Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 34: The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Writer: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams
Plot: The movie opens up with a title card informing the viewer that three film students disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994, and that what we’re about to watch is their footage, which was found a year later. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard (using their real names) pack up their equipment and begin walking around town, asking locals questions about the mysterious legend of the Blair Witch. The locals of Burkittsville – formerly known as Blair — weave a story about a lunatic in the 1940s who kidnapped and murdered seven children, claiming to be compelled by the spirit of an 18th-century witch named Elly Kedward, who was hanged by the people of Blair. The three of them go into the woods to seek out Coffin Rock, supposedly a spot where five men were bound together and murdered over a century earlier. They make camp, and in the morning Josh reports waking up in the night and hearing some cackling sounds from the woods. Friction begins to grow between Mike and Heather – Mike insisting she keeps getting them lost – and Josh tries to play peacemaker. As they wander, they find stones and branches arranged in strange structures that seem to echo something told to them in town by a woman they dismissed as a lunatic. They hear more sounds in the night, and wake up to a rainfall and an angry Mike, who believes locals have followed them into the woods to toy with them. They try to walk back back to where they left their car, but are unable to find it before nightfall and finally make camp. That night, they hear more of the strange sounds outside the tent, and in the morning they find three piles of rocks that weren’t there before. Before they leave, Heather realizes she can’t find the map, and the three of them all begin suspecting each other of taking it. After some time, Mike laughs and confesses he threw the map into the creek, and Heather and Josh attack him in a rage.
Later, calmer, they find figures made from sticks dangling from the trees, and eventually, they decide to make camp and not light a fire, terrified that someone is tracking them through the woods. In the night, there are more strange sounds and the tent begins to quake, driving them out. When they return, their belongings have been rifled through, and Josh’s recording equipment has been damaged. The next day, despite keeping a southern course for 15 hours, the find themselves back at a log crossing a creek they’d already passed, and their frustration and desperation increases. The next morning, Heather and Mike cannot find Josh, and eventually are forced to go on without him. That night they think they hear him in the woods, and in the morning Heather finds a bundle of twigs wrapped in the bloody tatters of Josh’s shirt. She freaks out, but hides her discovery from Mike. That night, alone, she records herself apologizing to her parents and those of her crew, and takes the blame for everything that has happened, certain she and Mike will die in the woods. They hear Josh again and follow his cries to a house in the middle of the woods. As they search, Mike thinks he hears Josh downstairs and runs there with a camera, finding odd writing on the walls. As he walks, there’s a thumping sound and the camera falls. The footage begins again, Heather screaming, until we see Mike standing with his face against the wall. There is another scream. The camera falls to the floor. And the screen goes black.
Thoughts: The filming of The Blair Witch Project has become something of a moviemaking legend. With a mere $20,000, Myrick and Sanchez took three unknown actors into the woods and made a movie that was largely improvised, giving them notes about what to feel or how to behave rather than being strict about the lines they spoke, and often not even telling the actors what they were going to do to scare them, trying to capture a realistic feeling to their reactions. The resulting film made nearly $250 million, making it by far one of the most profitable movies of all time. The film is also notable for being one of the first – if not the first – movie marketed heavily on the Internet. A web page was established that went viral on the conceit that the film was real, with lots of articles, videos and photographs presented to support the film’s premise.
You can really track the legacy of this movie in two ways, neither of them having anything to do with the weak sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Although the film did not create the “found footage” genre – the idea that you’re watching a movie constructed of footage filmed by the characters themselves – it sure as hell made it popular. As is always the case, some of the movies that have used this concept in the years since have been critical successes, some have been commercial successes, and some have been outright flops. But unlike most other films that spawn a rash of imitators, only Blair Witch can lay claim to creating a subgenre that is immediately repulsive to anybody who gets seasick easily.
The second – and, to my way of thinking, more important – legacy of this movie the way it change how movies are marketed. In 1999, the Internet was still relatively new to most people, and nobody quite understood yet the power it would one day have. The Blair Witch website, combined with a few other tie-ins like a Sci-Fi Channel special and a comic book from Oni Press, turned a movie made on a microscopic budget into an international sensation. Now, it would be insane to make a movie that doesn’t have a website, it would be ludicrous to not create viral content that fans can find, enjoy, and share with other people in the hopes of generating new fans. If you were on Facebook earlier today, watching the trailers for The Muppets, try to wrap your brain around the fact that such a presentation has its origin in The Blair Witch Project.
In terms of what actually makes it scary, I don’t think it’s the supernatural elements that do the trick. Yeah, the piles of rocks, the little twig-construction stick figures and the other weird things they find in the woods all help contribute to a culture of fear that exists in the film. What makes it work, though, is the way the characters slowly break down. When the movie begins they’re lively and enthusiastic about making their movie. As the film progresses, they get antsy, they get belligerent, and they begin to turn on each other. The suspicion that infects them, the way their little society completely falls apart after a while is pretty scary by itself, because that could happen to anybody. Strip away the witch, take away the manufactured scares, and look at it just as a story about people crumbling just because they’re lost and scared. And it works. Heather’s breakdown near the end has joined the ranks of iconic horror movie scenes for very good reason.
The Blair Witch Project gets a lot of crap today. Like many things which reach enormous popularity very quickly, there was a backlash afterwards by those who feel like it’s uncool to like anything mainstream, and a bit more by those who didn’t care for the style of filmmaking. (Out of the two, the second is by far the more legitimate complaint.) People complain that they feel like they’re watching somebody’s home movies – which, of course, is part of the point. My favorite argument, though, is those who were angry that we never see the witch. My response to this is simple: what could they possibly have shown you that would be scary enough to match what you built up in your own mind?
And of course, there are also many people who react because the whole “found footage” thing has been overdone. Again, this is legitimate – the third Paranormal Activity movie using the same concept just hit theaters as I write this, and frankly I haven’t found them to be remotely frightening – but I think it’s unfair to put the blame for that on Blair Witch. It’s not the fault of this movie that others copied it badly, and as far as this one goes, I think it does what it does very well. I watch this today and get the creeps just as easily as I did back in college. And to me, that’s what makes a movie memorable.
Tomorrow the first stage of Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen (yes, first stage) reaches its conclusion with the most recent film to change the way horror movies are made… so far. We’re going to take a look at Saw.