I'm afraid to close my eyes, I'm afraid to open them
I’ve now see Blair Witch Project four times, which puts it in pretty elite territory. It helps that the movie is barely 80 minutes, so it’s easy to talk myself to throw it on, but mostly I keep watching because a couple years will pass and I’ll wonder if the magic trick has worn off. How could I possibly react so strongly to something so simple?
I’ll hit play, and for the first 30 minutes or so, I’ll decide I’ve finally gotten over this movie. Its presentation is just too extreme and minimal to immerse me. And then, like clockwork, I’ll start to get unnerved just around the time that they lose the map, and over the next few scenes, I gradually become a cowering puddle in the corner. At this point, I know by heart what will happen — that we will never see anything explicitly grisly on screen — but I still have to watch those last few minutes through the gaps between my fingers.
I’m not sure the movie requires much introduction: In handheld camcorder footage, we watch three young adults, Heather (Rei Hance, nee Heather Donahue), Mike (Michael C. Williams), and Josh (Joshua Leonard) attempt to create a documentary about a Maryland legend of a witch in the woods. The movie is composed completely of footage that the filmmaker characters supposedly shot as part of creating the fictional documentary. More simply, this is a found footage movie back before that was common parlance — in fact, this is the film that codified the format. (For a few years, my friends and I called all found footage movies “Blair Witch-style” films.)
Just as famous as the premise is the guerrilla Internet marketing techniques used to promote the film. The low-budget production was advertised as real camera footage that had been found. The marketing team created fake blogs discussing the incident as if it had really happened. The actors, who are essentially playing themselves in the movie, updated their online bios to say “presumed deceased.” I doubt any sizable portion of the audience actually believed that it was real, but it got a lot of buzz. The allure of witnessing something feigning as reality, then a novel concept, was definitely part of the film’s blockbuster success.
The execution is brutally simple. It leverages to perfection that old horror axiom: The things we can’t see but can only imagine are scarier than the things right in front of us. The spooky content of Blair Witch is little more than a rustling tent and distant footsteps. There’s the occasional eerie pile of rocks or sticks. And yet it’s so chilling. Placing us in the eyes and minds of the characters, with no cinematic technique to introduce separation between the film and the viewer, charges everything with psychological tension.
Visually, the low fidelity and lack of composition is a feature, not a bug, building a sense of immersion and ambiguity. We often don’t see much except shaky footage of trees and leaves. When Heather gets a horrifying delivery wrapped in sticks one morning, she’s so freaked out, she can’t hold the camera steady, so we can’t see it all that clearly. This puts us even deeper in the mental situation of the characters — more than an clean, clear shot of the bloody bundle could.
The three characters are very indistinct with not much in the way of backstory or depth. This, again, feels like both an intentional bit of naturalism and a psychological tactic of the film. If you’re working with new colleagues for the first time, you’re probably going to make mediocre chit-chat, not casually narrate your life story. This also allows the trio to become generic ciphers for the rest of the scares. We’re thinking less about what these specific characters are feeling and more about what we might feel if we were there.
What’s more avoidable and problematic is that the characters are kind of annoying whiners. While it’s easy to empathize with their breakdown as their reality spirals, they’re all three fairly prickly, especially Heather, whose voice we hear most often as the main camera operator. (She has a terrific, horrifying scream when the scenario calls for it, though.)
There are a few iconic visuals, none more memorable than a close-up where Heather admits she thinks she’s going to die and that it’s her fault. This is the one moment where I wish the film had gone more cinematic and punched up her lines for dramatic effect. Give her monologue something existential or iconic I could quote out of context. Oh well; it works as a moment anyways. The composition is so effective, it pulls the viewer into the same sense of despair that Heather is feeling.
The ending is an astonishing feat of minimalism, showing exactly what needs to be shown to confirm a grisly, haunted fate for our trio, but leaving the details to our imaginations. The final descent into a haunted house in the last few minutes is heart-poundingly scary and disorienting. Just a riveting finale and feat of tension. I surely won’t ever forget that famous final shot: It’s nothing, really, but also a payoff on the characters’ crumbling sanity and everything we’ve learned about the Blair Witch legend early in the film.
(I live fairly close to the shooting location of the movie, including the historic Griggs House of the conclusion. I would consider an expedition, but it has since been torn down — in fact, because of people like me undertaking pilgrimages.)
The Blair Witch Project is a real triumph of a creative concept executed perfectly. It’s stripped down to its simplest form, almost artlessly so, but it packs a huge punch. It’s one of my favorite horror movies. I can’t wait to watch it a fifth time.