The Blair Witch Project (1999)
And herein lies one of the film’s major flaws – crucially, our main characters are a bit annoying. These guys clearly don’t get on with each other and they spend a good ninety per cent of the film whining and bitching at each other. It becomes clear really quickly that these guys don’t know where they are going and they aren’t shy at blaming each other for their predicament. By the time the map mysteriously vanishes, you will almost certainly need another beer to cope with their constant griping.
Heather clearly has her heart in the right place and is obviously the creative driving force behind the ‘project,’ but she comes across as pig-head, relentlessly perky and incredibly fond of the sound of her own voice. As such, Mike and Josh are not given a whole lot of room to grow as characters, so we learn very little about them, making them difficult to truly empathise with when they begin to fear for their lives, as creepy noises surround them in the night. Sadly, in this sort of film, it is simply just not as scary when you don’t feel emotionally invested in the characters enough to care if they live or die.
Yet, at the same time, as the erosion of the relationship between the trio makes the film oddly watchable. I found myself longing for Heather’s comeuppance, wondering how long it would take Mike to flip out and finally crack her one in the jaw. This is not just a film about the supernatural, but a compelling look at the disintegration of relationships under immense pressure – it’s about being hopelessly lost, at the mercy of the elements and trying to keep your nerve. Although you may end up feeling very little for the characters, the film succeeds in the intelligent way its first person camera viewpoint traps the audience in this situation with them. There is no respite, no cutaways, no shots of worried parents back home or search parties setting out to rescue them. These kids are lost and we are lost out there with them, and when they arrive back at that damn log and realise they’ve been walking for miles in one big circle, we feel just as frustrated and helpless as they do.
This is a film about tension, about fear of an idea that asks you to put yourself in this situation and ask how you would deal with it. The picture has had its detractors, those who decry its lack of involvement, identification or suspense, yet for those who are willing to give themselves up to it completely, Blair Witch manages to pull off the difficult trick of being creepy without the benefit of expensive lighting, C.G.I or flashy effects. The film’s cheapness is to its benefit, showing us very little, but feeding us just enough so that the merest glimpse of a pile of rocks or a bundle of twigs can become immensely unsettling.
It’s so damn minimalistic, that at times we’re not even sure what we’ve just seen, but the sounds of our characters reactions (‘what the FUCK is that?!?!’) are enough to let us know that it is most certainly Brown Trousers Time. The performers, to their credit, have realised that this gig is not so much about acting, but re-acting to what is going on around them and in many cases the wide-eyed look of fear on their faces is blood-chillingly believable.
Yet sinister twig-men alone do not a horror classic make. No, the real frights come whenever the lights go out, where Blair Witch reveals that the way it truly excels in messing with your head is with its satisfyingly hair-raising sound design. Each night, as our explorers attempt to sleep in their flimsy tent, distressing, unexplained noises fill the air, ensuring that they, and the audience, are freaked the fuck out. At first, the sounds are used sparingly: the sound of crackling footsteps in the distance proving just enough to cause a few sleepless nights. By the time the aural assault moves up to crying babies and bollock-tightening screams, the film has successfully cast its spell. And when whatever’s out there makes those swishy-swooshy sounds that make you realise that it’s touching the side of the tent… well, you might just find yourself wishing you’d bought a couch with a few extras inches on the edge of the seat.
Sound is key and it is masterfully, brutally effective. There is no atmospheric background music to cue you up as to when you’re supposed to get scared, no crescendos, no noisy-as-hell-oh-it-was-only-a-cat jump scares trying to catch you off-guard and make you feel silly. It’s just a well-paced, slow-burning, unrelenting build-up of tension and terror, only hinting at an unseen evil that, by the time it has you in its clutches, ain’t for letting go.
This is a film that diverges from the common Hollywoodhorror blueprint, a picture that sticks to its own set of rules and is all the better for it. Blair Witch doesn’t cheat the audience, it never shows us too much, and it remains commendably ambiguous. Too many horror films are so often about gratuitous shots of tits n’ ass, yet Myrick and Sanchez deliver a curiously sexless movie experience. There is no sexual chemistry between the leads in fact these kids would be sooner seen strangling each other than making out - and anything even remotely resembling token ‘eye candy’ spends the majority of the film behind the camera, being incredibly whiny. Blair Witch asks you to forget what you know and to expect the unexpected, and for the most part, it’s a spine-tingling riot, the stuff of nightmares.
The film has certainly aged well, though is perhaps not as completely frightening as it wants to be. The much-debated ending is either masterful or a damp squib depending on which way you allow the film to lead your expectations, and those expecting a bigger payoff may need to crack open another beer to deal with the disappointment and confusion. I, for one, find the film’s enigmatic closure to be ballsy and intelligent, though I did find it a little confusing first time around. Those not fully paying attention during the earlier scenes may find themselves scratching their heads and reaching for the rewind button as the credits roll.
Thirteen years on, Blair Witch still asks a lot of the audience. It’s a film that requires you to submit yourself fully to its eerie charms in order to work its macabre magic. In this day and age, it may not be able to compete with Paranormal Activity’s bag of jump scare tricks, but unlike its modern counterpart, it never lets up, never allows its mask of plausibility to slip and for this reason it continues to cast a fearsome shadow over the horror movie landscape. If you can allow yourself to believe that maybe, just maybe, this could all have been true, then you could very well guarantee yourself a few sleepless nights. Certainly, next time you go camping, you’ll be wanting to pack a few extra pairs of shorts.
Take a Drink: every time the guys start arguing with each other (Beware, you could be paralytic quite quickly).
Take a Drink: every time you see that damn log.
Take a Drink: every time someone becomes inexplicably frightened by a pile of twigs or rocks.
Take a Drink: every time you want to give Heather a hefty bitchslap.
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