“The Blair Witch Project” (1999)
The Blair Witch Project doesn’t offer anything new that could be considered original, but it’s a personal belief of mine it’s not the idea that truly matters, it’s how the idea is executed. Although this film has been subject to countless parodies by now, what a lot of people don’t quite remember is how chilling the film itself actually is.
I believe what makes this movie truly pop is the fact it plays on one of the most basest of human fears – being lost and afraid. Sure, we as the audience would say “Oh, if I were in that situation, I would (insert whatever brain child strategy here)” but when left in such a desperate and frightening situation with Heather, Mike and Josh, emotions take the reigns and well-laid plans are laid waste pretty darn quickly. In their misguided youthful wisdom, and a massive dose of their own self-overestimation, the three college students assumed they were well-prepared for their little adventure in the woods, but their overconfidence soon gives way to a steady progression of a mental breakdown that is captured in full on camera. It goes without saying that all three actors ran with the vague outline they were given and went above and beyond the call of duty performance wise. An obvious example of this is Heather Donohue’s ‘confession’ sequence, filming herself with the most unflattering angle for any actor and just going full-bore with the waterworks. It’s parodied so much, but Donohue truly puts herself out there in that short yet memorable scene and I have nothing but admiration for her.
Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams aren’t afraid to dive right into the maelstrom, they aren’t token jocks/geeks/dicks or anything most horror films pass off as male characters- these could be guys you know. One moment you love them, the next you think they are all total dickheads. When affairs take a turn for the worse, they are down right scared- no macho fronts, no heroic speeches or cheesey lines. These men are frightened, just like Heather. You don’t see a lot of men being truly fearful for their lives in cinema and it’s refreshing to see these two guys lay bare their emotional states in such a way you are right there with them.
Ahhh, but what of the frights? Well, there is plenty of freaky fare to go around. Obviously nothing about this movie is subtle as a nine-iorn in the face scare-wise, but that is never to suggest it’s not there, because oh, it is. If the initial premise of getting lost in the wilds of nature without a clue how to survive isn’t enough, when the trio descend deeper into the woods, all manner of frightening things happen, things that can’t be explained. At first it is distant noises outside their tent. When the noises come closer, they assume the form of the human voice and the hapless campers start to find that their equipment has either gone missing or has been strewn across their campsite. And that is just the beginning of it- the further they flounder, the more disturbing things become. Whatever it is that is menacing these young people isn’t playing around- it’s hunting them down as if they were weakened gazelles. It means BUSINESS.
At first they dismiss all of this as a prank, some Scooby-Doo style villains who just want to scare them, but the days grow longer, food becomes sparse and time grows short and it becomes apparent that whatever is out there means them harm. They aren’t just lost in the woods- they are lost in time. The most horrifying thing is, instead of banding together to combat whatever menace lurks beyond the campfire, the stress of the situation gradually begins to tear the already tenuous ties that bind apart.
It goes without saying the Burkittsville forest in itself is a character. When the three students first start their trek, it is green with lush shrubbery, full of life with birds singing, creeks bubbling nearby and it is as beautiful as you would expect nature at it’s best to be. As things get worse though, you start to notice that the trees are bare of leaves, their branches not unlike cruel, sharp claws of an apex predator. You can’t hear any water flowing and the song of birds is mysteriously absent. It must have been something for the three actors to experience these locations, especially because of how influential it was to their performances. Another creative move on the film makers part (the actual directors) was the clever move of using both professional actor plants and regular people in the town where Heather, Josh and Mike go to gain testimony regarding the Blair Witch legend because it adds a nifty little sense of authenticity. Unless you knew who the plants were, you’d think they were all regular folk humoring (and perhaps having a little fun with) these college students.
Ignoring the subsequent slew of imitators, The Blair Witch Project is a rare beast, dare I say, a contemporary classic of it’s genre. Although not all reception has been positive and in it’s favor, let’s look at it from this perspective- if a movie spawns hundreds of like-minded offspring, it is because it has true creedence and such a property is far too profitable to let be. Every single movie craze starts with one memorable cornerstone, and while The Blair Witch Project was not the first of the found-footage genre, it was and always will be a stalwart of it’s kind.
BTW: I actually didn’t think it’s comparatively Hollywood sequel Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows was too bad either… but that’s a story for another day.
Review written by Bea Harper
(and a whole lotta runny snot)