Face-Off: The Blair Witch Project vs. Paranormal Activity

Welcome back, fans of the freakish! This is the Face-Off and, much like every year, this session we have a special Halloween edition for you, but this time you won't find mask-wearing killers, blood-drenched beasties or head-spinning schoolgirls anywhere near here. This year we're going all minimalist, and will be facing-off two "found footage" giants that caused nightmares for years, and rode humble beginnings to box office glory: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

Though the "found footage" style existed well before either of these movies, they both used the style to haunting effect by placing audiences in a horrific, realistic scenario and forced them to confront terror as if they're experiencing it first-hand. That's a lot to put audiences through, but it makes for the perfect horror experience. But only one here can be the ultimate master of hand-held horror and the supreme harbinger of nightmares. Find out who below...if you dare!


Three aspiring filmmakers venture into the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland to do a documentary about the legend of the Blair Witch. What starts off as an exploration of a myth soon turns into a real-life quest for survival, as the entity(ies) that haunts the forest taunt the trio who find themselves lost in the seemingly endless woods.

There wasn't so much a script for this movie as there were guidelines that the cast had to follow as they trekked across the forest. They were left instructions in 35 mm film cans left inside milk crates that would give them clues as to where to go next. They would also be left instructions in terms of where to take the scenes in terms of emotion and content, and the cast would improvise from there.

In order to investigate and document the strange occurrences going around their home, a man named Micah begins recording their daily activities and leaves the camera running at night, where the brunt of activity happens. Katie, his girlfriend who has been experiencing these "hauntings" all her life, reluctantly agrees to all this, all before the activity gets too severe and a wedge develops between the two. Things soon escalate beyond their control, and they learn this is no ordinary haunting.

Like Blair Witch there was no real script, and Peli simply gave them guidelines as to where to take the scene over the course of shooting, which allowed the duo to improv dialogue.

Daniel Myrickand Eduardo Sanchez set out to make a movie that captured the feeling of a real-life horror documentary, and thus created an experience unlike any the mainstream moviegoing public had seen before. Though another similar film, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, did the same thing years before, and in a much more extreme way, Myrick and Sanchez succeeded in creating a nail-biting atmosphere by taking from movies like JAWS, wherein the villain is rarely (in this case, ever) seen. They used the woods to their advantage by keeping creepy voices and noises distant, forcing the audience to listen carefully. On top of all that, orchestrating the film itself was a bold move, using recordings of creepy stuff to let play in the woods, and requiring the actors to venture into the forest with only a slight guiding hand, and letting dialogue come naturally.
Oren Peli adopted much of the same style as Myrick and Sanchez, allowing the actors to think of their own dialogue and letting them develop a scene on their own. He kept things small scale though, containing it all to the confines of the house, which may be too dull a location for some, but Peli makes up for it by expertly parceling out the scares to make the house a dreadful location to be trapped in. He laid out the film so that as the activity grew more frightening the emotional tension between the couple intensified as well.

Getting Ready for Adventure

Filming the Doc

Interviewing the Townsfolk

The Tale of Molly Brown

Into the Woods

Trouble Brews

Second Night/The Terror Begins

Noises in the Dark

Brewing Tensions

Noises Begin to Intensify

The Rock Piles

Missing Map

Mike Comes Clean

Mike: "It's fucked up but I kicked that fucking map into the creek yesterday! It was useless! I kicked that fucker into the creek!"

Blair Witch Symbols

The Tent is Attacked

Walking in Circles

Josh is Losing His Mind

Josh: It's like a totally filtered reality. It's like you can pretend everything's not quite the way it is.

Josh Disappears

Josh's Screams in the Night

Leftover Josh

Giving Up Hope

The Waterwork Confessional

Heather: I just want to apologize to Mike's mom, Josh's mom, and my mom. And I'm sorry to everyone. I was very naive. I am so so sorry for everything that has happened. Because in spite of what Mike says now, it is my fault. Because it was my project and I insisted. I insisted on everything. I insisted that we weren't lost. I insisted that we keep going. I insisted that we walk south. Everything had to be my way. And this is where we've ended up and it's all because of me that we're here now - hungry, cold, and hunted. I love you mom, dad. I am so sorry. What is that? I'm scared to close my eyes, I'm scared to open them. We're gonna die out here.

The House

Searching for Josh

Trapped in a Corner

Playing with the Camera

Suburban Life

First Night

The Psychic Arrives

Micah: What if we just get this Ouija board and we find out what it wants and then we give it what it wants? Then it's gone.

The Psychic: Because what it probably wants is Katie.

Night #3/The Door Moves

Taunting the Demon

Night #5/The First Loud Bang

Going Through the Audio

Taunting #2

Night #13/The Scream and Bang

Tensions Begin to Boil

EVP Session

The Demon Grunt

Sleep Staring

The Ouija Board

Micah: I promised you I wasn't going to buy a Ouija board. I didn't buy a Ouija board. I borrowed a Ouija board.

Footsteps in the Powder

Photo in the Attic

Micah: It's just, I'm in control, I'm making progress.

Katie: No, you haven't been having any progress, and you're not in control. It is in control, and if you think you're in control, then you're being an idiot!

