Halloween Horror: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Having finally watched The Blair Witch Project, I understand why Hollywood keeps pumping out found footage horror films. And this is coming from someone who also loved Paranormal Activity and REC, and found The Last Exorcism a sadly undervalued piece of cinema. But unlike these films, however good they are, The Blair Witch Project is the holy grail of found footage, where every element is working together in perfect harmony, creating a convincing, horrifying film that never wavers from its central conceit: that everything you are seeing is real. Hollywood believes that if only it can make a movie that captures a bit of the visceral horror of The Blair Witch Project, they’ll have an automatic hit on their hands — and they’re kind of right.

Cannibal Holocaust solidified the genre in 1980, even if elements of it can be found in older horror movies like Peeping Tom. But it took The Blair Witch Project for found footage to go mainstream. And it took awhile for Hollywood to catch on. Torture porn had to first run its course before Hollywood would be reminded of how effective found footage was. The remarkable success of Paranormal Activity jogged Hollywood’s memory, as if it ran an electroshock through producers’ brains, saying, “This is scary and cheap to make. We should make more of these.”

Found footage films are remarkably cost effective. They are cheap to make, since looking homemade and rough is part of the aesthetic. Horror films live or die on whether the events onscreen seem convincing to audience members, and found footage films are inherently displayed as records of reality. All it takes is a bit of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience and the gap is bridged.

There are a few aspects of The Blair Witch Project that keep it being remarkable 14 years after it was released. The first is the authenticity of its aesthetic. Being filmed on SD camera footage actually makes the film seem more believable. I’m reminded of a comment David Lynch made in Catching the Big Fish about filming on HD. With HD, you can see clearly that the metal nails in the background of the shot are not actually metal. It’s distracting, bringing you out of the dream world of the film. With SD, the quality is more hazy, and you’re mind begins to wander.

This isn’t ideal for all films, but for horror films, where the reality of the situation unfolding is of paramount importance, the hazy quality of SD makes us imagine things on the screen that are not there. The aesthetic of the film actually gets you into the proper mental state to be scared, just by virtue of being fuzzy and raw. Think of the scenes at night when the Blair Witch is apparently terrorizing the tent of filmmakers, and Heather rushes outside to film whatever it is that’s scaring them. You don’t see anything, but your mind makes you think you might have.

However, this realistic, hazy aesthetic would be useless if the acting was bad. Luckily, The Blair Witch Project probably has the best acting of any found footage horror film, mainly because the actors don’t seem to be performing. In Paranormal Activity, the acting of the daytime scenes strains the credibility of the performers. Or maybe, over the years, our familiarity to pranks on YouTube and reality television has made us more sensitive to false acting disguising itself as reality. Regardless of the reason, the acting in The Blair Witch Project never falters. It’s not showy. It’s subtle and occasionally mundane.

Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez apparently kept the actors in a state of constant agitation, withholding food, rest, or navigational tools to replicate their characters’ situation. However cruel the methods, the results are up on the screen to enjoy. The finale is a testament to the madness this film documents. You don’t know whether the characters have gone insane, or are finally meeting the Blair Witch. You witness the mental degradation and desperation of these people lost in the woods, misunderstanding their own resourcefulness and belittling the strange powers out there in the world.

The Blair Witch Project would probably be terrifying if it was only about filmmakers lost in the woods. It plays off our fear of the wilderness and our inability to conquer the natural world. It also plays into the history of bloodshed and mistreatment that permeates the American heritage. The history of America is wrapped in blood and evil, it says. You don’t want to awaken these ancient evils. Because once the evil is awoken, it will never stop pursuing.

There’s nothing as scary as being helpless. The Blair Witch Project makes us watch 81 minutes of people being helpless against the mysterious evils of the world. And it's terrifying.

9 out of 10

The Blair Witch Project (1999, USA)

Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez; starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.