The Blair Witch Project Revisited
Do we still want to go down the woods with a camcorder and no map?
Certain films capture your heart at 15, but how awkward and old-fashioned would they make you feel if you watched them with a teenager now? And what horrifying things might they reveal about the person you once were? Avoid embarrassment, and the waste of £1.49 in rental fees, by letting us take the risk on your behalf.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
“In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary called ‘The Blair Witch Project’.
A year later their footage was found.”
So runs the text on-screen at the beginning of the movie, the rest of the film “being” an assemblage of their film and video recordings as they - Heather, Mike and Josh - stumble around a featureless forest while something hunts them, torments them, pulls them deeper into the shadowy trees.
The Blair Witch Project is very much of its time; within the world of the film the characters rehearse the ‘90s preoccupation with media saturation. They refer to other films constantly, at one point deciding which way to go by recalling which witch was evil in The Wizard of Oz. Every frame of the movie is ‘filmed’ by the characters themselves - a practice they rationalise as ‘documentary making’ - illustrating the contemporary obsession with recording and the distancing effect of mediation. “It’s totally like filtered reality,” says cameraman Josh of the camcorder, “it's like you can pretend everything is not quite the way it is.” (At this risk of being a bit Media Studies, even ‘like’, that ubiquitous tic of ‘90s vernacular, is an unconscious reference to the distance between appearance and reality.)
And then we have the palaver around the movie. These were the early days of the Internet and the promotion of the film played with it beautifully, creating websites that hinted at the reality of world within the fiction. Fantastical as it now seems, there was some genuine confusion about whether Blair Witch was actually found footage, and this uncertainty propelled virality, in the modern sense, at a time when such a thing was new, difficult and almost unheard of.
This was ‘multimedia’ in a world that wasn’t yet fully networked and saturated by it, a film centred on surveillance in a world that wasn’t yet wholly, literally recorded. With a plot hinging on consumer electronics that became obsolete almost immediately, it could only work at this particular moment in technological development: a liminal state between online ubiquity and offline confusion, real and ‘fake’, documentary and fiction: lost in the woods, sobbing into a camera.
Can we show it to the kids?
Well, the kids we showed it to thought it was fine and well-made, although not actually scary. They were more immediately struck by how a present-day remake would have more angles, more visual variety and better video compression. They were impressed by the verisimilitude of the shaky camerawork, and then pointed out that image stabilisation has improved immeasurably since then.
Heather gets a rough deal from whatever is in the woods, and from her crew. You may be tempted to think she gets a rough deal from the script, but her unwinding - the stripping away of her uptight, domineering film director persona as she loses control of her project, her life and her snot - is the main ratchet of the growing horror. Perhaps there is some deliberate commentary here about disembodied urges to punish ‘bossy’, ungovernable young women.
The ‘shaky-cam’, which quickly became a whole genre in itself, is still disorientating and, frankly, motion-sickness inducing. It is hard to believe that Josh, who fancies himself as a cinematographer, would not have bothered to hire a tripod for his 16mm camera. This was the ‘90s: long, still, locked-off shots were de rigueur in indie cinema.
Heather Donahue’s performance is great - in fact all the performances are terrific, with Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams all thoroughly naturalistic and believable. Never once do you question the characters’ decisions or motivations, so thoroughly have they drawn their personalities.
For all the queasiness it might cause, that whirling, lo-fi camcorder is a masterstroke of film-making. It's not a thing that could convincingly be pulled off again - there’s a reason why film language is so well established and why this technique is generally avoided - but it is perfect for a horror film. The blurry shadows contain horrors that a well-lit scene could never convey, no matter how good the special effects. The human imagination is a wonderful piece of equipment for scaring ourselves witless.
Mike: What's your favourite thing to do on a Sunday?
Heather: Um, it used to be, drive to the woods and go hiking.
Heather: I am so sorry. It was never my intention to hurt anyone and I hope that's clear. I am so scared. What was that? I'm scared to close my eyes and I'm scared to open them. I'm going to die out here.
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Is it as good as you remember?
One of the Metropolitan editors has strong memories of watching this in the cinema at the time of release and found it nearly as terrifying the second time around. One of the other editors is such a scaredy cat that he hadn’t ever dared watch it before, and while he wasn’t quite as scared as he had worried he might be (proving, as claimed above, that imagination is the most horrible experience of all), it is still a terrific example of its genre.
That genre being, effectively, folk horror. This is the story of a group of metropolitan smart-alecks who underestimate the dark power of the woods and what dwells there. But it manages to tell this without the snooty superciliousness and conservative repression that dominates the traditional folk horror of the ‘70s.
The wild is the source of horror, but the characters are also uneasy with modernity. Heather’s insistence that “it's very hard to get lost in America these days” is a source of disappointment as much as hope. They have come looking for something beyond the city borders, something that happens outside of their urban lives. They fret and kvetch about mod-cons while utterly relying on them: compasses, cars, torches, snack bars. They look for proof of the supernatural, and are sorry when they find it.
The wild haunts them. The characters reference the film Deliverance; Mike, particularly, is convinced early on that rural locals are messing with them. But the film leaves this hanging; there is no explanation. Is someone making strange twig-dollies and practising al fresco dentistry in the woods, or something? We’ll never know.
There is the promise of a Lovecraftian reading, of a backwoods cult worshipping and summoning a nebulous force in the deep forest; but there is more of the M. R. James sort of horror, of something being disturbed, something that is only ever glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, in the whip pan of a camera, in the pixelated grain of lo-fi video.
The strange symbols and unfathomable customs of whatever is tracking them through the woods hint at a far older horror, a horror that goes back to the very beginnings of civilization, before homo sapiens was alone in the world. In the beginning, we were not the only humans; the woods were full of other people, other species of human like the Denisovans or Neanderthals, who made strange decorations of branches and flowers. People who lived differently, spoke differently, thought differently, who were unknowable and unnerving.
This is the horror that humans, safe behind their city walls, have carried with them through the millennia: that we may not be alone. If we go down to the woods today, we might not return.
For more on unexpected ‘90s indie movie hits, try our rewatch of The Usual Suspects: