Well, the month of October is over, but that does not mean the extravaganza has to come to a stop! This week had the spookiest days of the month in it and it only seems right that the final entry would be my choice for the truest horror movie of all time, The Blair Witch Project. Now before you immediately hit the back button and judge me and my opinion based on one sentence, let me clarify some things and try to help you see things the way I do.
First of all, I never said scariest movie ever. Some of you deeper horror heads probably have movies that would make The Blair Witch look like Thomas the Tank Engine. Thirdly, or whatever number we are on, like it or not, The Blair Witch Project injected life into a genre that, at the time, had become stale and almost secondary. The world of low-budget horror movies has brought us a lot of duds but also some of the best movies the genre has to offer. No longer did your horror movie need a huge star and a H.R. Giger-designed monster to be a successfull scary movie. So, without further ado, let's jump in and talk about why getting stuck in the woods is so damn scary. Major spoilers ahead yadda yadda yadda.
I'm sure that most of you, if not all, know the basic outline for The Blair Witch Project. But in case you don't or it has been a while since you have watched it, I have a paragraph with your name written all over it. Three young filmmakers venture into the Burkettsville woods in search of the Blair Witch, who all of the residents of Burkettsville (formerly Blair), Maryland seem to have a different story about. Some believe she is a true witch, haunting the woods and drawing people in only to never let them leave. Others believe it is just an old tale told to get children in bed on time or even possibly a story about a man who murdered children that has become bastardized over time.
Whatever you believe the truth to be all of the stories give the viewer a different feeling of unease. The first in a long line of brilliant film making by directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Giving the viewer all of these different and sometimes conflicting tales of the Blair Witch just begins to get the imagination going without giving anything away. By the end of the storytelling portion of the movie we have had a little chat with Mary Brown who looks like she could be a witch of some kind herself. In her version of the events Brown talks about the witch having "rough black fur" all over her body. What an incredibly frightening mental image to plant in the viewers head and one that I really have never forgotten.
As the Gang moves deeper into the woods we learn a bit more about our protagonists. While none of the characters are exceptionally exciting or polarizing this works for the benefit of the movie. Heather, Mike and Josh all genuinely feel like real people which is crucial in a movie that is billed as "footage found in the woods".
The characters sharing the same names as the actors that played them is an obvious way to build the found footage reality but the directors had some other ingenious ways to achieve this. Some of the townspeople interviewed at the beginning of the movie were paid actors but some were real resident of the town the movie was filmed in. The real actors were not told which were true interviews and which were scripted and this is an idea that permeates through the whole movie.
During the filming in the wooded sections of the move the directors left the actors relatively alone in the woods. They were given instructions by way of notes in film canisters that would be left for the actors to find daily. The notes were about everything from directions to the next campsite to different character instructions that would be kept from the rest of the cast. This helped the actors stay improvisational and catch each other off guard with story elements like Mike kicking the map into the creek. Come night the directors would terrorize the actors while they attempted to sleep in their tent allowing them to capture some of the best genuine fear ever captured in a motion picture.
This brings us to the theme portion of this article. All of the movies featured on the extravaganza have displayed strong central themes and the one at the heart of The Blair Witch Project is the comfort that we Americans feel at all times. At some point on their trek, Heather says something along the lines of "This is America, it's impossible to get lost". These characters are not necessarily stupid but they are naive which is something that most of us can admit we have been in the past.
That is really the key to this whole thing, the ability for the viewer to put themselves in Heather's, Mike's or Josh's walking boots. Every time I watch this movie I feel less and less like I could handle being lost in the woods for even 6 hours let alone days upon days. The real horror of this movie is not the monster but the feeling of losing control when you feel completely in control, an issue that plagues most young Americans every single day.
Now since I mentioned the "monster" in that last paragraph I think now is as good a time as any to discuss the problem that most viewers have with this movie. The "you don't even see anything" argument is one that I have had many times over and these are the people who want to beat a movie rather than enjoy it for what it is. The Blair Witch Project uses the strongest tool of horror there is, the viewers imagination. No matter what the film makers had done as far as showing you the witch would have been disappointing, it's the unknown that is much more frightening.
So instead of pushing a monster on you that would ultimately been a bummer, Myrick and Sanchez drop some other little frightening stuff at you that may not even be immediately identifiable. Of course the little stick figures that the "witch" leaves for Mike, Heather and Josh are pretty damn obvious but the genius of knowing how creepy tying sticks together to make a human figure and hanging them everywhere from trees is so subtlety frightening. In the final scene when Heather and Mike are searching through the scariest house for Josh, the film makers make one of the most subtly horrifying choices I have ever seen a movie make.
Heather and Mike are both equipped with cameras for the final scene, and with Josh wailing for help from some other room in the house Mike rushes to where he believes the cries are coming from. Heather who is tired, broken and scared to death starts screaming for Josh. This is not your average movie scream, this one has some depth to it, a real sense of fear in that scream that I can still hear now in my head. How were they able to get such a great scream? If you have seen this movie like 7 times like I have you will remember the whole reason there Mike is there is to operate the boom mic. The black and white camera does not have an audio source attached to it where as the color camera does. With Heather holding the black and white camera her screams are not picked up by the camera she is holding but rather the color one that Mike is using in the basement. The echo and distance of that scream change it completely and make that scene 100 times scarier.
The Blair Witch Project is not just a horror movie, it embodies all of the things we like about movies, especially horror movies. It was made for nothing, by a very limited group of people with a great idea. Like Clerks but with more bloody teeth it gives young aspiring film makers hope that with a little vision and some interesting ideas you can make a movie that everyone on the planet has heard of. The limitations that this movie was given breeds some really great film making choices and the decisions that come more organically always work best. The Blair Witch Project is pure film making, it is just a few shades further than what we all imagined would come out when we picked up a shitty camera as a kid. It birthed an era of horror movies that we will probably look back at with disdain but when all is said and done the one that really started the trend still stands as the king koopa of found footage movies.