The Blair Watch Project (1999)
Starring: Heather Donahue; Jason Leonard; Michael C. Williams.
Directors: Daniel Myrick; Eduardo Sanchez.
Plot: The found footage of 3 students is discovered after their documentary on the local Blair Witch legend goes horribly wrong.
The horror genre has adapted and evolved more than any other genre through the decades, sprouting various new subcategories such as: slasher horror; Sci-Fi horror; Torture horror; psychological horror; and so on. This flexibility has helped to make it one of the most consistent genres in film history; so where does that leave the genre today?
It can be said that the horror films of today don’t hold much integrity and serve only as low-level forms of entertainment used to draw in supposedly ‘shallow’ and-or younger audiences – films that constantly rely on jump scares to convince moviegoers that they have seen a genuinely scary film. Perhaps they have more in common with the ‘B movies’ of the 1940s and 50s where horror films were criticised for their lack of depth and served only as a place for young men to take their ‘dates’. So, where does The Blair Watch Project come into all of this?
The Blair Witch is a film that still, 16 years on, is one of the stand out horror films of the past 30 years, even spawning a new generation of filmmaking often referred as ‘found footage films’, the likes of which utilise a handheld, amateur style that creates a realistic vibe to films in order to inspire a ‘closer to home’ fear amongst audiences. Such films were particularly popular with production companies who realised they could make a big return on a relatively small film budget, with The Blair Witch Project making a $250 million box office return on a budget of $22,000.
The Blair Witch Project doesn’t try too hard to be scary and it doesn’t go out of its way to make sure certain scenes are particularly terrifying courtesy of an ambush jump scare that leaves you wondering why they didn’t just place a sign telling you a frightening scene was imminent; the film just has a naturally creepy ambiance to it. This all comes from learning about the legend within the film for yourself. The movie itself is a fictional story about an attempted documentary which makes you feel like you’re learning about the legend within the film the same way that you learn about a particular subject in a documentary – as opposed to learning about it through cringeworthy monologues forced out the mouth of a two-dimensional character – and the legend itself isn’t too over the top either. The way this ‘legend’ is presented makes it seem exactly like the kind of legends you hear about every day, and this was proven by the directors who, prior to filming, fooled the actors into thinking that the Blair Witch legend was a real-life local legend.
After learning of this fact, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the actors themselves do fantastic jobs creating realistic and convincing performances. With the majority of the film being set in a purgatory-esque forest that the characters are trapped in, the three filmmakers gradually get more and more frustrated as they get closer to the realisation that they are lost and are being followed and tormented by something. A bunch of rednecks? Animals? A deformed hermit? Or even the Blair Witch herself? The film makes it completely ambiguous as to what that answer is, all the way to the end at least, making it suit you and your fears alone, which in turn makes it scary for virtually anyone, as it depends on the imagination of the audience and what each individual would find more frightening. The actors conviction at portraying their frustration and genuine anger and fear can be attributed to the combination of a lack of script to follow and including genuine moments of fear and frustration. Such moments happened when the characters discover they have been walking in the wrong direction all day, along with waking up in the middle of the night to loud noises and then the tent being shook by someone, or something – an unscripted and improvised move from the directors themselves.
Most Horror films start off slow, they build up slowly and gradually get more frightening, but there comes to a point in all of these films where they cross the line of reality and step into the void of what you are forced to accept as realistic ‘for a film’. Whether that be the reveal of a monster, or when the film becomes too paranormal and beyond the point of natural explanation, a large majority of horrors share this common problem. The Blair Witch does not. Each fearful encounter gets creepier as the film progresses, yet still manages to maintain realistic momentum without getting carried away.
If you’re looking for a horror film that’s captivating, scary and leaves you thinking about it long after, The Blair Witch Project is a film that doesn’t rely on cheap scares to frighten you and therefore stands above the large majority of its contemporary counterparts as an exemplary found footage horror.