Away From The Hype: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
In our latest Away From the Hype, we examine The Blair Witch Project, seeing if the classic found footage horror still holds up after all this time.
Sometimes, a movie is released and the hype/controversy surrounding it are too much for the movie to get out from under. Sometimes this means we sit down in the cinema with expectations and preconceived notions that we can’t escape.
Away from the Hype is an ongoing series looking at some of these movies years away from their initial release to see if, without all of the window dressing of hype, expectation, and controversy, the movies are actually any good or not.
Two Days Off
I missed having one of the greatest cinema experiences of my life by two days.
If you weren’t there in 1999 and the build-up to The Blair Witch Project, it’s probably hard to believe. I was 15 at the time. I was a big movie fan, a big horror fan, and very easily drawn in by ghost stories and urban legends. So when I heard about this movie coming out of America that was supposed to be the found footage of a trio of lost filmmakers who went looking for something in the woods and never returned, I was hooked.
The Blair Witch Project, a minuscule budgeted horror film from Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, was one of the first movies to use the burgeoning power of the internet to sell itself. It was all well and good to be told by the advertisers that the movie was real, but to go to the Blair Witch website and see photos and profiles of the missing three. To hear audio from the movie and knowing that it was taken during the last days of some young woman’s life. To read testimony from townsfolk in the area who wrote about the legend of the Blair Witch. All of that turned the movie from something that looked pretty cool, to something that needed to be seen no matter what.
Of course, it was all fake. The internet wasn’t the thing it is now so it wasn’t all so encompassing and things could slip through the cracks for longer. For me, the realisation that I had been suckered came during a news program. The anchor – frigging killjoy – smugly announced that the movie wasn’t real and showed footage of the three leads being interviewed for a news show in America. I had my ticket and was seeing the movie in two days.
If I had missed that show, maybe I would have gone into the theatre still thinking that everything I was about to see was real. Maybe it would have horrified and scarred me in ways that I would never have recovered from, maybe it would have just been an incredible, visceral cinema experience that would have snapped me out of my teenage apathy and sent me out in the world to make a name for myself, as The Blair Witch Project would have shown me the fragile nature of life and how quickly it can be taken away. Instead, it was a very fun horror movie that gave my friend Nick motion sickness and that I only re-watched a few years after with a girlfriend in the less than terrifying set-up of her family’s sunroom.
A terrible sequel and remake have followed but does the original still hold up nearly twenty years and innumerable found footage imitators later?
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Every year the hottest horror movie is billed as the scariest horror in years/of the decade/of all time, and when people see this, a lot of people think of The Conjuring-esque jump scare movies and not something like The Witch, It Follows, or The Exorcist aka slow-burners who scare you with the things that are actually scary: unspeakable dread, the unknown, and the feeling of being the mouse in the trap.
The Blair Witch Project was disappointing for some people upon its release because it is more of the latter kind of movie and it serves up its scares very frugally. However, this has made it age pretty well as opposed to a horror movie that is all jumps, where the tension before the jump loses its impact once you know where the jumps are. The Blair Witch Project creates a mood and then makes you sit in it with barely any relief. Once the filmmakers are lost the movie is running on dual scares: the fear of being lost and what the fuck is that noise in the deep dark woods?
With any horror movie, then, you have to ask a simple question: is it still scary? With The Blair Witch Project, the edges have dulled quite a bit, but I would still say that it is.
It’s not the nerve-jangling horror of watching it as a teen but the movie is, for something allegedly mostly improvised, very well constructed from the opening scenes establishing the filmmakers and the legend of the Blair Witch (including the freaky interview with Mary Brown, a skeletal woman hugging a Bible) to the constant bickering of the leads which is broken up with night terrors which build and build to a fantastic, and still effective, crescendo.
Until that finale, the movie keeps itself restrained and avoids jump scares, monsters, or any of the other trappings of a traditional horror movie. Instead, it relies heavily on the Jaws Effect aka the stuff you can’t see is scarier than the stuff you can. Our nerves are constantly on edge because we’re waiting for a jump scare that never comes. By the time the movie hits it’s breakneck climax, the viewer has had their nerves ratcheted up by voices in the woods, freaky noises at night, and the panic and frustration of the lost leads, so their panic becomes infectious and discomforting.
The other major aspect which stuck out to me was how well the found footage conceit worked here. From the opening scene, it manages to avoid the biggest failing of found footage movies by actually having a reason for everything to be filmed. The three protagonists are filmmakers making a documentary movie with a horror premise, so they want footage of the scary stuff. I’m not a big fan of found footage because I find it hard to divorce myself from the constant question: why are you filming this?
That’s not to say The Blair Witch Project is seamless in this regard, but it makes more sense for these characters to be filming all the time than it did in, for example, Chronicle (a movie that introduces a second character who films everything just to make the conceit work.)
The Blair Witch Project: Final Thoughts
This is a tough one as, while I enjoyed this viewing of the movie, it’ll probably be a very long while before I want to watch it again. It is a fine, very well-made movie but it is not hugely watchable or fun. In the moment it is a great experience, but afterwards, there is that dawning feeling that you’ve just spent most of an hour and twenty minutes watching three people argue in the woods. Don’t get me wrong, it all pays off in a great ending, but the ride to getting there is not something I would want to do every Halloween or if I had a bunch of mates around for beer and horror movies.
The Blair Witch Project’s legacy is secure as a scrappy little movie that made a ton of money and showed just how effective the internet could be at marketing a movie, something that no other movie has really done as well.
What are your thoughts on The Blair Witch Project?
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.