Friday, October 07, 2016

The Films of 1999: The Blair Witch Project

A student documentarian, Heather Donohue (herself), organizes a project to study the legend of the Blair Witch, a supernatural figure reputed to live in the Black Hills of Maryland.

Along with photographer Joshua Leonard (himself) and sound-man Michael Williams (himself) she heads to the former town of Blair, known as Burkittsville, and begins conducting interviews with the locals.

The locals tell of the history of the witch, Elly Kedward, as well as that of Rustin Parr, a child murderer who is believed to have been influenced by the witch.

The crew heads out into the Black Hills to film Coffin Rock, a site where the witch is believed to have committed brutal, murderous acts against town locals.

Afterwards, the crew becomes lost in the woods, and, day-by-day, night-by-night, comes to believe that the witch is nearby.

After a terrifying visit to a house in the woods, Heather, Michael and Joshua’s odyssey comes to an end.

Later, their footage is found…

I must confess, there are few things that irritate me more than listening to the complaints of horror enthusiasts who vehemently dislike The Blair Witch Project (1999).  I guess that's a failing on my part, but it's true.

Some folks feel they were taken in by the movie's (very successful) hype and marketing. Others feel The Blair Witch Project is a shaggy dog story that never reveals the titular "monster" and ultimately goes nowhere.  There is also that group which, when you name the film, complains about how they got motion sickness from watching it.

So it's a controversial genre film, to say the least. I’ve been thinking about it all week, in light of the sequels, and keep coming back to The Blair Witch Project as a remarkable film, hype or no hype.  

I’ll be writing here about why I enjoy and appreciate the film so much, but the late Roger Ebert also had an elegant and crisp take on the film:

At a time when digital techniques can show us almost anything, "The Blair Witch Project" is a reminder that what really scares us is the stuff we can't see. The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark.

I firmly believe The Blair Witch Project holds up as both great horror movie and also as a great, immediate movie-going experience more-than-a-decade-and-a-half after its theatrical release.  

The film is a neo-classic of the 1990s self-reflexive age; a decidedly ambiguous film that either concerns three film students bedeviled by an evil witch in the woods, or three film students be-deviled by their own inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I will never argue that The Blair Witch Project isn't chaotic and even a bit messy.

I only argue that it is chaotic and messy in a manner of tremendous significance and artistry; in a manner that very craftily supports the movie's thesis: the idea of chasing your own tail, alone, when your technology can't be of assistance and -- in fact -- hinders you. 

Out in the woods, a movie camera can record your shrieking terror or tape your final confessional, but it can't telephone the police for you, or point in you in the right direction to find your way home.  It can’t even tell you that your home is still out there, somewhere beyond the seemingly endless woods, for that matter.

The manner of the film's first-person presentation reflects this content strongly, this idea that multiple interpretations of reality are possible. 

So The Blair Witch Project sometimes has the audience watching video tape, sometimes watching film stock.  

Sometimes the action is a live event unfolding before our eyes, apparently un-staged. And sometimes, we're watching staged bits of a student's documentary project...deliberately staged (for example: Heather's monologue at Coffin Rock).

All these visualizations successfully fragment the film's sense of reality, making said reality that much harder to pinpoint.  Hoax or horror?  Is the movie about arrogant kids who can't cope with nature; or about kids attacked by a force of the supernatural?

What's the point of the movie's meditation?  

The point is that this was life in America at the turn of the Millennium, and even more so today, in 2016. 

I like to use President Bill Clinton -- impeached in 1999 -- as a perfect example of this facet of our public discourse.  Was he a great commander-in-chief who, through his steady stewardship saved the American economy and brought prosperity and boom times to a nation formerly in recession?  Or was he the cheating "Big Creep" as Monica Lewinsky called him, and worthy of the impeachment the Republicans so gleefully prosecuted?

Or -- and here's the tricky part -- is he simultaneously both things at the same time? 

Meet the moral relativity of the 1990s. 


By the end of that decade, we had 24-hour news cable stations, the Internet, and even the nascent blogosphere, yet we were no closer to understanding the truth in the important case of this one man, the most famous man in the nation

In other words, technology wasn't helping us in the quest for important answers.  We had at the end of the 1990s (and now as well...) more science and technology at our disposal than ever before in the history of our species and yet we couldn't agree even on the most basic facts, let alone the interpretation of those facts.  As a nation, we devoted more hours and more words to the Monica Lewinsky affair than any event in modern history up to that point, yet we remained divided about what it was all about, why it mattered, and what it represented.

In a nutshell, that's what The Blair Witch Project is all about:  the unresolved anxieties of the new technological age (the age of the boom and bust). 

The movie asks us to pull the narrative pieces together -- pieces of media, literally found footage -- and to seek sense, reality and truth for ourselves.  But the tools aren't up to the task.

And, heck, why is no horrific special effects monster revealed at the end of this motion picture? Well, as I suggested in my review for 2016’s Blair Witch: when was the last time you were certain you saw the real Loch Ness Monster uploaded in a YouTube video? 

When was the last time you had a 100% clarity that you were watching a video of the real Sasquatch on Veoh or Vimeo or whatever? 

Never, you say? 

Exactly right.  

For every such claim of "authenticity" in the Web 2.0 Age, you must now bring your experience, skepticism and technological know-how to the game.  Was the video a special effect?  A green screen? A matte?  Photo-shopped?  Or just very cunningly staged with actors?

