With Halloween bearing down quickly on us, I realized it was time, again, for my annual trip to the Blair Witch woods, to revisit and re-evaluate what I regard as one of the scariest movies ever made, “The Blair Witch Project.” The 1999 box office sensation retains the title of all-time champ.
Let us consider: “The Blair Witch Project” scared the hell out of audiences 20 years ago, introducing us to the concept of found footage, or a directed film that pretends to be a documentary in raw form. No one had ever seen such a thing in 1999 – no one. Today, of course, found footage is a genre all to itself, usually of the horror variety, and usually not any good (although “Paranormal Activity,” released in 2009, comes close to “Blair Witch”-style chills.)
The movie was a huge hit; I was unable to penetrate the long lines that greeted me the first time I attempted to see the film, in Plano, Texas, one warm July night. Later in the weekend, I achieved success, catching the movie not once but three (count em, three!!!) times. It was a strange experience, exhilarating, scary, compelling, and unexpectedly funny. It was also one of the great audience-reaction films, provoking giggles and gasps from enthusiastic, appreciative crowds. This film, along with that year’s “The Phantom Menace,” “The Matrix,” and “Fight Club,” changed the game, in a major way.
OK, but what of the movie itself? It’s still a great story. In 1994, three would-be documentary filmmakers take some rented equipment out to the Maryland woods to capture footage of the legendary Blair Witch, an evil feminine presence, long reputed to have haunted the woods, killed children, possessed men, and generally make a nuisance of herself. It begins brilliantly, with each of the filmmakers getting a brief introduction. They are Heather, the pushy, obnoxious, self-regarding director, and her camera operators, Josh and Mike, two likable (if always slightly stoned or drunk) slackers. We don’t dislike Heather, but her personality does take some getting used to. She would have made a decent Hollywood director if things had worked out differently. Mike and Josh are personable, smart, and owners of incredibly foul mouths. This movie has more F-bombs than anything this side of Tarantino.
Let us take stock of the three characters – they’re all very Nineties. Using cheap camera equipment (which they are conscious of getting back on time!), they no doubt found inspiration in the DIY style of filmmaking that reigned supreme in the early Nineties. Kevin Smith was probably a big hero of theirs, or maybe Richard Linklater or Jon Favreau. Mike and Josh look very grunge, in their muddy plaid shirts, canvas pants, boots and scruffy beards. (Heather has adopted pretty much the same style.) You can almost hear Pearl Jam, Nirvana and System of a Down playing in the background. The movie is a perfect window in the attitudes of its time.
Let’s also consider the technology. There’s not a single digital doo-dad or cell phone in the movie. Would GPS have saved these kids from their fate? Would an iPhone have been the answer to all their problems? As it is, they’re limping around with a map that is so ineffective that, at one point, a character foolishly kicks it into a creek. Seriously, who uses a map anymore? By today’s standards, 1994 might as well have been 1934. It’s no wonder these kids get so badly lost.
At the heart of the film is, of course, the mystery of the Blair Witch, but the real drama is what happens between the kids. The group dynamic is one of tension, distrust, suspicion, and, ultimately, paranoia. We don’t know if these three were friends before the story began; they certainly don’t end up that way. As the danger increases, they become a bigger threat to themselves (and each other) than the witch … which might, of course, be part of the supernatural aspect of the story. Is the witch driving them insane, turning them against each other? Was Mike persuaded to dispose of the map? Have they intentionally been led astray, far from the trail, into the woods? Why is it they seem to be wandering in circles, unable to read their own compass? Do the laws of nature and physics no longer apply? Have they entered an alternate reality? Wouldn’t it have been funny if our wandering heroes stumbled accidentally into the cast of “The Village”?
The movie is spine-tingling in its you-are-there atmosphere; some scenes, especially the one where they’re visited in the middle of the night by something that sounds approximately like a squalling baby, are absolutely terrifying. The three actors playing Josh, Heather and Mike are never anything less than convincing; it would be hard seeing them in different roles. The woods are scary, enigmatic, cold, dead. The folktales related at the beginning of the movie are hair-raising, both in their details and in what they leave to the imagination. Just as there would seem to be multiple ways out of the woods for our doomed young heroes, there seem to be as many explanations for what they’re experiencing, what (or who) may or may not be stalking them.
Then there’s the conclusion, which takes place in the most literal description of a haunted house I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen lots of haunted house movies. This old hell house in the middle of the woods (which strangely never appears until the “witch” wants it to) is terrifying, yet we understand totally why the two remaining cast members would feel compelled to enter. They have no choice; their friend might be inside, and if he is, he’s in terrible, mortal danger. Wait, are those bloody handprints on the walls? Handprints of … children? Oh, let us not linger here too long.
The movie ends as it probably should, on exactly the right note, giving us a definitive answer without taking anything away from the mystery of the Blair Witch. We know what happens, but we don’t know how, or why. We never actually see the witch, but is there any other explanation for what we’ve seen? Sure, it could be a bunch of lunatic rednecks, but … really? Everything we’ve seen and heard up until the final shot seems to point to something else.
Yet the ending doesn’t at all feel depressing or unnecessary. Some movies are too brutal for their own good; the blood quotient detracts from the suspense. This is a movie that demands you pay attention and listen; if you’re in the market for mindless violence, CGI creatures, actors in masks, or easy answers that are comprehensible and comprehensive, this isn’t for you. I wouldn’t even call this movie a classic; it still feels too edgy for that, and classics are generally set in stone. “The Blair Witch Project” remains a living document, a horror movie that is more about the human condition than the supernatural. It is alive, and surreal, and exists on a level of its own. Nothing else can touch it.