Wednesday, October 1, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies 2014: The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project

"I'm so sorry..."

It's been fifteen years since The Blair Witch Project was first released. That doesn't seem possible. Fifteen years? It's true, though, and we've been living with the aftermath all that time. The Found Footage movie wasn't invented by TBWP (see Cannibal Apocalypse as a contender for that title), but it certainly came into its own with Blair Witch's debut. Since then we've had some good Found Footage movies ([REC], Paranormal Activity), some bad (Atrocious, The Fourth Kind) and mostly a grab bag of mixed results (Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead). For years I've been expecting Found Footage to fade away, but with the release this year of As Above, So Below it seems like it's going to be around for a long time yet.

So what about the movie that started it all? My own history with Blair Witch is a little complicated. I bought pretty heavily into the pre-release hype. Not in a "it's a true story!" way - though I did know people who thought that - but in a "wow, look at the way they're integrating the internet and other media into the marketing" way. It was really the first film to use what we ended up calling Viral Marketing, and they did it brilliantly. I even bought the Blair Witch Dossier book, which was supposed to be documents pertaining to the investigation of the filmmaker's disappearance. The book was quite fun and I was pretty primed to enjoy the movie when I finally got around to seeing it.

Unfortunately, I saw it at a second-run movie theater in Portland, Maine, and the projectionist was unaware that the movie was supposed to be shown in its original aspect ratio. Shot on 16mm and video tape the movie was filmed in 1:33:1, but the projectionist blew it wide. So I ended up watching a bunch of enormous asses walking away from me for an hour and half. It made it hard to take seriously, and I came away disappointed.

Imagine the nostrils in this scene, but a lot wider.

The consensus since then seems to have dismissed The Blair Witch Project as a mediocre film that happened to hit at the exact right time and in the exact right way. (I say that, though the movie has a rating of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes). I have friends who are of the opinion that it isn't even really a horror movie - because there's nothing in it that's really scary. Certainly that's the way I came to view it - as progenitor of something that went on to spawn much better and more frightening films.

The thing is, I think that the pop cultural impact and time has dulled our appreciation of the actual movie. It's been copied, parodied and discussed at length. The drawbacks in filmmaking, acting, editing, pacing etc. have also been gone over again and again. It's the pieces I tend to dismiss - is the whole better than I remember?

I'm happy to say that yes, I have been unfairly maligning this film. I have not actually watched the whole thing since that initial viewing in 1999 and watching it in my dark basement with the fog pressing against the windows really made a difference in my enjoyment. The very things that I used to make fun of - bad framing, poor focus, repetitive conversations, shaky camerawork, even that up-the-nose confessional - all of that actually helps create the feeling that this is a real thing. That this could be cobbled together out of footage shot by a group of film students who were barely capable of handling their equipment. There are sections of the movie that are completely devoid of image - it's just a black frame with very, very faint noises. I found myself leaning forward at those moments, trying to make out distant sounds.

I think I heard the cry of the bird that laid these rocks, actually.

The Medium
I actually watched this on Netflix streaming. Despite owning such cinematic masterpieces as Frogs and Thirteen Ghosts I somehow never wanted to pick up a copy. It's listed as being in HD, which sort of makes me laugh, as it's low-quality 16mm footage and videotape, but the picture was clear and the sound was good.

The Movie
The Blair Witch Project, as the opening credits announce, is presented as footage recovered after the disappearance of three young people who were filming a documentary on the Blair Witch. 

There's no attempt, beyond that opening statement, to outline a story or narrative beyond that which is represented by the footage. There's no framing sequence or documentary-style interviews with family, friends and colleagues. That stuff exists - it was part of the marketing of the film - but it's not shown within the context of the film itself. I had read the Blair Witch Dossier before watching the film the first time and I re-read it this time to be in the same frame of mind. I think it actually enhanced the viewing process and is recommended. It makes things creepier.

Not as creepy as these damn stick figures, though.

The majority of the film, after some introductory footage in and around the town of Burketsville, revolves around the three filmmakers being lost in the woods. As time goes on and they get more desperate it becomes apparent that they are being stalked by someone or something. They hear voices in the night, find weird conglomerations of sticks and piles of stones (I have one friend who can't look at rock walls without a shudder) and even endure an attack on their tent. There's no real overt violence - though there is some blood - it's just a slow-burn of creepiness that ratchets up over several days.

Why would you open up the bundle of sticks? Why?

I've quite enjoyed some of the Found Footage films that have been made since 1999. [REC] is probably my favorite, but I quite liked Cloverfield and Grave Encounters, as examples. The thing about these movies, though, is that they are quite well made. Somehow the camera, shaky as it is, manages to catch exactly what's needed. It's always on when the action happens. The faces are clear and completely in-frame. The thing that I like about Blair Witch is that sometimes the camera is pointed at the floor. Sometimes things aren't in focus. Sometimes there's no light. Sometimes there's condensation on the lens. It's not perfect, it's so much like what it purports to be - amateur footage shot by young people with a lot of problems.

Even the acting, often derided as a very bad (I think Donahue actually won a Razzie that year), strikes me as being mostly realistic. These are people that know they're being filmed and as the movie goes along the acting actually gets better and better as they stop caring so much about how they appear on film.

It's not perfect. It drags sometimes. The acting is uneven, and Donahue in particular has a few dud moments. However, as a whole, I think it's extremely effective. By the time we reach the end sequence and the house I've bought into their tension so completely that I had to refrain myself from yelling at the screen, "don't go in the basement! What the hell is wrong with you!"

And don't move until you've thought about what you did.

The Bottom Line
I'm glad I made myself take another look at this film. It's a lot better than I remember it being and there are things that it does that no other Found Footage film has done as well since. It feels real, which is the point of these things, and all the amateurishness actually enhances that feeling. If you haven't seen it in a while it might be worth a repeat viewing.

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