Tuesday, October 28, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 27 - The Blair Witch Project

#3 - 13 Votes

There are few movies as good as The Blair Witch Project that are fully or partly responsible for inspiring so many bad movies and pop cultural ephemera, and I'm not just talking about Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. While I remembered the movie's very effective internet campaign and Sci-Fi Channel special that hyped the movie as the real thing, the film's Wikipedia page reminded me of the books, comics, PC games, and worst of all, the tie-in soundtrack "Josh's Blair Witch Mix" (featuring no songs from the mostly song-free movie) that cropped up in the months after the movie became an unexpected blockbuster. And while there were movies like Cannibal Holocaust and Man Bites Dog that used the found footage format before Blair Witch, without it, there would be no Paranormal Activity, so it's also indirectly responsible for the popularity of a horror subgenre made up almost entirely of movies that don't merit a second viewing.

So why does The Blair Witch Project hold up when almost all of the found footage movies that follow it don't? A lot of people would say it doesn't - for many, the title evokes memories of the promise of a real, documentary account of the disappearance of three students, followed by the reality of a movie that relies almost entirely on the imagination to work, which translates to three annoying a-holes yelling at each other in the woods for 80 minutes, followed by an incomprehensible ending.* Admittedly, while I still admire the movie greatly, it's not one I'm likely to return to every Halloween; I rewatched it for this poll because I hadn't seen it in close to a decade, and it helps that I'd forgotten about most of the details my fellow geeks and I parsed over in detail in 1999 like this thing was the Zapruder film ("Oh yeah, this must be where Mike kicked the map into the river.").

But while The Blair Witch Project was surely aided by the hype surrounding it - it's the last time I've encountered sold-out shows and long lines, other than opening weekends for the latest Batman or Harry Potter - it remains impressive that a tiny independent movie was able to generate that kind of hype with nothing but an intriguing premise and a clever marketing campaign built on word of mouth. And seeing it that weekend with a group of friends and parents, we were all legitimately freaked out by the movie, particularly the iconic and (deservedly so) final shot. The Blair Witch Project works because, while the faux-documentary format was an inventive twist; filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's approach to scaring the audience relied on techniques dating back to the films of Val Lewton. Few '90s horror movies were nearly as effective at (or even attempted) building suspense, playing on the audience's imaginations through the power of suggestion, generating tension with images of seemingly empty spaces, and sustaining that tension by refusing to show us everything. For an audience weaned on jump scares and gross-out, 50-year-old filmmaking techniques suddenly seemed like a radical innovation.

The human drama actually worked better for me this time, mostly because, as an aspiring filmmaker, I couldn't help empathizing with Heather. The actress really nails playing a no-budget filmmaker from the beginning, constantly thinking out loud about everything she and her crew need to accomplish, repeatedly nagging them and unavoidably coming off a complete pain in the ass in the process. While I might have put the camera down a little sooner than Heather, I get the moment where she defends not doing so because it's all she has left (it's also unsettling how, when the three actors were left to their own devices, the natural dynamic quickly becomes the two men against the woman). And when she's delivering her famous, runny-nosed monologue where she takes full responsibility for everything that's happened - well, what fledgling filmmaker isn't afraid they'll reach a point where they've led their crew deep into the woods and have to admit they have no idea what they're doing? Just because the woods here are literal, and populated by murderous witches, doesn't make it less true.

*Coincidentally, a piece on the film by Mike D'Angelo went up at The Dissolve today. Before reading it, I never knew that ending originally had absolutely no context, and the filmmakers went back and added an interview earlier in the movie for clarification. I honestly don't know, if I hadn't been able to remember that earlier scene, whether the ending would have terrified me more or pissed me off.

U.S. Release Date: July 16, 1999 (Also released that day: Eyes Wide Shut, Lake Placid, The Wood, Muppets from Space, I'm Losing You)

What critics said at the time:

"All the while I kept wondering why they started out on this silly project in the first place. Indeed, I was so detached from the mission that I began noticing things that didn’t make sense in the context of the sheer terror of the experience. Why do they keep lugging around their backpacks long after it becomes clear that they should be running for their lives? Yet the filmmakers do deserve credit for a clever image in the last 10 seconds that at least works poetically, but that is not nearly enough for all the low-budget, leave-it-to-the-audience’s-imagination pretentiousness that precedes it." - Andrew Sarris, New York Observer

"I don't want to go cheesy,' the bossy auteur announces at the onset and, although the real filmmakers, Myrick and Sanchez, are sometimes obliged to stretch for ways to insure that their increasingly terrorized characters keep filming, Blair Witch never does betray Heather's aesthetic. Paranoid, hysterical, and programmatically subjective, the movie is in every sense a psychological thriller. Although the payoff is ambiguous, the experience remains in the mind. It's an absolutely restrained and truly frightening movie." - J. Hoberman, Village Voice

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