Found Footage 101: The Blair Witch Project (USA, 1999)

❉ Lionsgate has just launched Blair Witch, the second sequel to legendary horror film, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.

With found footage more common as a genre than ever before, We Are Cult thought it would be a good idea to look at one of the more successful films in the genre, before looking back over the next few weeks to the films that lead up to it.

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Plot Teaser

“In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary.
“A year later their footage was found.”

You’ll Like This If You Like…

Being scared; found footage films; people being terrorised by something we never see.

Spoiler-free Review

Seventeen years on it stands up just as well: it’s just as terrifying, just as intense, and just as worthy of its reputation. It’s no wonder that this is the first film people mention when talking about found footage: this is the one the public remembers, and rightly so.

It’s a classic.

Spoilers Below!

Location

The very spooky Black Hills woods outside Bukittsville, Maryland, USA.

Enemy

Either Rustin Parr (a paedophile serial-killer), old Elly Kedward (the Blair Witch herself, another child serial-killer) or possibly evil from the dawn of time itself.

Why Are You Still Filming?

Asked repeatedly of Heather during the film. When they’re really lost we have, “turn the camera off and get us home,” to which Heather replies “No, I’m not turning the camera off. I want to mark the occasion.”

She’s told to “Turn the goddamn thing off” when filming the eerie stick men, and doesn’t.

There’s a discussion later on when Mike films Heather and observes that being behind the camera gives on a feeling of dissociation, and therefore safety.

Finally, after a heated row with Josh about her continued filming, Heather wearily admits “It’s all I fucking have left.” These incidents alone explain why people keep filming throughout terrible events, that they fell protected by the camera, one step removed from what they’re watching. It’s some of the most important dialogue about the nature of filming, and why the cameraman never stops filming.

(As an aside, I would also note that people are usually only ever killed when they stop filming. In the Dean Alioto films it’s when they put the camera down that they are finally abducted. In Man Bites Dog it’s just after the camera is lowered that the rival team are felled, and our team themselves are shot once they drop their camera. Even here, Heather is alive and safe until she drops the camera.)

Review and Analysis

This is the big one, the one that made the genre what it is today. No less influenced by what had gone before it, this is the one that people remember. It’s a powerful film, beautifully structured, with much left up to the viewer. It’s this level of intelligence – and crediting the audience with an equal amount of intelligence – that raises the film above the norm.

Three examples: less than seven minute in an interviewed local tells Heather that Parr would take his victims in pairs to the cellar and make one stand against the wall while he killed the other. The fact is never repeated in the film, yet we see it happen at the end. We are told of the ritualistic slaughter of five hunters whose bodies were mutilated and bound together, so when we see the stick men we instantly connect that to the five hunters, yet the characters don’t spell this out for us.

Finally, one of their interviewees, a particularly unusual woman, talks about the Bible and stones. When the stone mounds appear (clearly signifying the three characters – and it is Josh who earlier knocked over a mound, and it is Josh who is the first to be taken) they don’t quite remember what the woman said, so they can’t explain it to us.

It’s this level of detail that really helps the film. We may not be given all of the answers, because Heather, Josh and Mike aren’t in a position to give them to us, but the makers clearly knew, and used it to build up the back-story of the witch which adds layers throughout. Compare this to the baffling plot of Without Warning and see how much better established the facts are here, even without spelling them out for the audience.

So why was this such a global success?

For a start, the internet. This was the first film to really use viral marketing, particularly the is it/isn’t it real angle and that was what people latched on to. The idea that this might indeed record the final days of three people, killed by God knows what (we never see what’s attacking them – a far more disturbing notion than any mundane monster reveal could be), attracted an audience, as did reports of cinemagoers being genuinely terrified by what they saw. In truth, they don’t see much: some stick men, a few piles of stones, Heather looking terrified into the camera, and then something odd in a cellar.

Trying to explain what’s so scary about all of this to someone who hasn’t seen the film is pointless. It doesn’t sound remotely scary on paper. On the screen, though, it sounds scary in the extreme, thanks to some ingenious sound design. Cracking branches and strange noises from just off camera in the dark of the woods are terrifying, especially as we don’t see what’s making the noises. Josh screaming for help after his disappearance is terrifying. The woods are terrifying. The majority of people watching this would be sitting in a cinema in the middle of city. Most city folk are scared of the wild: it’s unknown to them, and full of strange noises and animals. Setting a film in the woods, then, is perfect, because the urban viewer is already disturbed by this alien environment. The found footage helps too, because it makes this seem so much more real. Had this been a ‘normal’ film, we would have known it. The camera angles and soundtrack (no matter how unnerving the score) would only have emphasised the normality of it all, making the scares that much safer.

Watching three unknown actors (who, therefore, may actually be real people) document their experience (particularly three actors as strong as these, Heather Donahue especially) and placing each member of the audience as the fourth person in their group thanks to the camera works a treat. Heather’s confession to camera completely cements the illusion:

“I just want to apologise to Mike’s mom, and Josh’s mom, and my mom, and I’m sorry to everyone. I was very naïve. I am so, so sorry, for everything that has happened, because, in spite of what Mike says now, it is my fault, because it was my project and I insisted. I insisted on everything. I insisted that we weren’t lost, I insisted that we keep going, I insisted that we walk south. Everything had to be my way and this is where we’ve ended up, and it’s all because of me that we’re here now, hungry, cold and hunted. I love you mom. Dad. I’m so sorry…I’m scared to close my eyes, I’m scared to open them. I’m going to die out here.”

It’s a beautiful (and ad-libbed) speech, hauntingly effective. We have no doubt at this point that they’re doomed and that Heather knows it, and there isn’t a second of artifice in the performance. She cries throughout, her eyes haunted by terror, with no sense of vanity (even her nose runs), and the performance was worthy of an Academy Award nomination. No matter what you may think of the choices the characters have made, or their actions, that is the moment we buy into this completely, making the ending all the more dreadful. It’s one of the finest moments in film, from a film still regarded as one of the peaks of the found footage genre.


❉ The Blair Witch Project is available on DVD and BD worldwide (the BD has alternate endings too)

1 Comment

  1. It’s rather glorious, isn’t it? Still gives me the chills. Though, it didn’t help thinking in 1999, when I was a kid, to be fair, that IT WAS ALL REAL.

    Terrifying.

    It’s also to blame for all the crap thar came after it, too.

    Such is the price for greatness.

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