Looking back, the world seemed like a much more innocent place in 1999. Which is, of course, a rose-tinted fallacy. Still, things were much different. Not everybody had the internet, for one thing. Which is why The Blair Witch Project could succeed in fooling much of the populace into believing that the film was real. With a genius ad campaign that took advantage of the infantile World Wide Web, and a believable documentary about the search for the missing college kids, many of us entered the theaters believing that we were about to see literal ‘found footage.’
Since a new addition to the Blair Witch saga is about to be released nationwide, I decided to revisit the original film for the first time in many years. I was delighted and surprised to find that it still holds up as my second favorite found footage film (the top spot goes to a Japanese film from 2005 called Noroi: The Curse).
The first thing that struck me on this re-watch of TBWP was the refreshingly lackadaisical approach to narrative cohesion. Compared to many current found footage films aimed at short attention spans (leaving few, if any, questions unanswered), the viewer is forced to do a little work if he/she wants to catch everything. There is a shot near the beginning of the film of Mikey pulling in to Heather’s driveway (it is obvious that they have known each other for a while, as Heather jokingly refers to him as, ‘Mr. Punctuality’), followed by a shot of Heather meeting him for the first time outside his mothers house. Despite this chaotic chronology, we get to know the characters surprisingly well on their first day of shooting. Heather is the dominant force, Josh is the wacky stoner, and Mikey is the innocent.
TBWP uses some classic horror film techniques to achieve its power. There is some excellent foreshadowing, such as a crying baby yelling “no no no” when Mommy starts telling a story about the mysterious witch in the woods. One interview subject even spoils the ending of the movie (guy in the yellow hat). Does this detract from the power of the final shot? Not in the least.
TBWP even has memorable minor characters, which you won’t find in many found footage films these days. Even more impressive is the fact that most of them are non-actors. Case in point: Mary Brown. This hauntingly disturbed woman was played by a production assistant.
Many of the things that make TBWP succeed would not work well today. For instance, while cell phones were prevalent in the late 90’s, they were not the all powerful machines they are now. In fact, GPS would have solved all of the trio’s problems in TBWP, so it will be interesting to see how that is handled in the upcoming Blair Witch film.
Usually, in horror films, we question the actions of the characters because there is usually an obvious way out. Don’t go upstairs, go out the outside, leave the light on, etc. But there is no way out in TBWP. These people are trapped in the middle of the woods without a clue. A headstrong (bordering on annoying, many would say) person like Heather has to be the MC for this film to remain credible. She remains rational for much longer than anyone else in the film, and much longer than many of us would if we were in her shoes. If she wasn’t leading the group aimlessly though the woods with the hope of redemption being right around the next bend, then we wouldn’t have a film.
Something that many people have a problem with when it comes to found footage films is the question of why a character would keep holding a camera while being attacked by some malevolent force. Refreshingly, TBWP has more “turn the camera off” talk than any other found footage film I’ve seen. The guys are constantly berating Heather for filming their terror. And her excuse is as simple as it is sensible. At one point Mike says, “We’re not making a film about us getting lost, were making a film about a witch.”
Heather pauses for a second, then says, “I got a camera…”
Later, Josh expounds on why Heather refuses to stop filming the tragic events. “It’s not quite reality. It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.” Indeed.
The biggest thing that I took away from watching TBWP for the umpteenth time is this: More directors need to keep their actors in the dark about what is going to happen to them! The actors in TBWP were pretty much stranded in the forest without much food for much of the production. They didn’t know what kinds of tricks the crew were going to pull on them in the middle of the night. The disorienting feeling that the cast feels is contagious, and we, as viewers, feel just as lost and helpless as Heather, Josh, and Mike. Would abandoning your cast in the middle of the woods with barely any food fly these days? Let’s hope so.
Judging from the trailer for the new Blair Witch film, we look to be in for a more dirty, bloody, and loud experience than the original. There are a few reviews out that are quite positive, and I, for one, am very excited. Let’s just hope that the subtlety and nuance of TBWP isn’t completely replaced with tired jump scares and excessive gore.