The Psychic Bails

Dragged Away

A Bloody Cross

A Change of Heart

The Final Night

Thrown into the Camera

Staring into the Eyes of a Demon

The thing about BLAIR WITCH is that...*puts on bulletproof vest*...it really isn't very scary. Like, aside from a few night scenes, almost not at all. Intense? You 'betcha. Eerie? Without a doubt. But very little about it is actually frightening. The idea was to make something seem real and to reflect our own sense of panic on the screen, making viewers feel uneasy. It plays more like a survival thriller, where these three people must overcome not only the harsh terrain but the paranormal forces that linger in the woods. This makes for a creepy environment and one that surely caused people to churn in their theater seats all those years ago. However, when it comes to legit scares, one could probably watch the movie and have a pretty good nights sleep right after.
PA handles itself much like PROJECT in the beginning, with not much going on aside from a few atmospheric chills. But the horror kicks up a notch, and then another notch as the movie progresses, to the point where you dread the moment when the camera cuts to the bedroom at night. What this, and all great horror, does is it gets a foothold in the viewer's psyche and follows them through the rest of the day when they themselves have to go to bed. The demon element isn't what makes the movie scary; it's the idea that evil things could be going on around you when you are at your most unaware and vulnerable. There is something so eternally scary about how our imaginations run wild like that, and something PA and director Oren Peli exploits so well. Some of the simpler scary moments (doors slamming, light footsteps) might warrant scoffs from some viewers, but it's those small moments that make it genius. After you get into bed having just seen PA, every light sound or small creak becomes a cause to sleep with one eye open.
As the movie doesn't really focus on scares most of the tension derives from the conflict between the three actors, with their relationship going to hell as soon as they realize they're lost in the woods. That would make any one of us start playing the blame game and demanding the heads of all your fellow hikers. Much of the uneasiness comes from their conflict, even if it is a bit one dimensional. They don't seem to argue about anything other than the fact that they're lost, and when they do, it's often to gang up on Heather for constantly filming everything. Even after Mike admits to dumping the map, effectively becoming the reason why they get so lost, it's never really brought up again. The fighting makes the movie feel more tense and claustrophobic, but if the movie was any longer it would have grown stale. Trust me, there was 20 hours worth of this footage, so we easily could've gotten another 20 minutes of arguing about which direction to go.
At the beginning of the movie, the two characters are pretty adorable and likable, as they behave like any normal couple...but one that's being haunted by a demon. As the horror unfolds so do other layers in their relationship. Micah just wants to help in the best way he knows how, and though Katie embraces it for a time, she just wants everything to stop escalating. Micah is without a doubt a bit of a jerk, and the story acts as an insight into a relationship that's struggling because one person isn't really listening to the other person's needs. That's why when Micah - spoiler alert - is murdered at the end and thrust into his camera, it's not hard to view it as a consequence for his own actions. What I'm getting at is that the relationship evolves over the course of the movie quite well, and the leads have fantastic chemistry and sell the fear, frustration and happier moments wonderfully.
There have been plenty of found footage to come out after BWP, but this will always be the first one that pops into everyone's minds when they think of the genre. Bursting through the door when it came out in 1999, the movie remains as popular as ever, in terms of recognizability, at least. The movie will always have a place in the pantheon of great horror movies because of how it changed the game. Audiences hadn't seen anything like this, and in such mass, which is why it's probably been apart of the zeitgeist for as long as it has. Even movies like PARANORMAL will get compared to it for ages to come and may be labeled as ripoffs. That's sort of the perk about being a gamechanger. Also, it makes going camping seem like an extreme sport nowadays. There are witches in those woods, you fools!
The movie would probably have a better legacy and place in the horror movie hall of fame if it weren't for the sequels and the fact the found-footage genre became quickly over-saturated. In an attempt to milk the series for all it was worth Paramount cranked out numerous bad sequels that failed to grasp what made the first great. The third movie is quite good, but that's because it has a lot of fun with the format and wrings out some effective scares. But the other four films are useless, and people have a tendency to lump in the first movie with the rest, sullying its reputation. The whole found-footage angle has grown over-played in years, and probably even wore out it 's welcome before PA (with CLOVERFIELD and QUARANTINE not having the best audience reception) which causes people to turn their nose up ACTIVITY.
Box Office
    $140 million ($248 million global)
Box Office
    $107 million ($193 million global)

I remember traveling one state over to go see PARANORMAL ACTIVITY before it finally went wide a couple weeks later, and I have never before or after had such a terrifying moviegoing experience. I had never seen anything that used the horrifying power of silence so well, and it had a genuine impact on me. Though it will never be as scary as when I first saw it, it holds up shockingly well because of it utilizes the hand-held style and dishes out the scares, but also because it's easy actually care about the characters and what they're going through. It all makes for a more realistic, and therefore more absorbing experience. BLAIR WITCH scared the hell out of me too when I was younger, and it's certainly a classic because of the impact it had when it came out, and that it must've had a similar effect on audiences back then as PA did on folks in 2009. But as the years have gone on, it hasn't aged all that well. The scares don't have the same power, the character work doesn't have a lot of places to go (and can sometimes be a little too over-the-top), and after a while, which can dull the whole experience. BWP will always be creepy, but there's something relatable about PA that, at least for me, means it will always have the upper hand as time goes on: The dark can be a frightening place, and PA seeps into your mind and proves that the silence can be truly terrifying. This is why Netflix has basically become the adult version of the nightlight.



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