In a world in which the internet has been effectively assimilated into everyday life, it is easy to forget the period of time where it was still novel and people were still figuring out how to harness it. Today, every film that is released has a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and an online marketing campaign. Back in 1999, these concepts were nowhere near conception, let alone implementation. In a lot of ways, the late 90s was a transition period in Hollywood, as technology, CGI in particular, began to improve by leaps and bounds every year. Looking back at some of the special effects used in in the early-to-mid 90s, in a way they look more rudimentary than even the Ray Harryhausen creatures of classic Hollywood to the eyes of modern moviegoers.
There have been plenty of transitional moments in the film industry. In almost every instance, a handful of people prove to be ahead of the curve; some are visionaries, some stumble into it on blind luck. Regardless, their films end up becoming a foundational text or touchstone for many films to follow, inspiring others to make films and inspiring studios to make cheaper knock offs to capitalize on the success of that initial work.
1999’s The Blair Witch Project is one such film. It was made for less than $100,000 and went on to gross $248 million domestically. It was filmed using handheld cameras in the hands of the actors themselves. In the 17 years since its release, it has spawned a terrible, studio-rushed sequel that bombed, and a slew of found footage imitators in the horror genre. It also shares film DNA with modern blockbusters like the Bourne franchise, which also employs a shaky cam style of filmmaking to create an artificial sense of reality for what is happening onscreen. The film didn’t invent the technique, nor were they the first to make a found footage horror film, but its runaway success, aided by the brilliant for its time marketing of the film online, helped make those elements more mainstream than they previously were.
The Blair Witch Project, to this day, remains one of the scariest movies I have ever seen in my life. Apparently this is a controversial or foolish statement to some. In my mind, it has not received nearly the amount of recognition it is due in the genre. I believe part of that has to do with the backlash to the film.
The film was marketed by the studio as being a real-life incident. The website for the film kept up this façade too. Also, found footage films were not something that was commonplace for most audiences at the time. A lot of people swore it was a true story because of the style of the filmmaking and the website that purported that all of it was true. Most people eventually came around to realizing that it was not a real documentary, and a backlash transpired where people wanted their money back, thought it was stupid, and were annoyed that the actors involved weren’t really dead. The fact is that they probably just didn’t like that they were so easily taken for the proverbial ride and were so easily duped into believing it was real. People don’t like feeling foolish. I think that is part of the reason why the film does not quite resonate in the same way that many horror classics have with audiences over time. Perhaps some people also hate the found footage genre and blame it for the slew of films that came in its wake (as if that were the fault of the film). Some people probably just can’t stomach the shaky cam footage.
Get past the backlash, get past the nausea-inducing camerawork, and you have a film that continues to unsettle me. Horror is a genre that can be wildly divisive in terms of what people find effective in it. For me, more than Freddy Krueger or vampires, or even ghosts and witches specifically, what represents effective and affecting horror is the unknown. While I enjoy a wide variety of films, including a wide range of horror, generally speaking, the truism of “less is more” is the most useful tool a horror film can have in its bag of tricks. There is a finality and a concreteness to seeing something onscreen, the big reveal. Done properly, though, nothing is more effective than hinting at something and leaving the whole picture to the imagination of the viewer.
The Blair Witch Project is a film that leaves much to the imagination. We never see the witch. We never see what is making noise out in the woods at nighttime as the terrified victims point their cameras out into the murky blackness of the surrounding forest. We hear noises out along the periphery of their camp. Someone throwing stones? Someone stepping on broken branches? Wailing? We see hands on the outside of the tent and hear little kids, but we never see them. And the haunting closing shot doesn’t reveal anything. Nothing is ever overtly revealed, all is shrouded by the darkness of night and trees. And yet, with each passing night, whatever is out there encroaches upon them, circles in closer, almost as if the forest were subtly coming alive and threatening to envelope them.
And here we come to the unspoken truth of the movie: the woods can be f^&%ing terrifying. Despite mankind’s ever expanding growth and the depletion of forests, there is an immutable, inflexible nature to the woods; trees and plants that have been there and grown long before you were born, and will continue to do so long after you die. At times, being out amongst nature, it can sound as though it is teeming with life, and then it can suddenly be eerily silent. In the right light, or lack of light perhaps, that can turn from peaceful and tranquil to threatening and imposing. I think this is an aspect of the film that is perhaps lost upon people who grow up living in major cities or suburbs. I think the mindset is that it’s just a couple of trees and don’t understand what the big deal is because they’ve never been out there.
I grew up in a small town in Maine, not in a place that could be described as backwoods, but on the outskirts of town, on a street with seven houses and a lot of surrounding woods. I distinctly remember coming home from having seen The Blair Witch Project late summer night an being completely unnerved by the fact that the head of my bed was directly under my window that was 10 feet from the tree line. It was also a pretty windy night too. Needless to say, after seeing that movie, my ears were uniquely attuned to any noises outside my window. I was spooked.
Perhaps the best way I can describe it is to relate it to the vastness of the ocean. As humans, we live above the water, but when we are in the water, there is a whole unknown world right below us that we cannot see clearly and are oblivious to much of its activity. What makes Jaws such a powerful thriller is that the activity below the water comes up and literally swallows people that are entering its habitat, a habitat that is not our own. In the Blair Witch Project, as well as in a movie like The Witch, the woods these characters enter into is not their natural habitat. Maybe at one time it was Man’s natural habitat, but civilization, in some form, has become our artificial habitat. Entering into it is like entering into the water in Jaws. What is “below the surface” is lurking and threatening to swallow you up.
This weekend features an unexpected sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Early reviews are mixed. There was really no way that it could come close to matching cultural phenomenon or the box office numbers that the original movie produced back in the summer of 1999. The world was different, the audience was different. It hit upon something that turned out to be movie magic for it at that time. I haven’t seen The Blair Witch Project in at least a few years, but I still occasionally think of it and my initial reaction to it walking out of the theater. I don’t really know where it falls in the general discussion of horror movies, but it feels like it has become underrated and a little looked-over when it comes to discussing scary movies. Seventeen years later, I still vividly remember my viewing experience and how the movie stayed with me. It remains one of the scariest movies I have ever seen because of that.