The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project ★★★★★

Fifteen years on, is The Blair Witch Project being reassessed? Fifteen years after I saw it at the cinema and was entranced and thoroughly freaked out, the Dissolve's recent retrospective and the reviews on Letterboxd have my hopes high - even the negative ones are more acute and considered than the sea of cliches that submerged it after its release ("...you don't even see the monster... just a pile of stones... overhyped... that chick's snot lol... glug, glug, glug...")

The Blair Witch Project wasn't the first mock-doc horror, of course - the makers acknowledged the influence of The Legend of Boggy Creek, and Cannibal Holocaust and the BBC's priceless Ghostwatch can also stand as ancestors. But it was made at a time when this wasn't an acknowledged subgenre. The makers had to think about why they were making the film in this style, rather than just do it because it's saleable. And comparing it to the current found-footage wave shows up what I value about it.

The modern found-footage films tend to have artificial lighting, special effects, and a more traditional build-build-build-BOO pacing. In short, they look like conventional horror films, albeit ones shot very badly and with someone going "ohmigod ohmigod what's that" dubbed over the top. As soon as you start showing CGI monsters and possessed girls jumping all over the ceiling, I've stopped believing in this as found footage.

The Blair Witch Project, on the other hand, walks the line perfectly. There are moments that are uncanny, moments that are inexplicable, plenty of moments that seem to hint at something of massive occult significance going on out there in the darkness - but it never plays its hand. Those piles of stones could be made by a ghost, or they could be made by some feral forest dweller looking to spook these students off their turf. Both these possibilities are left open by the film, and both these possibilities are fucking terrifying if you stop to consider them.

The characters, of course, have picked their side. As soon as they see those stick figures hanging from the trees, they decide that no "redneck" could possibly have made something so, um, intricate. Heather tries to remember what an old woman at the start said to her, but she forgot it, because she assumed the woman was a "lunatic". They find it easier to believe in ghostly witches than any sort of malevolent human cunning existing out here in the sticks.

One of the nicest surprises about rewatching The Blair Witch Project was finding this commentary about town and country - blue state and red state? - in modern America. The three students go into the woods armed with nothing but a sense of their own superiority, a cast-iron conviction that "people don't get lost in America", and an armful of pop-culture references. Even the woman with the baby they interview at the start - a real person, the filmmakers say, and who are we to doubt them? - cites a Discovery Channel special as 'evidence' that the Blair Witch really exists.

Heather is the ultimate example of this type. In the film's first half-hour - which shouldn't be discounted, it sets so much up in such an unobtrusive way - she comes across as incredibly driven and professional. When she greets Josh with a cheery-voiced "Heyyyy, Mr. Punctuality!" it sketches in a whole history of low-key resentment and personality clashes behind a veneer of good-natured needling. The rest of the film dismantles her in a genuinely upsetting way. Heather isn't a helpless damsel in distress, but nor is she a resourceful final girl; she's a real, flawed, sympathetic, sometimes annoying person being broken up.

But broken up by what? For me, The Blair Witch Project is more rewarding when considered as part of the Weird Fiction tradition - Machen, Lovecraft, Blackwood - than as a precursor to Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. The roughness of the camerawork and murkiness of the shadows creates a clever, digital-age analogue to the incomprehensible, invisible terrors in those stories. These authors were also alive to the folkloric potential of the woods - to quote the Twelfth Doctor, "The forest is mankind’s nightmare. It's in all the stories that kept you awake at night" - and I couldn't help wondering whether the oft-criticised inability of the three students to follow the stream and find their way out of the woods had a Blackwoodesque explanation? Was the forest changing around them? Is it even possible to get out of these woods? Why is Mike laughing so much, anyway?

Well, maybe I'm picking sides now, ignoring its peerlessly Fortean balance between the plausible and the ungraspable. Watching it again for the first time in many years, I'm amazed I could see this at the cinema without vomiting all over - the shakycam is more extreme than any other theatrically released film I've ever seen. But that's the only part of my former enthusiasm that feels hard to understand now. I wasn't as entranced as I once was, though there are plenty of deeply eerie sequences. But I can't think of anything you could add to or take out of this film that would make it more successful at what it's trying to be.

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