Blair Witch Revisited

There can be no doubt that The Blair Witch Project is one of the most innovative and surprising film phenomenons in the history of cinema.

Released by Artisan Entertainment in 1999, this low-budget, shaky cammed fake documentary rose to the heights of blockbusterdom, claiming its place among the most successful films of all time.

The film was made for a little over twenty thousand dollars, and grossed over 240 million dollars. The hype surrounding the film upon its release, fueled by a web site, a book, and tons of fan speculation, sent The Blair Witch Project into the realm of cult classic.

Having only recently seen this film, I feel compelled to examine it just a bit more closely, to try and discover just why the film was so successful, and how it could have been even better.

Written and Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, The Blair Witch Project tells the story of three student filmmakers who go into the Black Hills Forest near the town of Burkittsville, Maryland to make a film about a legendary witch.

The filmmakers cooked up a back story of a banished woman named Elly Kedward, a child killer named Rustin Parr who claimed he heard the voice of an old woman, and a number of strange occurrences spanning back almost 200 years.

The back-story itself reads like a legend of old Salem, and provides an amazing backdrop for the film. The three students, Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard), and Mike (Michael Williams), begin the film by pointing their cameras (a Hi-8 color camcorder and a 16mm black and white camera) at citizens of Burkittsville to find out what the everyday person knows about the witch.

The way the people speak gives the feeling of people being interviewed by your local news, pushing the film into the realm of authenticity, which truly helps later on.

After a run in with an insane old woman who tells them she met the Blair Witch in the form of a half human, half beast creature covered in hair, and a short intro scene in the Burkittsville Cemetery, the trio set off into the woods, never to be heard from again.

The first two days go off without a hitch, with a great deal of laughter and fun, and a few moments where Heather narrates through her film with details about The Blair Witch legend.

These scenes work as wonderful buildup, because we know something terrible is going to happen, but they don’t. Hearing Heather describe a massacre at the landmark called Coffin Rock is chilling to the viewer because it makes us wonder if they will suffer the same fate.

Soon after this, they discover seven piles of rocks gathered around a tree. This is unsettling, but not particularly scary. It just seems like something strange one might find in the woods. Still, it will affect the viewer and the characters later. While at the rock site, one of the guys knocks a rock pile down.

Heather fixes it, but it sets a chain of events in motion that will end with their demise. That night, the students hear snapping noises all around them in the woods, but despite an investigation, they are never able to determine their source.

Once again, it’s something that’s not particularly unsettling, but considering the atmosphere we have been put in by the filmmakers, it affects us a little deeper than noises in the woods normally would. Also, it doesn’t hurt that save for the lights mounted on the cameras and one or two flashlights, it is completely dark.

Fear of the dark is one of the greatest fears in the human psyche, and these filmmakers have mastered it.

Now things take a turn for the worst. The trio has lost their map, and doesn’t know which way they should go to get out of the woods. Now, in addition to being threatened by a mythical witch in the dark woods, they are at each other’s throats with frustration and fear.

Night falls, again they hear the snapping noises, and again they are unable to find the source of them. The next morning, three piles of rocks are found outside their tent.

Viewers who have paid close attention to the film up to this point will realize that Rustin Parr killed seven little children, and Heather found seven piles of rocks.

Now there are three piles of rocks outside the tent. People who have noticed these details will know that the fate of the campers is now sealed.

The following day, amid more frustration and more fruitless attempts to get out of the woods, the campers discover a nest of stick figures hanging from trees throughout the woods. Up to this point, they have thought that these are some kids or some “hillbillies” messing with them.

Now they know something much deeper is going on, something much more frightening. That night, one of the few truly creepy moments in the film occurs. Asleep in their tent, the trio is awakened by a chorus of children’s voices talking and laughing in the woods around them.

The trio sits, terrified, in their tent while the voices seem to grow closer and suddenly the whole tent begins to shake. They run from the tent, screaming, and sit in the dark of the woods until dawn, scared out of their minds.

The next morning they find their tent in shambles and some strange slimy substance all over Josh’s backpack. Now things are getting stranger, and soon things will get really bad. All through the day we see the trio unraveling, going insane at the prospect that they’ll never get out of the woods alive.

That night the voices are heard again and Josh disappears. The are unable to find him the next day, but that night they hear a man’s voice screaming presumably Josh’s.

They search but are unable to find him. The next morning Heather finds a bundle of sticks outside the tent, tied together with what looks like pieces of Josh’s shirt. Inside she finds a piece of cloth full of blood, teeth, and what looks like a human tongue.

Upon seeing this, Heather goes nearly completely mad. The day ahead is filled with more fear and frustration and many tears as their minds continue to slip away. Night falls, and once again Josh’s voice is heard crying out in the woods.

Heather and Mike follow it and are led to an old house, where they finally meet their demise, off camera, where we are unsure of what exactly happens.

Now, let’s take a look back at the film’s triumphs and shortfalls, and what made this film so popular.

I think the key to Blair Witch’s popularity is the innovative style in which it is presented. It is a fictional story presented in documentary form as though it were actual events, and when it was first released, crime scene photos and police reports released in bookstores and on the internet helped add to the belief of moviegoers that they were actually witnessing the final days of a group of student filmmakers.

We know now (most of us, anyway) that this is not the case, but the documentary style of the film still helps to make it extremely believable. Put that with a catchy back story and you’ve got a horror film with a great deal of potential.

I say potential because I for one do not believe that The Blair Witch Project is half as good as it could have been. And here’s why: the film isn’t tangible. Filmgoers are very familiar with the philosophy that it’s not what you see that scares you, but what you don’t see.

That’s an extremely effective philosophy used by countless filmmakers for decades to scare the hell out of us(Jaws is one example, The Mothman Prophecies is another), and Blair Witch is no exception, but this film has taken that philosophy above and beyond what is needed to make the film not scary, but frustrating.

The film attempts to build to a crescendo of terror that never delivers because when you stop and think about it, as a viewer, there is nothing to be afraid of. We never hear a voice that actually says anything threatening, never see a specter moving through the woods, and never truly experience what those behind the camera are supposedly experiencing.

The few things in the film that are tangible (the creepy old house, the bundle with the bloody tongue inside, the voices. Those things scare us because they seem real. If there had been just a little more of that in the film, it would have been truly terrifying.

Even a small shred, such as having an eerie hooded figure pass in front of the camera after Heather drops it at the end, would have had audiences screaming out loud.

The other major problem with the film is that the daytime scenes of frustration and argument go on far too long. The actors were improvising the whole movie, so the dialogue does not stay fresh.

The repetitive fighting and weeping gets old after a while, and if there had been less of this and more of the nighttime chills, the film would have been much more effective.

When all is said and done, though, The Blair Witch Project is still worth seeing. It was a filmmaking experiment turned into box office gold, and its concept is intriguing.

The film will live on in the minds of those with the deeper imaginations, and the film’s impact will last a long, long time, because if there’s one thing The Blair Witch Project gave us, it’s hope, hope that we too can make a low budget movie that will make millions, hope that uncharted ground still exists on the cinematic landscape, hope that we too can be hailed as great filmmakers.

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