“I’m scared to close my eyes. I’m scared to open them.”
This is another interesting inclusion and a very divisive film. Though if you’re going to claim that there are 1001 movies you need to see before you die, I would consider said list more of a sampler of important works and genres than a top tier list. For this reason, I think The Blair Witch Project is a fine inclusion for such criteria. It’s an innovative, ambitious piece of horror which raises the bar for potentials of the genre and demonstrated the impact of low-budget, independent filmmaking. Therefore, it’s a very important movie, but I also think it’s a terrific work of film on its own right.
One of the first films (though not the first) to present its narrative in found footage format, The Blair Witch Project opens with a disclaimer that a group of teenagers went missing in the woods and that the following film is the footage they gathered before their disappearance. The students in question are Heather, Josh, and Mike, and their goal is to shoot a documentary-style film about the Blair Witch, a folklore figure who is rumored to be a malicious spirit which lurks in the nearby woods. They interview members of the community, all of whom provide different accounts about the witch, and then they set off into the forest to have an experience of their own, though they soon wish they hadn’t. It’s a tale of panic, paranoia, and devastating fear which reaps a terrifying final sequence.
The movie gets heat in a lot of horror circles, whether on its own merits or for “spawning” a series of garbage movies from the same vein. Some might say that the film was great upon release, but the saturation of the found footage genre has diminished its greatness. This is an argument you hear a lot with The Blair Witch Project, but I find it untrue. I can’t think of a better found footage movie than this one, though it’s possible that I’ve seen one, but even so there aren’t many. While so many big horror movies will just shoot their cookie cutter story with a camera and call it found footage (2015’s The Gallows, for instance), this isn’t what the subgenre should be about. If you really look at the successes of The Blair Witch Project, it may become clear that Hollywood never took the right lessons from the movie.
For starters, there should be an element of limited access for the viewer. To really sell the gimmick that this is all recorded on someone’s camera, you can’t use jump scares or really any sort of pleasing composition. The Blair Witch Project is messy, and it’s powerfully messy. The film’s directors (Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick) understand that the audience’s imagination will be stronger than most anything you can show on screen, particularly with a shoestring budget. The Blair Witch is one of the most terrifying horror villains because you never see her directly; you only see her effects. You see the hysteria, the seeds of dismay that she plants, and you’re sucked into the bleakness of her twisted games.
There’s also something significant to how the film was distributed. Often described as the first use of “viral marketing,” you hear many accounts of entire audiences believing the film was real. The filmmakers even played this up during festival release, handing out posters with the teenager’s faces and asking for any information related to their whereabouts. Unmarked tapes of The Blair Witch Project were being passed around groups of friends, stimulating debate over its legitimacy. I wish I could have taken part in this delightful ignorance, and with the Internet as prominent as it is now, it’s unlikely that a film will ever have this sort of effect again. While the marketing was brilliant in this sense, it’s also a testament to the film’s production that it fooled so many audiences. This is a movie that generates fear through realism. Even when you know now that this is a work of fiction, it feels like actual found footage, an ambiance which similar movies these days never come close to achieving.
The Blair Witch Project isn’t the absolute scariest movie you’ll ever see (though it may have been if you took part in the phenomenon of its release). I’ll also concede that it hasn’t aged perfectly, but I still found myself captivated through the entire film. It’s a concise film, but it builds to a beautiful finale that never feels like a predictable Blockbuster. Even if you’re not a fan of the film, you can appreciate it as an innovative piece of indie filmmaking. It’s a part of our culture, and it changed the horror genre forever, solidifying its sinister legacy.
Films Left to Watch: 894