The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project ★★★★

Hooptober 7!!! -- 19/31

While not actually the first found footage horror movie, it's hard to argue against The Blair Witch Project being the movie that brought the concept mainstream attention and established tropes and expectations of the genre. To my knowledge, this was highly celebrated upon its release, but found footage is clearly not to everyone's taste now, and opinions on how it has held up vary wildly. I've somehow made it this far in my life without having seen The Blair Witch Project, so looking at it in 2020 with no prior attachment... well, for me, this is really damn good.

Much of that is going to come down to tolerance for found footage and willingness to accept a few things that need to be handwaved. Personally, I rather enjoy the style. Now, to be honest, there's absolutely nothing special at all about the first third of this movie. Three friends are filming a documentary, and in the early stages we're shown a montage of them getting together, interviewing some locals, and preparing to set out into the woods themselves. This all feels genuine and natural, but it's the most standard generic urban legend stuff -- Noroi earlier in Hooptober (the absolute perfection of found footage, as far as I'm concerned) could make the very mention of the supernatural ominous; whereas The Blair Witch Project is just doing exactly what we expect here. Being an early film in a style isn't easy though; I don't mean to come down on it too hard. The thing is, I enjoy the handheld found footage style a lot. Turning the very form of film itself into an acknowledged part of the narrative gives it an intimate, immediate sort of atmosphere. Some people are repelled by this. I'm not one of them; I get drawn in, which helped immensely in the necessary but unremarkable early stages.

And once they enter the woods, there is some real terror here. It's a slow descent with far more focus on characters than I expected. In fact, I'd argue most of the horror of this movie isn't even about a scary witch. The witch exists to give the woods something tangible (though appropriately vague) as a source of danger. We never see the witch, but it works, the location itself feels purely evil. The legend of the witch diffuses into every tree, every pile of rocks, every crunch of the leaves. The true horror of The Blair Witch Project is the more relatable fear of being hopelessly lost and alone.

"No one is here to help you... no one is here to help you... no one is here to help you."

That's the heart of it. Knowing, as much as you try to deny it, that something terrible is coming, that you cannot stop it, and no one is coming to help you. It's pure hopelessness, and the film spends plenty of time watching it take its toll on the characters. They scream; they cry; they lash out at each other. I don't understand people who call them annoying -- sure they're a bit obnoxious at the start and there's a whole lot of in-fighting, but this is a deadly, logic-defying situation, and people falling apart during a crisis is perfectly true to life. At times I found their reactions deeply upsetting.

Sure, the movie isn't perfect; I think its mixed reputation comes from requiring a specific type of viewer. There's a certain level of immersion and buying in that we have to provide on our own. Again, almost nothing is seen. The horror comes from implications of surrounding danger, but the actual scares are just noises in the woods, mysteriously appearing objects, and the like. This type of suggestion of horror will work for some people and not for others, and that's fine. I honestly think a single sighting of the witch (done well of course) would have benefitted the movie, and apparently one was planned, but it ultimately didn't happen. You also have to be willing to overlook the inherent silliness in the majority of found footage: the constantly rolling camera often substituting for someone's eyes. I appreciate that the characters themselves acknowledge how excessive the endless filming is, but it still absolutely pushes up against ridiculousness by the end. I'm largely willing to turn my brain off to that detail, though I understand why some don't. And finally, I think a few moments go too far into obscuring any vision at all. Often the movie is good about just giving us glimpses of the woods, enough to get our eyes darting back and forth for danger and let our imaginations work, but sometimes the old found footage issue of a violently shaky camera showing literally nothing for a full minute emerges. Those were the only parts I found truly disengaging.

Sometimes mixed responses to a movie perplex me more, but here I think it's totally understandable. The Blair Witch Project is a fantastic movie for certain people, but the minimalism of the actual filmed horror and the various things it asks us to not get hung up on could easily make it a boring joke to others. Luckily, I'm someone this movie was made for, and I'm genuinely excited by how anxious it made me.

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