Two writers keep the Blair Witch conversation going...
Nathan: Re-watching The Blair Witch Project for our big Top 30 American Independent Horror Film piece, I was delighted, though spooked, to discover that after countless spoofs, homages, and rip-offs, it’s still pretty much terrifying from start to finish. I think it helps at this point that The Blair Witch Project is no longer a ubiquitous, divisive pop-culture phenomenon. It can be appreciated for what it is: a singularly tense film whose effectiveness is inextricably linked to its apparent artlessness, to the sense that we’re not watching a smoothly crafted fictional horror film, rooted in genre conventions, but rather something much more raw and powerful. There’s a sense of verisimilitude to the film that makes it feel like we’re watching real people freaking out in authentically sloppy, visceral ways. The faux-documentary elements certainly help: the handheld cameras, actors with the same names as the characters, a rough outline in place of a traditional script. They all lend a grungy, lived-in quality that makes the film more effective. (And I do mean grungy. I can’t even imagine how terrible the actors must have smelled by the end of shooting.)
The acting in The Blair Witch Project isn’t generally singled out for praise. But this time around, I was particularly impressed by Heather Donahue, who really drives the film. In the early scenes in front of the camera, when it still looks like the trio will be making a conventional documentary rather than entering a world of delirium and insanity from which they will never escape, she really nails the studied stiffness and labored formality of documentary hosts without devolving into cartoonishness or caricature. And as things fall apart, her panic and desperation is not only scary and infectious, but also oddly touching. For me, the key moment in the film might be when one of the boys once again yells at her to stop filming, and she tearfully confesses that filming is all she has left, that the only way to hold onto what’s left of her sanity is to try to make it into art, or at least entertainment. What say you, Scott? Am I short-changing the other actors? Do you think the film holds up now that Blair Witch mania is a distant memory? If so, why do you think it’s so effective?
Scott: The performances are all outstanding, and though we haven’t seen much of Donahue since The Blair Witch Project, Joshua Leonard has worked steadily in movies and on television, and was excellent in Humpday, which again called on his formidable improvisatory skill. While I generally resist speculating about how the conditions of a film’s production imprinted on the final results, plainly the methods of directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez had a psychological effect on the cast. The actors looks like they endured a lot of sleeplessness and duress, and their irritation with each other, whether real or not, involved accessing emotions that likely weren’t far from the surface. Donahue was singled out by the film’s detractors, who seemed to find her overbearing, but I think she’s extraordinary—the night-by-night progression into fear, despair, and hopelessness registers so powerfully on her face, culminating in the famed final night video where she’s resigned herself to a horrible fate.
The one thing I like about found-footage horror films—and Blair Witch is certainly the gold standard of the form—is that they have to rely on the fundamentals. The film is scary as hell, but in the harsh light of day, we realize we’ve been freaked out by piles of rocks, stick configurations, and the flapping of a tent. Though I think the film actually includes some striking, even stylized, images—the angle on Heather’s face during that snot-filled confession, the discovery of the wooded area full of hanging stick figures, that utterly chilling final shot—the interplay between darkness and light, and onscreen and offscreen information. It doesn’t take a dime to achieve effects like that, either. Horror is the one genre that isn’t really helped by money being thrown at it, and Blair Witch affirms that as well as any movie I know.
Nathan: That’s true, and one of the things that really impressed me about the film is how it makes a little go a long way, not just in terms of a microscopic budget, a tiny crew, and limited resources, but also how it makes those rocks and sticks terrifying, when really there should be few things in the world less scary than the detritus of the forest. And I think you’re onto something about the artistry underneath all the apparent amateurishness. The creepy-crawly campfire tales the townspeople tell about the Blair Witch seem like silly folklore in the early going, but by the time the terrified central trio are in a state of panic and desperation, they begin to feel terrifyingly concrete and justified.
The Blair Witch Project excels at inference and suggestion. The camera technology is new and appealingly/maddeningly crude, but the film has roots in the atmosphere-rich productions of Val Lewton and the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” where all it takes is a power outage, whispers of alien invasions, and a whole lot of paranoia to turn small-town dwellers into crazed animals, eager to turn on each other in an insane fury of paranoia and dread. Of course it turns out there are actual space aliens behind the power outage, but they’re almost unnecessary, since the real damage is caused by fear, suspicion, and innuendo. In the same respect, the Blair Witch trio turn on each other over the course of the film with such ferocity that supernatural forces almost aren’t necessary.
