On the fifth day of Halloween, my hometown gave to me: The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)
The theme of this next series of reviews is found footage horror! It’s my favorite sub-genre, even though it gets a lot of flak.
The found-footage genre seems to be the target of a lot of critique, for various reasons. I get it: it’s a cheap way to make horror movies, and lots of people with varying levels of talent have latched onto it. But it’s like any genre: you get the bad mixed in with the good. But if we’re talking innovation? I have seen more creativity and clever building of suspense in found-footage filmmaking than damn near any other genre of horror.
Yes, it is “cheap” to make. It theoretically only requires one or two cameras, minimal sound equip, no music, etc. Of course, many (if not most) found-footage horror films have full camera outfits and treat their production like any other. But the idea is to make it seem as realistic as possible, which often translates to low-tech. In a world where most people have access to a recording device of some sort (iPhones, GoPros, etc.) the simple fact is that anyone could theoretically be the star of these films.
Of course, many FF films fall prey to several problems:
- Why is the camera still on? This is a question we don’t have to ask in traditional film, because the camera is generally assumed to be neutral. In FF, the camera is a character, and so their motivation comes into play.
- Ye olde shaky-cam. While the shakiness of the camera creates “realism,” sometimes it makes it damn near impossible to properly see what’s happening. Or in my mother’s case, makes her nauseous.
- Any semblance of story can be swallowed by bouncy, grainy sequences of people screaming and/or running.
These are all valid issues. I think the sudden popularity of found footage movies like Paranormal Activity created giant surge of movies along these lines, as they are relatively low-budget and easier to produce. There was suddenly a shaky-cam tsunami, and the found footage format became a gimmick. But in the right hands, the found footage format can be the perfect vehicle for horror.
Let’s get jiggy
So to start off this series, I chose the granddaddy of ‘em all, The Blair Witch Project. This movie isn’t the first horror movie to use found footage (Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is generally considered the first, but that’s up for debate) it certainly brought the style to the public. Blair Witch made waves at Sundance and quickly became a sensation, and has inspired infinite copycats and parodies.
Gather round children, it’s humblebrag time
I get the warm and fuzzies talking about this movie.
Full disclosure: I got to talk to Eduardo Sanchez. The movie was filmed in my home county, though it was set in Burkittsville (which, by the way, actually has no witch legend. But boy, it does now).
I was working on my final project for my IB Film class, which I had centered on found-footage horror, shockingly. Naturally, Blair Witch came up in my work. My film teacher saw that I was using the film in my paper, and casually just dropped it on me that she could get me in contact with one of the directors. My film teacher was already one of my favorite people, but now she was officially The Best Human.
Not to go full weirdo, but I got to QUOTE a DIRECTOR of a FILM I WAS ANALYZING in my paper because I ACTUALLY SPOKE TO HIM. No more digging through ancient interviews for a tasty morsel: I got to ask the guy questions myself. This is what dreams are made of.
And Sanchez could not have been nicer. I was some random 17-year film nerd he’d never met, asking to take up some of his time for a project he had no connection with or would get any benefit from. And he was working on a movie at the time. It was only like 30 minutes, but it meant the world to a film kid like me. He also gave me quotes that worked perfectly with my thesis, so like…that helped too.
At any rate, Blair Witch is not only an important film, but it was made in a cool-ass place by some nice-ass people.
But this movie is legit creepy
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, The Blair Witch Project purports to have been made by the very people it starred: three Maryland film students. It was marketed as real, and the characters and the actors were one and the same. The filmmakers deliberately blurred the line between fantasy and reality to create a buzz around the film, and it paid off big time. (If you’re into marketing, check out the literature around The Blair Witch Project– they were wickedly creative with their “ads.”)
The premise is simple enough: A trio of film students (Heather, Mike, and Josh) try to make a documentary on the infamous Blair Witch, but end up lost in the woods and pursued by something unseen. The movie the audience is watching, of course, was found later, as the filmmakers themselves have disappeared.
Blair Witch was homemade horror in the best way: shot on a tiny budget, on location, with unknown actors, and all very low-tech. Sanchez and Myrick intentionally hired actors who had strong improv skills, because most of the dialogue was going to be up to them.
Myrick and Sanchez wanted authentic fear from their actors, so what did they do? Give them something to be scared about. The directors sent their three actors into the woods for a little over a week, and gave each individual actor a series of script cues to follow. Each day, the directors would hide milk cartons in the woods, each one containing specific directions for each character. Oh, and the whole “twig people,” or “attacking the tent,” thing? The actors weren’t given any warning- their fear isn’t phoned in.
Of course, the trio are actors, and they knew the concept they were aiming for, so they took these scenarios and ran with them. But I’d venture to say that a good percentage of their performances was genuine terror.
The Blair Witch Project takes the found footage format and uses it really well. I think found footage’s strength lies in its ties to reality: the connection between the audience and the people on screen is much stronger. There are no “characters,” per say, and everyone on screen is aware that they’re being filmed (mostly, anyway). The camera is an actor in and of itself as it is directly correlated to someone’s POV, which immediately creates identification between the viewer and the action.
There are also fewer cues in found footage films: and I think that’s a good thing. In most standard horror, you have certain “cues” -series of camera angles or aural sequences- that indicate that something is about to happen. Whether it’s ominous music or a tasty, lingering look on an open doorway in the background, all of these things are conventional ways of informing the audience that it’s about to go down. Of course, this is a great way of building suspense, and directors can cleverly manipulate our expectations to deny us the scare we’re anticipating. It’s a tried-and-true method for most horror movies, and it generally works: we’re conditioned to respond to stuff like that.
But found footage uses this conditioning against us- it denies us the clues and hints we’re expecting and leaves us in the dark. Honestly, I think filmmakers forget just how horrifying silence is. Or shots that linger longer than we’re used to, with no particular focus and no soundtrack: we don’t know where to look or what to expect. So when something does happen, it catches you unprepared.
But a lot of the horror in Blair Witch comes mainly from the fact that our information as the audience is severely limited, as we’re tied to an individual POV as opposed to an omniscient camera. Again, this is another great feature of the found footage format.So much of the creep factor in Blair Witch comes from what is implied, that which you can’t see. Branches breaking in the distance? Children’s laughter? That’s some creepy, suggestive shit. While I do wish the directors would have done more “Spooky Things” and less “Emotional Breakdowns” (the title to this film could have been The Blair Witch Project: Yelling In The Woods) I think they were erring on the side of restraint in order to make a starker, more serious film.
The end of the film is the strongest part, in my opinion. The final shot of Mike in the corner of the house is pitch-perfect. It tells you everything you need to know about what’s happening to the trio, and what’s about to happen to Heather. The ambiguous nature of “the witch” is also a strong point, as it turns what could have been a ghost story into a struggle against something far more ominous and powerful. While at times this feels like plot-dodging, I think in general it’s appropriate for the mood of The Blair Witch Project.
I do love me a good cairn
The Blair Witch Project is a great watch for someone who wants to get into horror. It’s not super gory (the gore is brief but to great effect), and relies on a lot of implication and off-screen action to carry the scares. And that’s not to say that it isn’t scary, because it certainly is. The Blair Witch Project isn’t a perfect film, but it was ambitious as hell. It’s not the best found-footage film, nor is it my favorite, but modern FF films owe this movie a debt. After all, it set the stage for the movies I’m going to review next, and helped usher my favorite horror genre into the spotlight.
So if you’re into this sort of shit, stick with me. Tomorrow I’m going to tackle what may be the most serious parody of a ghost-hunting show I’ve ever seen: Grave Encounters.