The Blair Witch Project has become little more than a target since its release. It has been credited with causing the current trend of “found footage” horror films (which is mostly accurate, though it’s not the first; Cannibal Holocaust beat them to the punch a couple decades before). It has been criticized as little more than a few bad actors constantly shaking the camera and swearing, with lackluster scares that amount to little more than piles of sticks and rocks. Yes, it has all these things, and yes, it has its flaws, but people who throw out these criticisms tend to ignore one basic thing: this movie is scary as hell.
The Blair Witch Project gained its notoriety and infamy by claiming to be real footage of a group of student filmmakers getting lost in the woods and hunted by the titular witch, and being right around the time the internet was starting to take hold in popular consciousness, this film’s story went viral before viral marketing was really a thing. While the witch and the deaths of the filmmakers were obviously faked (as their attendance at the film’s premiere would attest), if you look into the story of the making of the film, you’ll find that pretty much everything else was real. Made on a budget that would have to be inflated to be called shoestring, the filmmakers got a few struggling actors, dropped them into the middle of the woods with a couple of cameras and some poor directions, and then did everything possible to scare the ever-loving crap out of these people so they’d get their honest reactions onscreen. They would wander around in the darkness at night, throwing rocks and breaking sticks, shaking the tent at random intervals to keep them from sleeping and keep their scared reactions more genuine. The actors would be given less food each day, intensifying their animosity toward each other. Perhaps the criticism of this film’s acting is warranted, as pretty much none of it was actual acting!
The fictional and thematic elements of fear this film plays with are also some of the most classic and primal. The woods, by their very nature, are a creepy place to be during the day, and even worse at night. Something could be hiding behind any tree at any moment, and you wouldn’t be able to see it until it is too late. By toying with what we cannot see in a very similar, if less dramatic, manner as Jaws did with the open ocean, the film forces us to imagine the horrors that these kids are facing. The fact that we are right there with them, stuck in their camera, at their level, makes it all the more terrible. I lose it when I get lost for five minutes in the city; watching it happen to these kids for more than a week gets difficult to watch, especially as the attacks of the “witch” escalate in violence. (Also, as a personal note, I love any movie that successfully pulls off never actually seeing the villain; at the best of times it’s a difficult, even audacious trick to pull, but Blair Witch does so with remarkable ease.) Though just shy of 90 minutes, watching these kids break down realistically has an emotionally draining effect that is only magnified by the mysterious goings-on that surround them. These all add together to make a movie that is bar none one of the top five scariest movies I have ever seen.
Camping’s never really been my thing. After seeing Blair Witch, I don’t think it’ll ever be.
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-- Matt Carter
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