head interviews with local residents to establish the Blair Witch legend – and the “real-life” footage the students take as they get lost in the woods, stalked by an unseen force.
The conceit of The Blair Witch Project is provocative in itself: the documentary footage feels very much like a student film project, with leading questions to residents and silly, posed scenes at cemeteries. As the students head into the woods, the documentary elements are slowly abandoned and the students become the subjects of their own work. They fight among themselves, breaking down psychologically as they wander off map and bizarre things begin to happen. Some of the film’s more iconic images, like stick-dolls hanging in the trees, are incredibly creepy, while others – the POV camera shots of trembling hikers – have become so iconic as to lose their power.
The Blair Witch Project is a weak film in many ways. While it has some good ideas, the conceit begins to strain credulity. Although some excuse is made for Heather’s obsession with continuing to film even in the direst of circumstances, it feels just like that: an excuse. As time goes on, the conceit itself began to pull me out of the film and remind me that these were not actually documentarians lost in the woods, but fiction-filmmakers pretending to be lost in the woods.
The found-footage concept is a difficult one to pull off for just that reason, and it’s to Blair Witch’s credit that they manage to keep it going as long as they do. Still, the shaking camera and heavy breathing does become wearing after a while. Rather than creating horrific tension, it becomes an exercise in trying to understand just what is going on. What am I supposed to be afraid of and why? After all, this is a fiction film; it does need some kind of coherent arc and coherent horror. Not being able to see the monster can often be terrifying, but The Blair Witch Project does not manage to create tension surrounding it.
I also struggled with understanding the actual legend behind the Blair Witch, and the film doesn’t take many pains to establish why certain elements are important. The dolls hanging in the trees, the piles of rocks, the weird abandoned house that makes up the film’s denouement…what are we really supposed to get from all this? I don’t insist that all elements of a film be explained – and a film like this has difficulty providing exposition without it coming off as an info drop – but there was still a sense that the characters knew more than they ever explain.
I’m glad that I have The Blair Witch Project under my belt – it’s a seminal horror film, and influenced quite a few of my favorite contemporary horror films. But it’s far less successful in 2016 than it was in 1999.