The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999. My wife and I saw it in the theatre, and this was before we had kids and were able to fully appreciate this piece of art.
Why call it art? Because a small group of people with little money made something amazing, that spawned a whole host of imitators (Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, and many others), that was able to create something in our minds that was forever off camera. I’m not revealing anything when I tell you that no one ever sees the Witch. That’s not the point. The movie would have been a straight-to-video crap-fest if at the end a witch appeared in a low-cut dress and a lot of black eye-shadow.
The movie first tells us that three kids went into the woods to shoot a documentary. They were never found, but their film was. The makers of the movie put the footage together. Of course we don’t believe that, but the movie is trying hard and so we happily suspend our disbelief. An audience is ecstatic when this is easy.
|Very small hands made these bloody handprints.|
The film begins with the three scruffy filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard)coming to Burkitsville, Maryland, to shoot a documentary on the Blair Witch. A hermit murdered several children in the woods in the 1940’s and he insisted that the spirit of Elly Kedward, a witch who was hanged in the 18th century, made him do it. An important detail – he made one child stand in the corner, face to the wall, while he murdered the other.
They enter the woods to shoot footage of Coffin Rock, where five men were found murdered in the 19th century. It is at this point that the movie takes off.
|Heather doing a stand-up before going camping.|
Later, the details came out about how the movie was made. The actors are holding the cameras because this is their documentary. One of the directors had military experience, and at night he used this to harass the actors in their tents. Little notes were left for the actors telling them the general flow of the story, but otherwise things were to be improvised. From the production side, the movie appears to be a staged and elaborate practical joke in which the victims have knowledge, but only a partial knowledge, of what it going on. Throughout the movie the actors address themselves by their real names, and I would imagine this helped demolish walls of artifice.
Those are the technical details. After shooting, the footage was edited for eight months straight. A lot of footage must have went straight in the garbage.
The finished product is magical. At night, something shakes the walls of their tents and the filmmakers scream. They’re not acting. At one point, Heather points the camera at her face inside the tent and tearfully emotes her fear. She can barely speak because she’s breathing so hard. All the veracity of a documentary has been captured and channelled into horror artifice.
When one of the filmmakers is kidnapped, the movie shifts gears and appears to head downhill. The viewer can sense death waiting patiently at the bottom, confident that these young people have no chance. At night, the kidnapped man is heard screaming horribly in the dark, and in the light of day Heather and Mike find his blood and teeth (which have been planted there by the directors).
The climax, which I won’t reveal, is perfect. The sickening sense of impending, onrushing death, of humans reduced to prey as something chases them and toys with them, is masterfully engendered, and more real than the most sophisticated CGI. And we never see anything. It’s all done with cuts, noises, and screaming. Money does not enter into the equation.
I’ve seen this movie twice. Once in the theatres (at the end everyone left in a grim silence), and once by myself when my wife was out and my kids were sleeping upstairs. That was a big mistake.
My little fantasy. I want to show this movie to my kids when they’re older. I think fifteen or sixteen will be a good age. I want to invite their know-it-all too-cool friends along as well, and I’ll tell them I have this strange documentary made in the nineties. The film footage was found in the woods and the film-makers were never found. But you should watch it; it’s very… interesting. I’ll take away their phones so they won’t figure out the joke. These are kids who will have watched hard-core porn and decapitation videos on the internet. I think it’s time they experience some old-fashioned terror.
Then I’ll sit down beside them, re-live it, and be thankful.