This is the bailiwick of The Blair Witch Project.  It dwells meaningfully in that haze of tech-savvy uncertainty; factoring in technology and your experience with the tools you use every day. 

Think you see something?  What did you see?  Are you certain? 

Again, the point of a good, transgressive horror movie is to disturb, to unsettle.  In The Blair Witch Project's deliberate ambiguity, we do feel uncomfortable.  Human life is ambiguous too: we don't always get the answers we want about why things happen to us; why fate can be cruel. 

And conventional movies -- through their familiar and predictable three act structure and process of "learning" -- cheat about that simple fact.  

Movies give us answers.  They show us monsters.  They resolve mysteries.  We are content with this, because our disordered lives feel very structured and orderly when we watch movies.  We get ninety minutes of predictable, ordered existence.

But horror movies, especially decorum shattering ones, have no such responsibility to preserve our peace of mind. 

Quite the contrary.

So The Blair Witch Project is really about those things in our existence that, even with the best technology available, remain disturbingly opaque.  We can put a boom mic on things, and point a camera at them, and still, we can't understand them.

Information doesn't always provide clarity. Sometimes it merely confounds and obfuscates.  Thus the Blair Witch Project also concerns the way that mass media often shields viewers from reality; for better or for worse distancing us from unpleasant facts. 

Late in the film, this theme is given voice.  Joshua picks up Heather's video camera and notes that the image it captures "is not quite reality." 

 Rather, "it's totally like, filtered reality.  You can pretend everything isn't quite the way it is."

He's right. The modern audience is accustomed (nay, conditioned) to the longstanding rules of filmmaking and television production, where the rectangular (or square) frame itself is structured rigorously, and compositions of film grammar symbolize certain accessible and concrete concepts. 

But life isn't like that.  Life is -- at its best -- disordered.  It doesn't exist within a frame; you can't capture life's complexities within a frame or a traditional narrative.  And The Blair Witch Project, with its oft-imitated first person point-of-view and semi-improvised screenplay, reminds us of that.

Like life itself, the movie is gloriously messy, and I love it for that reason.

As I've written before, The Blair Witch Project takes a very simple Hansel and Gretel story and then re-casts it in a technological, modern culture, and suggests that these three filmmakers are lost -- metaphorically and literally -- because technology has failed them.  They are abandoned by a culture that believes science and technology can solve any mystery and explain everything.  The film juxtaposes two ideas brilliantly.  One: science and technology give us the answers to everything. Two: a monster exists in the woods who can’t be detected, let alone understood, by our science and technology.

And the intense images in the film are really but the bread crumbs for the audience to follow in vain; in a circle.  Reality is elusive in those flickering pictures, and finally the only end is silence. Our last act in a technological world is turn away; to face the corner. 

But the camera still rolls.

The Blair Witch Project is a work of art because it reflects the age and questions in which it was made, and because it understands that ambiguity is always scarier than certainty will be. People can complain about the made-up dialogue (and cussing…), or the circular, nonsensical nature of the narrative at points, and yet their complaints are really about one thing, I believe.

It’s about them.

They were taken in. 

They were immersed by the film’s replication of disordered reality. And they resent, on some level; that they were so taken in by experience of the film. They are angry, in fact, that the film went so far as to deny them closure and order, the very thing we seek in films.

The Blair Witch Project terrified them, and didn’t even have the good grace to end with a close-up of the witch, so we could all look at her costume/make-up and realize that what we were seeing, all along, was simple Hollywood fakery.

I would argue too that the film’s success is boosted almost immeasurably by Heather Donohue’s performance.  People have mocked it, imitated it, and derided it, and yet when you watch the film, her terror seems absolutely palpable. It feels genuine. Unforced. True.  

And again, I suspect that those who find horror films simply “fun” don’t want to be confronted with the depth of terror that her performance creates.  Her screams for Josh are blood-curling. We are conditioned for our final girls to be resourceful librarian-in-glasses types, who, finally, overcome their monstrous enemies.  Heather is a smart leader, a resourceful person, and she never, ever, gets close to even understanding exactly what she is up against.  

She doesn’t “win,” and, well, our culture hates those who don’t win. We view them as weak, as failures.  Some of the hostility that Heather has endured in real life is no doubt a result of this viewpoint.

At this juncture, I have probably watched The Blair Witch Project at least a dozen times. And yet when the film gets to that dark house in the woods, my throat still tightens, my pulse still quickens.  I feel this way only about a small handful of horror films that I have watched so many times. 

There are three, actually, I never watch when I am alone in the house: The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), and The Blair Witch Project (1999).

In the case of The BWP, it’s because the film seems relentlessly targeted at the irrational part of the psyche. It strikes at the part of us that fears the dark and knows instinctively --- deep, deep down -- that there are monsters out there in the woods.

Worse, The Blair Witch Project knows that our rational way of seeing the world -- with cameras and the like -- will do us no good when the witch comes to take us.


  1. A fascinating film for understanding the 1990s. I notice more and more nostalgia for the decade even though it was a very confusing time for the culture. So much to consider here: end of the cold war, conspiracy theories, 24 hour news, surreal politics, the increasing dependence on technology to shape reality and even personal identity. The shock of 9/11 pushed back on moral relativity and suddenly reverted us back to a simpler world of moral absolutes and I believe our culture is still struggling with complexity - look no further than the election. There's hardly any middle ground anymore, you're either on one side or the other, the word moderate has disappeared from our discourse. Thought provoking as always John, Blair Witch is without a doubt a definitive 90s film.

  2. Honestly, I hate this film.