cinema, co-directors, co-writers, creepy buildings, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, found-footage, Heather Donahue, horror films, independent films, Joshua Leonard, lost in the woods, low-budget films, Michael Williams, Movies, murdered children, The Blair Witch Project, witches, writer-director
Back in 1999, I was among the groups of moviegoers that flocked to see The Blair Witch Project (1999) in theaters, turning the micro-budget found-footage film into not only a surprise hit but something of a cultural milestone. At the time, found footage films weren’t as common-place as they are now, so Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s modest little film about a film crew lost in some very haunted woods seemed not only fresh but revolutionary. At the time, I remember being genuinely freaked out by the film, which probably had a lot to do with seeing it in a packed theater: I’ll never forget how quiet the theater would get or how shocked everyone looked by the end. The Blair Witch Project was a triumph in “less is more” filmmaking and seemed to signal a sea-change in the world of indie horror films, a change which has come to roost in the form of the endless found footage films which currently glut the market.
Over the years, I’ve returned to the film periodically, although I’ve never really taken the time to look at The Blair Witch Project critically. If anything, I’ve always judged the movie on a purely visceral level, while mentally glossing over any of the film’s shortcomings. As I’ve often found, however, films that I loved in my youth don’t always hold up down the road. Case in point: Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994). At the time of its release, I absolutely adored Smith’s vulgar little confection, finding it to be not only one of the best-scripted films I’d seen (until I got to Pulp Fiction (1994), I would imagine) but also ingeniously crafted. Nowadays, however, I can’t stand Clerks: the film is juvenile, stupid, vulgar for the sake of vulgarity and vapid as all hell. Time and perspective has taught me something very important: films that appeal to 17-year-olds don’t always have resonance for 30-year-olds. Since coming to that realization, I’ve avoided Clerks (and most Smith films, to be honest) like the plague. Once it came time to rewatch another old favorite, would I end up with the same outcome? Would The Blair Witch Project end up getting “sent to the corn,” just like Clerks?
As far as a film goes, The Blair Witch Project is simplicity, itself. Three independent filmmakers, Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard and Mike Williams (named for the actors who portray them in a pretty nifty example of blurring that reality/fiction line), are making a documentary about the Blair Witch, a figure who’s said to haunt a secluded wooded area and is (supposedly) responsible for the death or disappearance of quite a few folks over the years. To this end, the film crew interviews the residents of the small town of Burkittsville, who help fill in some of the legend’s details, along with adding additional stories about other local killers and assorted oddness. The creepiest of these extra stories details a serial killer who targeted children, taking them in pairs to a creepy house in the woods where he would kill them, one by one, in the basement. After getting as much local color as they can stand, the trio ends into the woods, intent on recording some of the eerie happenings. In no time at all, however, the group is hopelessly lost and at each others’ throats. As more and more weird things happen to them (strange sounds at night, weird piles of rocks everywhere, creepy totems hanging from trees), the group gradually realize that something is stalking them in the woods. When one of their group goes missing, the other two must now deal with the very real fear that they will never leave the woods alive. Is it the Blair Witch or does something even more insidiously evil stalk the woods outside Burkittsville? Since all we’re left with is the missing trio’s found footage, recovered a year later, it’s pretty safe to assume that whatever happened, it wasn’t a picnic.
One of the initial charms of Myrick and Sanchez’s film is how much it’s able to do with so little. Aside from the various “locals” that the crew interviews, the entire film consists of the three actors trooping around the woods with a hand-held camera. Since the dialogue was largely improvised, there’s a great opportunity for blurring the lines and making everything seem truly authentic. The film was made for around $60K but ended up raking in over a million dollars on opening weekend: it made almost 30 million during its run, making the film one of the biggest independent films of all time. In many ways, this was the greatest shot in the arm that low-budget, indie filmmakers could possibly get: get some friends and a camera, become a star. The film has obviously been extremely influential, as seen by the high volume of similar found footage films that are everywhere these days. In face, one of the other modern horror hits, Paranormal Activity (2007), is also a found footage film and ended up repeating many of The Blair Witch Projects victories at the box office. By all accounts, Myrick and Sanchez’s film should hold up as well as Carpenter’s legendary Halloween (1978), another “little indie film that could.” It could, of course, if the film was actually any good but, unfortunately, it really isn’t.
Upon closer inspection, the film just doesn’t hold up. The backstory about the witch is still great and there’s undeniable power in some of the “lost in the woods” moments. The climax is still creepy, even if it makes less sense to me now than it did when I was younger and who wouldn’t find some of the nighttime scenes scary? The major problem ends up being twofold: the actors, especially Donahue, are all completely obnoxious and absolutely nothing happens until the final few minutes. The first flaw ends up being the killing blow since, for all intents and purposes, we’re stuck with three very unpleasant people bickering about being lost in the woods. Since the dialogue is largely improvised, we’re also stuck with a disarming amount of “No, I didn’t”/”Yes, you did” back-and-forth which gets tedious almost immediately. By the midpoint in the film, despite already knowing its resolution, I was actively rooting for the witch to appear and put these jackasses out of their misery. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how “younger me” ever sat through this drivel, since I actively hated all three characters/actors within a remarkably short amount of time. Similar to being stuck with feuding relatives on a long car ride, The Blair Witch Project’s “characters” end up being the most terrifying thing about the film.
The second issue, the lack of action, ends up being only slightly less significant, at least to me, personally. I’m a big fan of slower-paced, more subtle horror films, so the glacial pace didn’t really bother me. My main issue with this came when I reflected back on the film after finishing it and realized that I had just spent 90 minutes watching three people stumble around the woods. The bits involving the totems and rock piles are cool but too few and far between: when you’re asking a mysterious pile of rocks to do all of your horror heavy-lifting, we might have a problem, Houston. The end still holds up, for the most part, but it’s way too little, too late to get there: whereas I found the chaotic conclusion to be utterly nail-biting as a 20-year-old, my main takeaway 15 years later is how poorly blocked it is, making it exceedingly difficult to actually figure out what’s going on. It still has impact, mind you, but not nearly as much.
At the end of the day, I’ll always respect what The Blair Witch Project did but it’s impossible for me to really enjoy the film, itself. As an influence on countless found footage films that followed, the importance of the film can’t be overstated, especially since I tend to really enjoy found footage films. While Daniel Myrick hasn’t had much of worth since that point (his Believers (2007) is decent but not amazing), Eduardo Sanchez has been quite a bit more successful, at least as far as I’m concerned. Sanchez’s Altered (2006) is a cracking-good tale about rednecks, alien abduction and revenge, while his Lovely Molly (2011) is one of the most painful, unpleasant and amazing horror films I’ve ever seen. As it stands, then, The Blair Witch Project was more of a petri dish than a neo-classic: it fostered not only the found footage subgenre but also a generation of indie filmmakers who would see the film festival circuit as there best bet at getting recognized.
I’m pretty sure that my latest trip to Burkittsville will be my last (at least until I decide to do a Blair Witch/Book of Shadows (2000) marathon sometime in 2030, that is). While there are still moments that really grab me in the film, just as there are moments that still grab me in Clerks (to be honest, the only thing I can stand in Clerks is the soundtrack, which I still love to this day), my overall experience rewatching the film was massively disappointing. Sometimes, it would seem, you really can’t go back.