The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sanchez (Dir.), Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams
We have reached it. Like Alice descending back into the madness that is Wonderland, we have come upon our own world through the looking glass. However, instead of demanding and size-altering cakes, Jesus allegories and caterpillars with severe opiate addictions, we have handheld cameras, horrible cinematography, worse acting, predictable plots and night vision, OH THE NIGHT VISION! Yes, my intrepid readers, after my years of waltzing around the desolate wasteland that is handheld-horror, witnessing the sagging and putrid corpses of The Last Exorcism, the maggot infested Paranormal Activity, the bloated remains of Paranormal Activity 2 and the unfortunately puss-spewing, self-defecated, smells-like-that-one-time-at-my-grandmother’s-place-that-we-don’t-like-to-talk-about-in-polite-company mess that was Quarantine, we have come to the epicenter of it all, the ground zero of crud, the patient zero of virulent cinematic laziness: The Blair Witch Project. Believe it or not, I had never taken the Kurtzian plunge into this ‘Found Footage’ Heart of Darkness. I remember when it was released back in the late 90’s, how it took the world by storm, how everyone naive enough to believe the epitaph at the beginning of Fargo thought that these three kids had been murdered in the woods, how this thing, which cost around $20K to make, ended up breaking the $240 million barrier. It was an event. An event to which I hadn’t been invited.
Now, like an aging and sagging Sylvester Stallone, I’ve been called into the field for one last mission (with the added bonus that I can actually form sentences instead of treating words as though my mouth is a verbal pulverizer). Yes, armed with an old fashioned in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, my favorite lady-blogger at my side, we took the first, regrettable steps into the world of Burkittsville, Maryland. And oh, the horror…the horror… Well, actually, let’s be frank. It wasn’t that bad. Maybe I was drunk. Maybe I passed out. I’m not responsible for my actions. But in between snotty close-ups, constant screaming of the some permutation of ‘fucking man’, ‘man fucking’, ‘fuck man fuck’, ‘man, man fuck, fuck’ and the immortal, ‘fuckity man in the man with the fucking fucked fuck man fuck balls’, this thing has certainly earned its place on the shelf of classic horror. As a connoisseur of the ‘Found Footage’ horror genre (is ‘connoisseur’ the right word? Can one have a refined palate for the sewage run-off of an old-folks home intended for people with IBS?) I’ve seen pretty much everything they have to offer. From the in-part wonderfully crafted The Last Exorcism that ended with the filmmakers ejaculating acid into the eyes of their viewers in the final minutes, to the utterly useless and boring Paranormal Activity 2, I’ve seen ‘Documentaries Gone Awry’, ‘Surveillance Cameras Seeing Weird Things’ and ‘Hot News Reporter Interrupts Her Oncoming Porno Featuring a Number of Well-Hung Firemen with a Zombie Outbreak’ but I’ve never observed the seed from which all things grew. Now, I have spent many, many an evening sitting through these things, shakier than a coin-operated bed, dumber than cat with its head stuck up its own ass, and jumpier than Marilyn Monroe at a ‘Butt-Squeezing’ convention and, honestly, I’ve never been scared. HEAR THAT, INTERNET? I’VE NEVER BEEN SCARED. Yes, Paranormal Activity, that poster-child of ‘new horror’ was duller than a paint drying competition. Oh no! It’s JUMPY! Fuck that. And Quarantine had about 3 legitimate nerve-wracking moments in its entire 90 minute runtime. Even The Last Exorcism (which is the cause of perhaps my longest and bluest-of-face rants) had a truly fascinating idea at its core, leaping back and forth over the line of creepy ambiguity…until the mutherfuckers pull a Rosemary’s Baby in the last 2 minutes of the film and murder EVERYONE. I was infuriated. What may have begun as an edgy and new take on a tired formula has become an industry norm, a crutch, the reality television of movie making. It requires no real cinematographer and a director with only the most basic visual sense. Even the plotting at this point has simply flittered out the window. And the question that fails each and every one of these fucking movies (let’s be clear, here is a list of ‘these fucking movies’: The Last Exorcism, Apollo 17, The Devil Inside, Cloverfield, Chronicle Quarantine, Rec, Rec 2, Paranormal Activity, Paranormal Activity 2, Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, Paranormal If-The-Make-Another-One-I’m-Going-To-Burn-This-Place-To-The-Ground) is a simple one. Why is the camera there? Perhaps it makes sense and thematically fits during the first act, but by the time there’s screaming and running and dark spaces and people getting murdered…why doesn’t the camera man think to DROP THE CAMERA AND RUN? What is this? National Fucking Geographic? Are they looking for the Nobel Prize in Dumb Shit Nobody Cares About (I think Denise Richards won that once…OH WILD THINGS BURN!)? Movie after movie, the suspension of disbelief is drawn so taught, it might as well be Kirstie Alley’s thong. It’s a cheap art form. It’s an easy art form. And it’s a dumb art form.