The Blair Witch Project is one of the most influential horror films of all time. What do you think its army of imitators gets wrong, primarily? Are there any creative progeny of The Blair Witch Project you’d like to single out as learning the right lessons? Alternately, what do you think of the fascinating-in-theory, deadly-in-practice quickie sequel Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, directed by Joe Berlinger? Lastly, in a world where everything is remade, rebooted, or sequelized, why is a property as well-known and lucrative as The Blair Witch Project lying dormant?
Scott: True confession: I’ve never seen Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which struck me as a terrible idea even before it was released to disdainful reviews by critics and the people who made it. But on the issue of Blair Witch being influential, what I find remarkable is that its influence wasn’t immediate, but delayed until technology caught up with it. The current wave of found-footage horror films, prompted by Paranormal Activity’s runaway success, speaks more to the frugality of using digital cameras than the immediate impulse to capitalize on Blair Witch’s success. After all, what does it say that the Blair Witch sequel abandoned the found-footage concept? If you can’t influence your own sequel…
I’d argue that there have been plenty of good Blair Witch knock-offs—most recently, Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek, which may be the most directly indebted of any of them—but there’s a magic to the film that cannot be replicated, not least by the filmmakers themselves. At the time, it felt like some sui generis phenomenon, and I thought we’d never hear from directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez again. While Myrick and Sánchez have both continued working since—in fact, we just gave Sánchez’s Exists a zero-star rating—they spent a long time afterward trying to get comedy called Heart Of Love off the ground, to no avail. Blair Witch was a case where the stars aligned: A great concept, perfectly executed, that used a clever marketing campaign to seize on its cultural moment.
One note, though: Many people hated the movie once it reached the multiplex, as Mike D’Angelo mentioned in his Keynote. I recall being scared out of my wits seeing it for the first time in a public screening in Chicago, then hearing lots of groans and anger the moment the credits started. With horror films, there’s always this tendency for people to mock or laugh off experiences that actually scared them—and by “people,” I mean “tough guys”—but Blair Witch was something different. They’d never seen anything like it.
Nathan: Yeah, while Mike split hairs in his Keynote about whether Blair Witch is horror or suspense, I personally think it’s safe to say that The Blair Witch Project is the most widely despised great horror movie of all time. People didn’t just find it unsuccessful, or not scary: a goodly number of people found it a damn-near-unwatchable, migraine-inducing work of amateur hubris, full of screaming, pointless arguments, snot-dripping super-close-ups, and actors they never saw before, or wanted to see again. Much of this hostility probably stemmed from how unconventional the film was. It was designed to look like a makeshift, homemade, hysterical production from people who didn’t know what they were doing, and its detractors obviously felt it did that job too well. One of The Blair Witch Project’s strengths is its brevity, with a running time of only around 80 minutes, but that was still much too long for the people who hated it.
That perhaps explains part of why there have been so few official follow-ups. As you mentioned, even the sequel abandoned the found-footage conceit, and I suspect the hatred (as well as love) the film provoked might be part of the reason the sequel went in a much different, thoroughly misguided direction. There was a sense that The Blair Witch Project was a fluke, a case of neophytes capturing lightning in a bottle that couldn’t be replicated, either by the filmmakers involved or their imitators. In a cinematic world of endless recycling, it speaks to the delicate alchemy of The Blair Witch Project that it’s so rare and tricky, the filmmakers have hesitated to attempt it again, even as their individual careers have floundered.
Fifteen years can be a very long time, and it’s important to remember that the Internet, which played a major role in transforming The Blair Witch Project from a low-budget horror film into one of the greatest independent successes in American film history, still seemed relatively novel and young in 1999. Oh, but it was a more innocent age! One last question: What do you see as The Blair Witch Project’s legacy?
Scott: I’ll get into this more with my found-footage Conversation with Keith on Thursday, but you may be right in that the unkind mainstream response to Blair Witch, despite its spectacular success, may have squelched opportunities to follow through on the same formula. It took the better part of a decade for Paranormal Activity to pick up the torch, and by then, reality television had made it easier for viewers to accept the genre’s conventions—the cheap look, the handheld cameras, the offscreen scare techniques, the improvisational faux-doc performances. At the same time, however, much of Blair Witch’s specific power is psychological, not just visceral. We’re watching these three young people get broken down not only by a terrible threat, but also the cumulative impact of sleeplessness, hopelessness, and deprivation. Some very good imitators have come along, but none have felt quite as complete.
Don’t miss Mike D’Angelo’s Keynote on how The Blair Witch Product is more about psychological torture—of the actors, the characters, and the audience alike—than true horror. And on Thursday, Scott Tobias and Keith Phipps will discuss the legacy of the found-footage film, and whether it’s time to let the genre go.