I remember when The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999. It was considered one of the most revolutionary horror films in a generation. Everyone who didn’t see it (like me -I was 11) still recognized the iconic shot of the eye crying into the camera, apologizing for everything. It grossed the GDP of Albania and seemed to signal the next wave of independent cinema.
But since then, no one seems to care. Part of this dismissal has to do with the fact that its supposedly groundbreaking techniques weren’t actually that groundbreaking. I can kind of see that now. That found footage aesthetic certainly was groundbreaking – in 1980 when the infamous Cannibal Holocaust did it. That idea of making the film a seemingly true story was also incredible – when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did it in 1974. And that handheld aesthetic certainly leads a certain realism to the film is original. That’s why people like Lars Von Trier started the ill-fated and pretentious Dogme 95 movement.
Once people realized how original The Blair Witch Project really was, interest tapered off. No one had a career launch from it and the directors used their talents to do practically nothing afterwards.
It’s a shame, because I think the biggest problem with the film was that it was released almost TOO early to have it’s real impact. Like Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project taps into that post 9/11 fear of the unknown and of the people that live outside of what we would call “civilization.” And its aesthetic is less “arty film style” and more “teenager with phone posting to YouTube.”
Watching it after 16 years, I can imagine why it took hold of the popular imagination. Most people had never seen anything like this, and it managed to be a horror film that could be horrifying without pandering to your worst tastes. Best of all, it’s short enough not to overstay its welcome.
But then after it was over, I kept thinking to myself, ” Hang on a minute. So much of that didn’t make sense.”
Look at that trailer again. Did you see how most of it is built around the discovery of the footage and the quest for answers about what happened to the kids? Well, forget it. That doesn’t play any part in the film. The Blair Witch Project is presented as edited footage of three college age kids looking to make a documentary about the mystery of the Blair Witch and a serial killer in the 1940s.
Apparently, a man living in Burkittsville, Maryland in the 1940s murdered a number of children. Local legend said that he would kidnap a kid, force his or her friends to search for him, and then kill his friends while his back was turned. When he was caught, he claimed to have been possessed by the spirit of Elly Kedward, who was hung as a witch in the 18th century (a little past the witch-hanging craze, but we’ll go with it.) The kids are out to see if there is anything tangible to the legend.
Of course, we never actually discover anything for ourselves. Most of the tension revolves around the kids becoming hopelessly lost in the woods, apparently being stalked by an unseen entity who leaves bizarre symbols and dolls at their campsites.
Sounds silly, right? It actually works very well for the way it’s presented. Showing ghosts and spooks puts any film into the realm of fantasy. The threat of being lost in the woods is something more realistic and something that feels like it could happen to anyone.
It’s also why the found footage works for the film. It’s not just a gimmick – it enhances the tension. The whole point seems to be “this could be you.” Even the actors work, despite Heather Donahue’s Razzie nomination. They’re scared kids that yell at each other rather than try to think their way out of the situation or have some stock character that knows all about the Blair Witch and how she can be dispatched. (If she actually exists.)
This is why the film worked for its large audience. It was a very realistic depiction of horror and did not insult anyone with its convoluted slasher premise. It was a film that was not only shocking but seemed like something anyone could make. That’s what an independent film should be for its vaping, hipster audiences.
Sometimes, I to ask myself, “Does a film accomplish what it set out to do?” And after watching the film, I thought the answer was yes. The film is tense, the methods used to make it work, and the performances were great.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the plot doesn’t hold up.
First, if this is supposed to be a true story, how was the footage discovered? What was the result of finding the footage? Did law enforcement solve the mystery or was it still a question? This is something easy that could have been solved with a title at the end. But The Blair Witch Project doesn’t end, it stops. There are so many questions left unanswered. Maybe it would have been better if someone was watching the footage, but such possibilities weren’t even addressed.
The only films that should focus completely on realism are documentaries. The Blair Witch Project is a fictional film. The filmmakers had a great idea but weren’t quite sure what to do. They came very close to succeeding, which makes the lapses all the more frustrating.
It’s a great idea that seemingly has great execution, but the more you think about it, the more the film collapses under its own weight. Say what you will about the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust, but that was so convincing that it got the director arrested.