The Blair Witch Project
Too much hype spoils the broth. An interesting experiment that's a victim of it's own success.
1999. With most people suffering from some kind of Pre Millennium Tension and umpteen cults predicting the imminent end of the world, one film managed to tap into the mass market hysteria and channel it into something that for a while was a phenomenon but now is a laughing stock. Just as the huge hype about the millennium bug was whipped up by advertising and the media only to shamefacedly whimper like a damp squid a year later, The Blair Witch Project was claimed to be the Scariest Movie Ever by people who seemed to genuinely believe it, not just whoring for poster quotes. It took about a year and a billion parodies to affect a swift reversal of fortune, and while some defenders of the film remain after a huge backlash most consider it a pretty poor effort and certainly not scary. The truth, as ever, lies somewhere between the extremes.
For those few who managed to escape without learning of the fate of the featured three American would-be documentary makers, their tale runs thus. Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard) and Mike (Michael C. Williams) head off to Burkittsville, formerly Blair, with the intention of making a documentary on the local boogeyman, the Blair Witch. They go missing, and one year later their camera equipment is recovered. The film is presented as the transmission of their footage.
As such, the first forty odd minutes are devoted to gathering supplies, interviewing various locals for background on the legend and heading off into the depths of the woods. For this forty minutes you'll be mildly annoyed by the shaky camera work, bored by the inanity of the dialogue which manages to avoid anything of interest and slightly irritated by the cast, who exude a low grade abrasiveness that's only just worth commenting on. In all of this time there has been precisely two minutes of useful, indeed vital information.
Eventually they reach Coffin Rock, where legend would have it that the bodies of men were found strangely mutilated. Camping for the night, they wake in the middle of the night hearing strange noises. While the casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that things were bout to get really interesting, it falls away into another twenty minutes of the teens wandering about in the woods, getting hopelessly lost. I mention that the navigation is being performed by the woman without judgement or implication.
Another night, more strange occurrences, inexplicable appearances of symbolic rock cairns and stick sigils and eventually Josh goes missing. Heather and Mike try to get flee with their lives, leading to the film's fatal conclusion. This of course lightly skips over the important details to avoid completely ruining the film for those who haven't seen it.
What sets Blair Witch apart from the slew of mid to low budget teen oriented horror shenanigans is the decision by the two first-time directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez to allow the cast to film themselves. With everything filtered through a moody black & white 16mm camera or a grainy, shaky handheld camcorder the idea is to cast the audience themselves as a character, albeit one with no control over the actions or their voice. While this is certainly revolutionary and hugely innovative compared to the bulk of horror (comparisons to 1998's The Last Broadcast aside), there's also an amplification of the 'dumb teen' factor.
In near enough every film of this ilk there's a proportion of the cast, normally close to 100%, that do the most horrendously stupid things resulting in a gory death. All fair in death and war, but the implication here is that I'm doing the stupid things. Running blindly into the woods at the first sign of noise? Unable to follow basic navigation rules? I'm better than that. I think. Certainly I don't like the implication of stupidity, not when there's reams of evidence on the writings on this site to prove it off my own back.
The thing of it is, for any of the events to make sense you have to bring supernatural explanations into play, and the film would work a lot better without them. The film places such an emphasis on realism and method acting (when the cast look tired, it's because they've been out in the woods for days with minimal food and sleep rather than clever make up) that when Heather desperately tries to convince us that because some spooky sounds were all around them it must be some wacky witch it just doesn't wash. Why? Because as the directors point out it was caused by four or five guys running around shouting, which is why this more logical explanation the lads offer up seems far more reasonable.
The horror relies on your imagination. Unquestionably this is the right way to go, but there's just not enough to feed it. By the time anything of interest happens you'll already be feeling so comfortably numbed by the inanity of the first forty minutes that engaging with the growing sense of terror the cast supposedly feels. It's a shame, as there's a genuinely good opportunity to create a really spooky atmosphere that's almost carried off by the (by this point) tired and emotional cast. Coming up with powerful and believable improvised performances, the onus is on them to not only shoot the film but improvise the script too.
Taken in isolation, Blair Witch probably wouldn't have worked but we'd be more inclined to forgive its faults for at least trying to do something a little different. However, it isn't really possible to separate it from the well orchestrated guerilla marketing campaign the directors and distributors dreamed up. The concept of the first 'horror-documetary' caught on with even the most mainstream of media outlets in a way few could have predicted. With the directors continuing to produce supporting footage and swearing that it was a true and cooking up detailed fabricated mythology on their website, they did everything possible to create the necessary atmosphere going in. They pushed the boat out, but sadly it broke free of its moorings and drifted off. With such a hubbub it was inevitable that some people were going to be sick of the film before it had even started, and all but the most gullible knew it was just a movie going in.
Not that most would really have believed otherwise anyway, but the continual beatings about the head probably ended up being counter-productive, the film having to work that little harder for the audience to suspend disbelief and buy into the product. For most the film just isn't engaging enough and that's enough to kill the film stone dead. Still, as hype goes it's only the recent launches of Matrices Reloaded and Revolutions that trump it filibuster-wise, and there are still postings on the ever reliable comedy source the IMDB message boards asking if this film was 'real' or not. This shouldn't come as a surprise, the general standard of incisive comment exemplified best by this brief genuine review - "made me fall asleep and then throw up i've seen things suck before but that was the suckyest bunch of suck to ever suck." Hard to disagree, really.
For all it's success, for all it's failures and for all everything it does right, aside from all the hype and aside from all the discussion the film has to stand on it's own merits and we find it wanting. There's no tension built because it's too difficult to care about it's stars. As a film that relies purely on tension as it's hook to build the to the final image, this alone means it's failed. There's certainly concepts to like here, and it's worth watching for the pop culture reference point alone, even though it's been parodied to death. The bottom line, as we sadly find ourselves repeating time after time is that for a horror movie it's just not scary, and that surely is the only point about the film truly worth making.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.
Joshua Leonard (Josh Leonard)
Michael C. Williams (Mike Williams)