The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Heather Donahue (herself) is lost in the woods. "The Blair Witch Project."

Written, directed and edited by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez. Produced by Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale. Photographed by Neal Fredericks. Music by Tony Cora. Production designed by Ben Rock. Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams.

If all people were terrified by the same things, the world would have fewer psychiatrists in it. That’s why horror stories operate differently compared to other genres. A drama will attempt to move, and a comedy will try to get a chuckle. But horror is designed to prey upon deeper layers of our own psychological make-up: to touch on childhood fears, buried traumas, paranoid suspicions. They strive to slip through our defenses and unnerve us on the most protected and powerful level, which is, crucially, different for every person. So, I recognize the supreme subjectivity on display when I make the following statements: I hate the woods. And I really like The Blair Witch Project, which is a film designed to prey upon fear of the woods. Make of that what you will, and no name-calling, please.

Thanks to a decade of too-cool-for-school dismissal, it is now extremely difficult to frame enjoyment of The Blair Witch Project as anything more than contrarianism. This little indie movie was made for about half a grand, and was a huge hit at the time. That was perhaps ensured by the film’s canny construction and brilliant marketing campaign, which both sold a conceit that this was an actual documentary chronicling a doomed trio of film students. But if you put your finger on the pop-culture pulse at the time, you would be forgiven for thinking that the film was, after the money subsided, a failure. That floods of people felt betrayed and used by the movie’s misleading marketing, that it didn’t live up to the hype, that it was not scary, etc. This certainly wasn’t helped by the disaster of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), which we will not speak of again. Anyway, in a truly odd circumstance, Blair Witch is one of the most profitable films (in terms of a return on investment) ever made, and yet its defenders these days have to be almost apologetic with their praise. Aside from snide “it sucked!” remarks, Blair Witch is not often discussed these days, which is a shame, because it is a unique experience. And, yes, frightening.

The Blair Witch Project is a movie that you must accept on its own terms. It has no CG special effects, no action scenes, no artificial “suspense” sequences, few “traditional” horror cues of any kind. It is impossible to enjoy “ironically,” which is a condition we tend to value very much these days. Its approach is minimalist. It does not hit every beat of a “conventional” narrative, and it even informs you how it’s all going to end right from the start. I think to enjoy Blair Witch, you must believe in horror; you have to be willing to give in to the emotion of fear, because that is its strength—not dialogue, not art direction, not theme. It is a meditation on fear, using the tiniest of elements to scare. If you aren’t interested in those elements, it isn’t for you. If you don’t want to be scared, it isn’t for you. If you’re the kind of viewer that insists on applying cold logic even in a story that pointedly rejects such things, then it isn’t for you. It’s about creating an emotion within you. Take it or leave it.

Blair Witch’s structure is that of a found film—that is, it’s culled from discovered footage. It alternates between grimy video and ghostly, black-and-white Hi-8, representing the A and B cameras of a three-man documentary team led by Heather Donohue (playing herself, just like everyone else here). Heather, a grad film student at the University of Maryland is, shall we say, a typical film student director: controlling, ambitious, and unknowingly ill-prepared. She arrives at the town of Burkittsville, MD (formerly Blair) with her team in order to film material for her thesis, a documentary about the town’s cherished legend, known as the tale of the Blair Witch. There was no Blair, MD, and the legend presented in the movie is false, and that very obscurity already casts a spell, because it taps into our own private knowledge that every place in America possesses its own secret mythology.

The early passages hit just the right notes as they show Heather’s all-too-notable lack of imagination: the crew pulls people out of a diner to get on-the-spot recitations of half-remembered folklore.  For research, she brings a book or two, which are never read.  She grabs juicy interview footage of the bizarre Mary Brown, and later joins the crew in mocking the woman, cynically ignoring the content of said interview. And Heather poses for on-the-nose stand-ups in cemeteries and haunted locales, the film subtly mocking her as it juxtaposes her serious, tabloid-esque  “professionalism,” with candid footage of her exploitative, prissy side. Heather’s a bit of a fake.

The other cameraman is the wiry Joshua Leonard, who seems to be invested in their work mainly for the grade, and resents being corrected by Heather on how to use his equipment, even though she is right. The third member of the team is Mike Williams, a sound recordist, who is intrigued by the subject matter but suspicious of much, including Heather. As the trio venture into the woods, their traits will become clear:  Heather talks too much and tries to keep her troops in line with phony authority. Mike is snide and the most easily frightened, while Josh stays laconic but keeps wells of sudden anger hidden in reserve. Are any of these characters “likeable?” Perhaps not, but the question is irrelevant, because likability isn’t the point—these are three people who have their own lives, their own concerns, and aren’t interested in being the one-dimensional heroes of a horror movie. The acting is naturalistic and convincing, and we accept the events as reality. This creates an inherent fascination that circumvents any complaints of their accessibility. Even if they’re jerks, then so what? Sometimes people are like that.

Something very odd is about to happen to them out in the woods—in methodical, chilling steps. It begins with levity and playful kidding. Then, one of them reports hearing a cackle overnight, which is only barely taken seriously. They hear curious, immersive cracking sounds in the dark. The two men begin to visibly lose faith in Heather’s abilities as a leader. Their map is lost, their compasses stop working. The strange sounds increase. A collection of creepy stick figures is found hanging from a group of nearby trees. Eventually, the relationships fracture as the scheduled days become a week, and Heather is clearly shown to be unprepared and incorrect in several regards. The very real concerns of jobs, school, family and friends worrying about the filmmakers take a back seat to the sheer survival aspects at play. They may starve. With the rain and cold, they may freeze. Tempers flash, and violence is not out of the question. The forest is foreboding and indifferent to their plight, but something is preventing them from finding a way to leave. Then their tent and gear is attacked. Heather at first wants to get this all on film, but as things progress, that turns to a desperate need, a recklessness that she is eventually confronted with. The situation disintegrates as the group realizes they are trapped, helpless, and being toyed with.

