For horror fans, Halloween is the most important day of the year. To celebrate horror’s official holiday, ADV presents the 31 Days of Halloween: each day in October, we will suggest a film or film series that we consider essential viewing during the season of fear. This isn’t a “Top 31 List” or a countdown of the “Best” or “Scariest” horror films out there, just a rundown of films that are sure to creep you out or otherwise put you in the Halloween spirit. Enjoy!
So our next choice is probably going to be a bit contentious, in that it has traditionally invoked a “love it” or “hate it” response even amongst die-hard horror movie fans. It in many ways represents the genesis of “documentary” style horror movies and the use of the “queasy-cam” to maintain the illusion of reality and to heighten the audience’s sense of disorientation and discomfort, a style used to magnificent effect in the first Paranormal Activity and even in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit. We are talking, of course about the 1999 phenomena The Blair Witch Project. But love it or hate it, it is undeniable that it had a tremendous positive effect on the horror genre as a whole, reminding the industry that it was possible to create a frightening movie on a shoe-string budget and that sometimes, especially in horror, that less can be more. As such, it is a movie that any fan of the genre should see at least once, and that, if viewed in the proper environment and context, is guaranteed to conjure up primordial terrors and put even the most jaded viewer in the Halloween spirit.
The film’s plot isn’t anything too spectacular, and is in fact traditional horror movie fare: a group of young film makers go into the woods to create a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch, a dangerous specter tied to a string of child disappearances since her wrongful death for witchcraft in the 18th century. They expect to create nothing more than a moody documentary about a local legend, but instead find out that the Blair Witch is terrifyingly real. This basic idea “urban legend turns out to be true” is the premise for such horror classics as The Wicker Man (1973), The Candy Man (1992), and Jeepers Creepers (2001), to name but a few. However, the brilliance of The Blair Witch Project is not in its plot, but in its execution.
The film’s co-writers and directors, David Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, envisioned this film as a “found film” pseudo-documentary, purported to be “real” footage found in the woods several years after the disappearance of the students making the documentary, striving for an illusion of verisimilitude and authenticity in this fiction in every aspect of its production and marketing. The film makers widely used the internet to market the film and blur the line as to whether or not it was fiction when the film was first released, using newsreel style interviews and fake police reports to disseminate the idea that the movie was “real”. Similarly, at Sundance and other film festivals, when the film was released, they handed out flyers asking viewers to come forward with any information they might have about the missing students. They also enforced a media blackout on the actors involved in the film in the initial months, not allowing them to make statements or appear in the media for interviews. All of this helped created the illusion and the hype that the footage was real and that the student filmmakers were actually missing.
Similar steps were taken to get authentic performances out the actors themselves. Most of the dialogue was improvised, and Sanchez and Myrick had sought actors with strong improvisational backgrounds, so that while they were often given a general idea what to say, their interactions would feel more natural and less scripted. However, this improvisational methodology was not restricted only to the dialogue. The actors never really knew where they were going or what was coming next, as they were led from place to place in the woods by way of instructions they would find in milk crates through the use of GPS devices. They were forced to march through the woods for long periods of time, to sleep in the woods, and were given small amounts of food, simulating the psychological state of soldiers being hunted through hostile territory and sleep deprivation. They were never told what the nature of the next scene would be, and ambushed with the scares at unexpected intervals. As such, their reactions in many of the sequences are authentic, as they were terrified in real life. This was part of the reason that the characters were given the same first name as the actors playing them, so that when they start freaking out and yelling to each other onscreen in real fear, they were using the right names and maintaining the illusion.
Sanchez and Myrick created a rich mythology around the Blair Witch and the legends and places associated with her, basing them off of real-life legends and myths so that they would feel more realistic. The locals that the students interview for their documentary were in many cases not professional actors, but actual residents of the town of Burkittsville, Maryland, where the film takes place, while other “locals” were, unknown to the cast, planted actors. As such, the stories that they hear about the Blair Witch are actually really creepy, especially once the students start encountering the environs and phenomenons described in the legend for themselves. Unsettling figures made from sticks, real human teeth with the roots still attached, unexpected noises such as an old woman’s laughter or the cry of a baby in the depths of the woods at night, and dilapidated ruins in the middle of nowhere where just some of the elements the filmmakers used to terrify the cast. And it all translated beautifully onto film to terrify audiences in turn.
