Legend has it that in October 1994, three film students disappeared after travelling into the woods of Maryland to make a documentary about the local Blair witch legend, leaving only their footage behind…
On Halloween 1999, the contents of my bladder disappeared after I travelled to my local multiplex to watch said footage, leaving only my dignity behind…
Of course The Blair Witch Project wasn’t real – it was just a very clever movie, a thrilling exercise in tension that blurred the lines between fiction and reality. But in the year that Pokemon was making kids go crazy, Ricky Martin was making ears bleed and The Phantom Menace was making Star Wars fans wonder what the hell George Lucas had been smoking, the shuddersome surprise cinematic hit of the year, made with about as much cash as Lucasfilm probably set aside for catering, really made you want to believe that this could all be true. Had I been old enough to buy beer at the time, I surely would have sneaked a few cold ones into the theatre that night to calm my nerves, which were already jangling with intensity due to the masterfully eerie whirlwind of hype that surrounded the picture.
These were days long before Youtube, Twitter, Facebook or even Myspace changed the way that studios peddle their wares, yet Blair Witch, the brainchild of filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, would set a high benchmark for online viral marketing campaigns, using the web for a genius assault of pre-emptive hyping that single-handedly altered the direction of movie promotion. With rumours circulating online message boards, combined with canny advertising that speculated that these tapes were genuine, long before it hit screens, the film, shot for a paltry $25,000, had already managed to set pulses racing. Like the picture itself, this sagacious P.R. campaign was all about getting inside people’s heads and under their skin, preying on their fears and making grown men blub like little babies. It certainly worked on me. This was psychological horror, mercilessly, perfectly executed, and it would see the film become one of the most successful indie movies of all time.
But thirteen years on, a lot has changed in horror cinema, with the Hostel and Saw franchises taking horror to sickeningly graphic new places. With the Paranormal Activity series pulling off exciting, sinister new tricks with the ‘found footage’ format, how does The Blair Witch Project stand up? Were we right to be scared out of our tiny little minds to pant-wetting levels back in the Autumn of Santana and Slim Shady? Or were we all just a bunch of pussies? With this year’s Halloween fast approaching, I realised I hadn’t seen this one in a long time, so I decided to give it a watch with a fresh set of eyes, to see if I could manage to keep my shit together.
With the lights dimmed, curtains drawn, the closet checked for monsters and the first beer sunk to settle the nerves, off we go, travelling back to ominous woods ofBurkitsville,Maryland. Sticking strictly to the codes and conventions of the documentary genre, right from the start the filmmakers do a great job of building up a real sense of authenticity. Myrick and Sanchez allegedly gave their stars an incredibly loose script outline then encouraged them to improvise their asses off, without explaining to them precisely what was awaiting them in the woods, in order to elicit more genuine reactions from them. It is a gambit that pays off in spades.
Through hand-held first person video footage, we are introduced to our three main characters, Josh (Joshua Leonard, beardy), Mike (Michael C. Williams, not beardy) and Heather (Heather Donahue, self-assured, annoying, will-surely-pay-with-her-life-for-being-such-a-bitch). The build-up seems deliberately dull and slow, with scenes of the guys meeting up at each other’s houses, visiting the supermarket for supplies and generally just getting ready for the ‘project.’ It’s a bit meandering, yet clearly adds to the sense that these are real, home-made videos. When we inexplicably zoom in on a bag of marshmallows, or the guys turn the camera on each other in that annoying ‘I-know-you-don’t-want-to-be-filmed-but-I’m-gonna-do-it-anyway-to-bug-you-cos-it’s-funny’ sort of way, you believe it, because this is the sort of mindless, silly stuff that kids get up to when they get their hands on a camcorder. Also, this was made before the digital revolution, so the film stock really has that satisfyingly cheap, grimy, homemade feel about it. It works. Though the film doesn’t go anywhere fast, you let it cast its spell on you and take you where it wants you to go. Unlike similar flicks, like Cloverfield, where you may constantly find yourself wondering why the hell the dude keeps on filming when all this shit is going down, here the documentary aspect gives them a very legitimate reason to keep the cameras rolling. Crucially, you buy into it.
Before the gang head off into the woods, helpful exposition is provided by a series of short interviews done with the Burkitsville townsfolk, quizzing them on the Blair Witch legend. This is a clever device, as the talking heads seem incredibly genuine, giving this a degree of realism lacking from the Paranormal Activity stable. These scenes could easily be part of a Discovery Channel documentary, making it easy to see why so many people allowed this film to bewitch them. Scraps of information are gleamed about ghosts, legends, child murders and a mysterious presence in the trees that drives men to kill. When one woman cheerfully exclaims ‘I believe enough not go up there!’ you may find yourself feeling precisely the same way.
One final unnerving interview with the skeletal, freaky-looking ‘Scary’ Mary, who claims to have had a run-in with the witch, compounds the feelings the audience must already have that this is most certainly going to be a one-way-ride for these pesky, snooping kids. Despite numerous warnings of ghoulish goings-on, the guys take no heed and decide to mosey on up to the woods anyways, with the domineering Heather blindly leading the charge.