This may sound like it’s moving too slow, but not for me, because Blair Witch lingers over the details, aided by cinematography that switches between naturalistic (the video segments) and unsettlingly abstract (the high-contrast film portions).  The reason the film does not need a physical supernatural presence for the witch is because the idea of her lingers in every scene, and also because her presence supplements the horror of being lost in the woods without overshadowing it. The trees are dead and the color palette is bitter, evoking an experience that is cold, wet and clammy. And menacing. The antagonists are both an invisible force and nature itself, and the film’s visual strategy is so effective that it does not matter that it cheap. The film’s visuals bolster the reality of the film, and creates a sense of dread by conjuring the most powerful of all horror themes, that reality is an illusion. The camera insists that their situation is real, so how can three people walk in a straight line and wind up right where they started?

The creepiness is sustained and heightened due to the fact that the “found footage” premise justifies harsh edits, and little hints of events that would mercilessly chronicled if this were a traditional piece of fiction. The camera’s sometimes in the wrong place. Reconciliations sometimes go unseen. The camera is turned on in the middle of events, creating eerie images in the mind’s eye of the group sharing a growing horror, before deciding to share it with the sleeping camera. Heather, ever the skeptic, steals one of the stick figures, but she does not film herself doing so—we work that out later. Josh has an emotional breakdown that is only given cursory attention. The viewer is forced to frequently re-orient themselves, some bits seem to have no purpose at all, and as a result nothing ever plays like “a scene.” This helps create the illusion that the every bit of the film is captured, not performed, because we get a sense of the stuff on the edges of the frame and timeline that we aren’t allowed access to. An extra charge is provided by Heather’s instincts as a documentarian: when there are artfully composed shots, they symbolize her increasingly frantic attempts to find some semblance of order, to make reality “not quite reality,” to use Josh’s words. Her mental state is perfectly reflected in a late scene where Mike tries to agree with her on which direction to go in, and she frames him like an ant being crushed by the sky.

The film’s sound design is similarly artful, as the film exploits the limitations of video and microphones that we are familiar with. When we hear eerie sounds, they draw power from our own inability to determine how close they are. Some sounds are chilling simply because they’re difficult to identify. The crunching of leaves enhances the sense that this cheerful expedition has become a death march. Eventually, the sounds of crickets die out, replaced only by sole cawing birds, emphasizing the isolation. To dismiss the film’s aesthetic as slapdash is a mistake–there is true craft here.

The performances are impeccable as the characters go through, amicability, irritation, fury, denial, mania and, in the most touching sequences, despair. The arguments are inarticulate and feel genuine, and subtleties hint at the buried themes of three skeptics being challenged and punished for their irreverence. There’s something hauntingly pathetic in a formerly arrogant student yelling for help in the middle of nowhere, while another begins to cry. Other moments like Heather’s emotionless face as she examines a broken compass, or Mike’s simple joy as he finds a few remaining smokes, prepare us for maximum empathy when—in possibly the film’s scariest moment—Heather has two terrified reactions, first to a sound coming from the woods and second to the contents of a package left in front of the tent. Heather gets the film’s freaky iconic shot, an extreme, phlegm-filled close-up as she films her own apology on the last night. As she treats the camera as her only confidant, Donohue gives a mesmerizing performance for minutes, made all the more frightening when we, as an audience, realize that this is the climax. In essence, it’s already over.

Is The Blair Witch Project a flimsy conceit? Maybe. All horror movies are conceits. Hell, all movies are, for that matter. But is Blair Witch only a flimsy conceit? A gimmick? No. It creates an filmic experience that stays with you, rather than remaining trapped on screen via an ironic distance. It crafts an atmosphere of foreboding and never lets up, because it gives us believable characters and places them in an inescapable vise, one that we even know about going in, and yet by the end we feel trapped by it as well, and feel it, despite it never fully revealing itself. The supernatural stuff is spooky, all right, but I think the real reason Blair Witch works so well is because it is about three individuals, keenly-seen, who are put into a natural and supernatural machine—one that is designed to torment, humble and break them, and to bring them to their knees for a killing stroke. Like many horror stories, it is about nature itself turning against us, because this is nothing less than our foremost safety blanket being stripped away, and if we can’t believe in it, then there is nothing to believe in, at all.

That is frightening, folks. Period.


NEXT TIME PERIOD: 2005 – The Descent

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD:  1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

2 thoughts on “The Blair Witch Project (1999)

  1. Ray January 12, 2012 / 11:37 pm

    I’ve got to say, Blair Witch is the movie that made me realize what the concept of found footage could do. I’ll admit–I’m a sucker for it, and I include movies like Paranormal Activity and [REC] in my list of scariest movies. I can watch all manner of horror films and not bat an eye, but when I watch a found footage movie, I get the crap scared out of me. I love it! Great review!

  2. ThtrLvr August 23, 2013 / 7:41 pm

    For whatever reason, I didn’t find the film in the least bit frightening. I only found it to be annoying.

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