The nature of the film makes it almost impossible to say anything about the quality of the acting, but needless to say, their terror and disorientation felt authentic… because it was. Unlike most “characters” in a film, there were no heroes or villains in the cast, and everyone’s relationship to one another truly felt organic and fragile, dependent on the circumstances of what was happening on the screen in a way that is both real and unique to this sort of improvised performance. Heather Donahue (she of the infamous weeping into the stedi-cam), Michael C. Williams, and Josh Leonard all deserve commendations, not only for the believability of their performances, but for what they had to endure in order to achieve those performances.
Where The Blair Witch Project is contentious is in the manner in which it chose to achieve its scares. This is the ultimate understated, low-budget horror movie, but the filmmakers chose not to take the easy way out and turn it into a splatter-fest or a B-monster movie. In this sense, the filmmakers took a page from Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws, in which it is the anticipation of the monster and the intimation of its presence that is so unnerving, in the way that a fake movie monster could never be. In fact, though her presence is felt throughout the entire film, she is never once seen on screen. Instead, the scares are achieved by maintaining an unrelenting atmosphere of terror that is maintained through the surreality of the events and the strange things that the students see and hear, gradually building a mood and ambience of fear, confusion, and desperation. Besides the unsettling artifacts and locations and the performances of the cast, the majority of this atmosphere was created through clever sound design and manipulation. The noises that the cast hears in the pitch black woods at night through the flimsy fabric of their tent or when they are fleeing through the woods are big part of what makes this film so scary.
That having been said, there has probably been no other movie in the history of the horror genre that is so dependent on the ambience and circumstances of the audience to be effective as this one is. As previously stated, there are two camps in terms of viewers of The Blair Witch Project. Those who loved it invariably watched it in the dark, with no background noise or conversations going on, and no laptop or phone to distract them from the terrifying reality being spun for them on the screen. Those who hated it either got motion sickness through the film’s heavy use of hand-held cameras or watched it with their buddies, cracking jokes, pausing it so someone could pee or get popcorn, or even worse, watching it with the lights on or while distracted by something else. This shatters the illusion of verisimilitude, as no one part of the movie is spectacular enough to be taken out of context. The acting is untraditional and unlikely to impress anyone outside of its use to simulate realism; there is no monster; there are no special effects; and without immersing yourself in the unsettling atmosphere and the outstandingly creepy sound design, there is essentially no film.
When we were first dating, my wife and I saw this film in a little movie theater in Vermont, and then had to drive home along a rural route that ran through the woods. Though my wife was exhausted and having trouble staying awake at the wheel, she refused to let me drive… because it meant that we would have had to get out of the car and switch places surrounded by woods. Neither one of us were willing to risk that after seeing The Blair Witch Project. A while later, we talked to a friend who was a big horror buff and asked him what he thought of the film, and he replied that it was the dumbest thing he had ever seen. We were perplexed in our wildly divergent experiences, since normally he and I have the same taste in horror movies. It turns out that we watched it in a nearly deserted movie theater, in the dark, with surround sound. He, on the other hand, watched it in his buddy’s apartment, drinking beer and occasionally cracking jokes, like he was watching a teen slasher flick. That just won’t work with this movie.
So do yourself a favor, even if you’ve seen The Blair Witch Project before. Clear out some time to watch it. Turn off all the lights. Turn on your surround sound, and turn off your phone. Leave your bloody tablet or your laptop or whatever in the other room. Immerse yourself in the fiction of this film and leave the outside world outside. We guarantee that under these circumstances, The Blair Witch Project has the power to be one of the most pervasively unsettling films you will ever see. If you let it.