The Blair Witch Project Review: Revisiting Those Creepy Woods
The Blair Witch Project
Review by Daniel Rester
“Hungry, cold, and hunted…”
With the upcoming release of the anticipated Blair Witch from Adam Wingard on September 16th, I found it a fitting time to revisit the original classic – The Blair Witch Project. Released in 1999, the film was a massive box office success (making upwards of $200 million on a $60,000 budget) and one of the most talked-about films of the year. Though Cannibal Holocaust (1980) may have given birth to the modern found footage subgenre, it was certainly The Blair Witch Project that popularized it. Re-watching the film after many years, I can still say it remains one of the strongest entries in the subgenre – often imitated but rarely matched.
In case you’ve been living under a rock the past seventeen years, The Blair Witch Project follows three young filmmakers as they travel to the fictional Blair, Maryland to make a documentary. The director, Heather Donoahue (playing a fictional version of herself; part of the film’s brilliant marketing), wants to capture legends in the area about the Blair Witch and a serial killer named Rustin Parr. Heather brings a cameraman, Josh (Joshua Leonard), and a sound guy, Mike (Michael C. Williams), as her only crew. The film we watch is the “found footage” of what went horribly wrong on these students’ trip to the woods near Blair in 1994.
What’s still impressive about The Blair Witch Project is that it has been around for many years and people now know that the film is fake, yet it still feels as if it could be real in many ways. It’s amazing how many people did think it was real recovered footage when the film came out, which was part of the movie’s tricky charm and marketing. From the “lost student filmmaker” posters to the internet site, the film left its mark as an experimental project becoming a pop culture phenomenon.
Watching the film again after so long, I was surprised how many times it gave me chills even though I knew certain things were coming. I think a big reason why the film works so effectively is because it does so much with so little. A lot of recent found footage films have become increasingly dull with their inconsistent found footage style of shooting, CGI, lots of death, and even music scores occasionally. The Blair Witch Project instead relies on its simple but creepy backstory in the setup to drive the characters’ increasing anxiety and the audience’s imagining of the worst. It’s as much about what it doesn’t show as what it does show in making the whole thing unsettling.
The characters’ clothes and the grittiness of the video make it totally believable that the footage was captured in the 1994 setting. The shaky, messy camerawork and the slice-and-dice editing sell the recovered footage aspect as well. Oftentimes modern found footage films feel too staged to sell their primary goal, but this film’s avant-garde style feels authentic in its capturing of the situations. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez use the characters’ fear of simple things like odd-looking stick bundles and wood-cracking sounds in the night in order to translate fear into the audience – with no use of music either. A lot of the fun of the film is found in its teasing of the audience, racking up the tension with backstory followed by character unease followed by weird occurrences.
The often ad-libbed acting of the main trio is very impressive. They create distinct personalities for Heather, Mike, and Josh, and it’s because they feel so human and not like cardboard characters that the atmosphere surrounding them becomes so palpable by the end. It’s not actually the killing onscreen in movies that scares many audiences, but the fear of something being killed before it actually happens. With the cameras intimately on these actors’ terrified faces for much of the runtime, that fear hits high levels by the end.
Speaking of the end, I actually enjoy how ambiguous it is. Many audiences felt that it was a copout and “nothing really happened.” I disagree. I think there are actually a number of different interpretations of what actually happens. (Minor spoilers ahead just in case you haven’t seen the film.) Was there actually a witch that possessed Mike and presumably killed Heather? Did Mike and Josh actually play on the Rustin Parr story with the “facing the corner” and plan to kill Heather together all along? Or was Mike not in on it and Josh just went insane? Perhaps we’ll learn the answer to this question in Blair Witch, but I actually kind of hope that we don’t.
Whether you think it’s overhyped trash or masterful cinema, there’s no denying the impact The Blair Witch Project has had on the filmmaking scene — with its influence still strong to this day. While I do think the film is a classic and should be seen by anyone interested in the horror genre, I don’t think it’s a perfect film. Some plot holes, tedious filler in the midsection, and laying of audio in abnormal places (which took me out of the realism at times) drop it down a bit for me. It doesn’t quite rank among the greats like The Exorcist (1973), Psycho (1960), or The Shining (1980), but The Blair Witch Project is an important horror landmark all the same – and can still cause hair to stand up on the back of your neck to his day.
My Grade: B+ (on an F to A+ scale).
MPAA Rating: R (for language).