Looking back at the genre-defining power of ‘The Blair Witch Project’, 20 years on
Before the likes of Twitter and Facebook, when information was less readily-available and sorting fact from fiction or urban fairytale wasn’t as easy as a Google search, the world was a more innocent place. Unknown films and broadcasts of dubious origins could pop out of nowhere and create a flurry of public discussion.
Take The Exorcist’s alleged ‘satanic curse’, lobbied against by devout Catholics, or the infamous 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds which caused physical riots and hysteria. Though, at the turn of the 21st century, it was The Blair Witch Project which would set the precedent for horror and viral marketing to come, marking the end of the ‘oblivious audience’.
Imitated, ripped, screwed
and morphed into various found-footage imitators, the material of the film
itself is a budding filmmakers ‘first idea’, simple, low-budget and assumedly
very fun to produce. The plot is simple, following three young film students
through the woods as they try and capture footage of the urban legend, ‘The Blair
Witch’. The footage we see of course has been ‘recovered’, following
their mysterious disappearance.
Given a 35-page barebone script from directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the actors entered the woods with basic handheld cameras and were instructed to follow a basic path toward various areas of interest. Openings in the woodland, mysterious hand-crafted figures, or a dank cottage, each set-up and marked out by the directors. What results is a frantic dash through the wilderness with rare moments of respite. A paranoid chase scene with an invisible predator.
Though as the protagonist Heather exclaims before they enter the forest: “I want to present this in as straightforward a way as possible…the legend is unsettling enough”. Hence, there are no monsters or ghouls, not even a witch. To have had one would be to have given the audience a tangible fear, something to recoil from and squint at. Providing nothing at all accentuates the paranoia, the fear of the unknown or unintelligible.
This explains the frantic scrambling of internet forums at the time, sketching out exaggerated figures from blurry frames of the film, desperately trying to find answers. The film succeeds at that which many of the genre fail it, showing only that which could’ve been plausibly filmed by the team, “It is trying to immerse us in a world that, in all appearances, is coextensive to our own”. The Blair Witch is ‘Jaws’ lingering a little too deep from view, the Xenomorph lurking in the shadows of the spaceship, though refuses to offer the relief of its own appearance.
The film was your unsophisticated grungy next door neighbour who never opens his curtains, out in the woods making a movie. Unapologetically unsophisticated and unpolished. A muddy grass-stained affair riddled with dodgy camerawork, disinteresting dialogue and questionable performances. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a rare real-life case of found footage, each ‘dodgy’ filmmaking element only accentuating the ‘real-life’ events of the film, of genuine panic and irrationality. The filmmaking manual was screwed up and rewritten in messy shorthand.
This sparked a whole horror sub-genre in the found-footage movement of the early 2000s, a move towards lower budgets, smaller teams and more basic concepts. Many of these failed to hit the same success of the Blair Witch, trying too hard to create a larger concept, or failing to try hard enough, misunderstanding the efforts that went into the original films production. Generic titles marked ‘… tapes’, or ‘…diaries’ were cinematic fodder, cynical cash grabs from big-budget studios. Though with plenty of successes throughout the decade, most notably the even cheaper Paranormal Activity and subsequent sequels, the Blair Witch’s influence on contemporary horror is clear.
The Blair Witch was a literal ‘project’ that challenged the cinematic medium and audience expectations. Absurd in comparison with its 2016 successor come-sequel, which very much applied the found-footage formula back with the carnivalesque ghost-train that is popular horror.
Replacing grainy visual imperfection for digital glean, paranoid ambiguity for strict narrative and the fear of the unknown with a digital monster that looks like something in between a deformed piece of deep-fried turkey and a crayon stick-figure. Farcical in comparison to the invisible terror of the cold, moonlit, forest, in all its grainy glory.