Films / Horror

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project stands as a remarkable piece of marketing – taking advantage, really for the first time, of viral advertising techniques and the internet, the film was released in 1999 to vast critical acclaim and made an absolute fortune from a fairly meagre budget. It was a huge talking point on its release, polarising audiences with its unseen horrors and subtleties – The Blair Witch Project popularised the ‘found footage’ genre and shaped horror movies for the next decade, with the Paranormal Activity and [Rec] franchises owing a lot to its influence. A timely and important movie within the horror genre, The Blair Witch Project stands as one of the most interesting scary movies of all time, and definitely earns its place as one of the most frightening films ever made. the blair witch projectThe film is ‘found footage’ – the recovered tapes of a group of three students – Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams – the actors playing themselves to add to the illusion – who set out into the woods near Maryland to make a documentary about local legend the Blair Witch. The students vanish in the woods and noone ever hears from them again. Through the tapes, we see their final days, from interviews with local residents, to their first explorations of the forest, to them getting lost in the woods. All the while. strange events happen around the three, as an unseen entity stalks and torments them, with their situation becoming increasingly desperate until the terrific climax.the blair witch projectOne of the film’s strengths comes from its play on reality – the actors being their characters, the marketing portraying this as actual events, and the handheld video style which gives the movie a gritty, documentary feel. ‘Found footage’ wasn’t invented with The Blair Witch Project but it was the first movie to really utilize it, used to terrific effect here and providing some truly efficient scares; due to the style, the audience feel involved with the characters and so the situation on screen becomes more intense. The film is perhaps slightly too constructed to come across as truly real- it’s remarkably well edited for example, and its horrors build in the classic genre style, with each scare greater than the last, but this works in the movie’s favour and adds to its terrors.the blair witch projectAnd this is a truly terrifying movie, playing on what’s unseen throughout – the dim camera not letting the audience see enough of what’s going on and letting imaginations run wild; this is a movie where very little is seen but the effects are tremendous. Beginning small, with a general sense of unease and odd rock piles appearing around the tent in the morning, the horror rapidly escalates as the characters become more lost and the woods become more imposing. The film goes back to a tried and true classic – that the woods, at night, are scary – full of alien sounds and at once both claustrophobic and worryingly open, the grim, autumnal grey wastes of the woods provide a fantastic setting for letting the audience’s imaginations crawl. Sound is used to great effect in the movie – there’s no score, just noises, screams and silence, cries distant in the dark, impossible to pin-point, it’s a movie built on its sound design and this, coupled with the lack of a visible monster, makes for a very psychologically unsettling movie. It’s a film which works on the same sense of horror as a campfire ghost stories and unsolved mysteries – uncanny, creepy tales told in the dark amongst friends which get the hairs on your neck standing up. Horror is rarely this effective, though the film requires audiences to give themselves to it. It says a lot that some people hated the movie – becoming so used to the generic trappings of the genre that they can’t let something like this wash over them, with the common complaint ‘you don’t even see the witch!’ standing as the greatest example of people who simply didn’t get it. The Blair Witch Project is highly atmospheric and when the true terror strikes – the attack on the tent for example – you really feel it; very few films do so little whilst reaching such visceral levels of horror. The final ten minutes stand as probably cinema’s scariest scene, incredibly intense with the audience having no idea what’s about to happen and desperately scanning the screen for horrors unseen. The final shot will leave you shaken, with a feeling of great unease as the credits roll.the blair witch projectThe horror is added to by the movie’s desperate levels of hopelessness and dread. This is a really bleak movie – starting light and comedic, but as the horrors unfold and the characters become increasingly aware of their situation, the tone becomes much darker. Roger Ebert compared the movie to Robert Scott’s final journal entries as he froze to death on his Antarctic exhibition, an analogy which really fits; the audience know this is found footage and they know the characters disappear at the end, so the whole movie is laced with a sad, horrific sense of impending dread. Worse is when the characters themselves begin to understand their fate – Heather’s apology to the camera towards the climax, where she atones for her faults and says goodbye to her parents – is one of the most tragic and unpleasant scenes in horror movie history. The impending doom of the movie is highlighted by the day/night dynamic too – the day is the good time, when horror remains at bay, but the night is when terrible things happen. The directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez use this to great effect, psychologically conditioning the audience and characters to this dual dynamic – however, as the film continues, the directors slowly remove the day sections, which become remarkably shorter. It’s a clever trick which really sells the horror as night takes over.the blair witch projectThe cast do wonders here too – on the surface, they play themselves, but this realism helps make the movie function. Criticism at the movie points to the fact that the characters are annoying and act stupid, but that’s the point – people, when put into dire situations and pushed to their limits, go to pieces. These are students lost in the woods, running out of food and cigarettes and being hunted by an unseen monster that wants to hurt them – it makes perfect sense that they’d react the way they do. Their arguments and anger and fear feel real – partly because the cast were basically dumped in the woods for a couple of weeks with vague pointers from the directors and told to improvise when things happened, a technique which garners some genuine reactions out of everyone. Heather Donahue deserves the most credit for her performance – showing genuine terror in a way most actresses wouldn’t be able to pull off, her previously mentioned farewell to the camera is haunting, and she also grounds the movie in general, by explaining away the constant filming. ‘Found footage’ movies often struggle to explain why characters keep filming but here it works – Heather doesn’t have anything else left but her documentary, and the camera lens provides a slim means of distancing herself from the horrors of the woods. It’s shocking Heather Donahue especially didn’t get more work after this, a fault partly to blame for the movie’s marketing (which said she was dead) and the general iconic nature of the film; she was too ingrained with the Blair Witch.b2The Blair Witch Project is a masterpiece in psychological film-making and an atmospheric wonder – it easily stands as one of the scariest movies ever made, and one of the most interesting horror movies in terms of style and direction. A huge inspiration for the horror genre, and proof that a little goes a long way.



6 thoughts on “The Blair Witch Project

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