The UnPopular Opinion: The Blair Witch Project
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
In March of 1999, my friend was performing in a local theater production with some independent film actors. During the course of a conversation, he somehow was passed a copy of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT on VHS, which had made it's way to him via friends of directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick. My friend passed the copy to me and I brought the tape home. Knowing only a few things about the movie, I popped it into the VCR and watched it. At the time it was 2am and I felt I had been tricked and was watching some piece of shit filmed on camcorders that someone was trying to pass off as an actual movie. 80 minutes later and I was scared shitless.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is not just a good movie, it is a great movie. Forget all of the watered down "found footage" movies released since then as none of them feel as real as this movie does. Even the theatrical and DVD releases of the film process the footage to look like film. Seeing it in true VHS glory shows you the power of letting your imagination run wild. Neither the sequel or any rip-off films since have captured the raw horror that was on display in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT which is why it truly is THE EXORCIST of modern movies.
Poor Heather, she will always be remembered as the chick with the snotty nose who was "so scared".
Capitalizing on viral marketing before anyone knew what viral marketing was, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is a master class in marketing in under two hours. After watching the movie countless times on that VHS tape, I made my way to the theater when it opened on June 30th to watch the crowd in awe of this horror masterpiece. For the most part, everyone got into the groove of the movie, but I was shocked that they were not as blown away by it as I was. So, lets break it down to the essential reasons why it works.
First off, no one in the movie is a recognized actor, but they are good actors. Many of the successful found footage movies (CLOVERFIELD, THE LAST EXORCISM, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) work because the actors come across as natural. But, when you watch THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, it doesn't feel like they are acting. It feels as if what is happening on screen is actually happening to the cast. Credit the directors who planted actors in the town for the main cast to interact with without divulging who was real and who was a plant. Then, when camping in the isolated Maryland woods, the directors used GPS tags to lead the actors to their next location with basic prompts on what to do. This lends an air of realism to the movie that rarely appears in any fictional movie. When the actors break down emotionally in the movie, you sometimes doubt whether the cameras caught a real or acted moment.
Sticks and stones may not break your bones, but they will give you nightmares.
Take also the fact THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was directed by Sanchez and Myrick, but all camerawork was done by the actors. Lead Heather Donohue had never held a camera before making this movie. Some claim the intense shakiness of the camera led to them getting sick but I credit it with adding to the realistic feel of the movie. You never question why these actors are filming, something that makes you wonder in other movies. Why the hell do so many people have that many video cameras in their house, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY? Why does the camera suddenly appear everywhere, CHRONICLE? THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is the most documentarian of any found footage movie which helps it work as well as it does.
The other biggest asset is the backstory. The ancillary documentaries that go along with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT like THE BURKITTSVILLE 7, THE CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH, and THE BLAIR WITCH LEGACY are excellent in their own right, building the tension and universe of the fictional witch to the point that you question whether it really happened or not. The biggest benefit to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT compared to other found footage movies is that even today people question whether it was real or not. Back in 1999, when people were still not quite as adept to search online for background on movies as they are today, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was still able to exist and be questioned, something we rarely do today, even with the found footage genre.
Somebody put baby in the corner!
But, even without looking at the additional material or viral marketing for the movie, it succeeds as a film, horror or otherwise, because of what you do not see on camera. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT works completely as a movie analyzing the breakdown of the human mind when isolated in the wilderness. Unable to find their way back after searching for a supposed supernatural being, the three characters begin to turn on each other. The shape of sticks and bundles within the woods send an ominous aura around everything they do and force their minds to play tricks on each other. But, what if the supernatural being is actually real? The movie never quite tells us if what we are seeing is the work of The Blair Witch or humans torturing our characters or just things that our eyes and minds want us to see. All we get is a very abrupt ending that leads us to believe the urban legends are true, but the final choice is up to the viewer.
When all is said and done, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is an excellent movie to introduce horror fans to. Like Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING or Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT can scare you without showing anything. Made for less than $20,000, this movie will keep you up at night with nothing more than some sounds, some sticks, and the fear of isolation. The days where a movie like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT can be made is over. But, we can always look back fondly on this moment in film history and realize that there is still room for originality in the film industry.
Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to email@example.com, spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!