So, like Dorothy approaching the man behind the curtain, I had some questions for this mother of movie mongoloids. The Blair Witch Project, if it didn’t begin the entire subgenre, it certainly made it more appealing than bacon to a, well, anyone. Because it’s bacon. If you don’t love it; you don’t have a soul. So, to the uninitiated, The Blair Witch Project was touted as raw footage found left behind by three students creating a documentary about the super spooky Blair Witch of Burkittsville, MD. What begins as an incredibly, annoying, amateurish series of murky shots sprinkled with the ass-juice of complete ineptitude, soon becomes, well, more of exactly that and continues for the length of these boring-ass 81 minutes. It felt like 3 hours. I believe that Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity needs a new caveat. Time dilates when you approach the speed of light or if you turn on this fucking movie. But, that said, I didn’t not-enjoy it. There are a number of reasons why this is remembered and why it was so ground-breaking at the time. Firstly, it plays with the concept of American Folklore. As a country, the US has borrowed from every culture on the planet, stealing whatever mythological past it can to fill its story-telling tradition with color. There are shockingly few legitimate American folk tales. Other than guys who sleep too long and oxen that ate too many blueberry Wonka bubblegum, there isn’t a whole lot of tales to tell the kiddly-winks. The initial pieces of the documentary where they aren’t in the woods does an excellent job of generating this collective oral history of this thing living in Burkittsville. You never really are offered a coherent version of the witch. Sometimes she’s hairy, sometimes she floats, sometimes she encourages people to murder other people…instead of crafting a fully-formed image of this never-seen malevolence, you’re only offered disparate coordinates of an unfinished mosaic. And so, as the events of the movie unfold, the unknowability of what is going to occur builds by the second. There are little stone piles here and there, shouts in the woods, KY jelly on backpacks and little straw dudes littering the trees. Then, when it’s all said and done, everyone dies. It’s cute.
Here’s the question: is it scary? That requires an easy and emphatic: NO. Granted, it plays the game of less is more with the creepiness of the forest. They also do an incredible job of keeping the verite style in tact throughout the runtime. You never seen anything explicit, CGI-ed or false. These kids were literally lost in the woods and chased around by the directors, a sick Hunger Games-esque escapade ending with them trapped in a deserted house and running around using camera night-vision like idiots. The dialogue is painful. The characters are unlikeable, especially Head-Band Girl (I think her name was Heather, but her egregious practice of uncovering her forehead at all times required a different moniker). They’re all idiots. They’re all grating. And they all feel like real people. Though at first I wanted to push Head-Band Girl through a plate-glass window, it became abundantly clear throughout the film that this was the filmmaker’s intention. With the pretense of jumpy scares removed, the possibility of seeing creepy things practically nil, The Blair Witch Project endeavors to be about more than simply wetting some date-night panties (and not in the good way…unless you’re into that kind of thing) and about the nature of US folklore and filmmaking itself. Pretty much all of the uneasy stuff occurs at night without any visual aid…so all we’re offered is constant audio of people weeping and asking over and over, “What the fuck is that, man?” (If I hear someone call another person ‘man’ and his name isn’t ‘The Dude’ I will push their dangly bits into a sausage maker. ARGH). And nothing really happens. Ever. It’s like Waiting For Godot, with a lot more swearing, a lot less existentialism and 100% more terrible headbands. When asked why Head-Band girl constantly films everything that is occurring, one of her ill-fated comrades posits that perhaps she is constantly trying to keep the reality away using the camera as a barrier. While these terrifying and dangerous events unfold, she’s hiding and pretending it’s all a fantasy. We, as a country, secretly strive for more folklore, what with our men with hooks for hands and everything that was the basis for that turd-bucket of a Jared Leto vehicle that was Urban Legend, we want these scary tales to be true…but when they are, we’re not emotionally prepared to face the horror. We are no Theseus, charging against the minotaur…we’re one of those damn virgins who, let’s be honest, probably did the dirty Sanchez the first dude they could find before being tossed into the Labyrinth.
So, no, The Blair Witch Project, isn’t particularly good, or enjoyable, or watchable, or worthwhile…but it is a fascinating piece of filmmaking simply from a historical perspective. They did something new and, for their meager goals, they succeeded. Every imitator that has come since has failed to capitalize on the basic principles that made this what it is. Perhaps Paranormal Activity came close but, seriously, that movie was about as shocking as that time I thought I wasn’t wearing matching socks when, really, they were actually matching. It’s about a ‘2’ on the scare-o-meter. Give me The Shining or The Ring or The Thing any day. But Hollywood never learns. I mean, this is the place that made FOUR Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Paranormal Activity 4 hasn’t even finished its opening weekend and they’re already projecting movies 5 and 6. It took Saw, a series where EVERY CHARACTER DIES IN EVERY INSTALLMENT, seven, that’s right, folks, seven mutherfucking films before it finally died. And guess what? They’ll probably reboot it in 2 years. They’re already rebooting the reboot of the sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So, carry on, you reckless fools, continue on your charge into the Tartarus of cinematic sludge. Bombard us with tale after tale of the purest mediocrity and banal boredom. Suck from that already drying teat as long as you can, until your gums bleed and your tongue is rougher than moldy sandpaper. Just as bullet-time eventually died out after The Matrix so will this infuriating Found Footage fad. Perhaps you can finally make some good horror movies. Assholes.
But until then, I’m sure you will hear my screams of fury from here to Timbuktu. Or…until my next article on Sinister.
Ugh. What am I doing with my life?