22 May 2008

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Written & Directed by: Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez
Full Credits from IMDb

Grade: A-

In The Blair Witch Project, three student filmmakers set out to shoot a documentary centered on a legend about a mean ol’ witch who, it’s said, lives in the woods around a small town that used to be called Blair; the film we see is passed off as a copy of their raw footage. The documentary they’re making, on a formal level, is awful: The camera moves around arbitrarily and the interviewer, Heather Donahue, constantly interrupts her subjects with uh-huhs and yeahs. At first, that’s irritating—this movie (within a movie) is terrible!—but soon it’s almost tragic. All the terrible things about to happen to these kids—for this?

Luckily, the real (that is, unseen) filmmakers are not so clumsy. To get some location footage, the diegetic crew moves from the Maryland town into the surrounding woods, where they become hopelessly lost—and then shit gets scary. The daytime, woodland scares are thoroughly ambiguous, frightening the audience solely through suggestion: figures of bundled sticks hang off of tree branches! And piles of rocks—signifying grave markers—appear outside their tent overnight! Each serves as a symbol of a human presence eerily stripped of context; we never see anyone in the woods, but we know someone is there. “You ever see Deliverance?” one of the kids, Joshua Leonard, half-jokingly asks his companions. Compared to the supernatural obstacles our three filmmaking heroes face, the Reynolds-led gang from Deliverance had it easy.

That’s because the daytime creepiness is just the icing on a terrible cake; the true terror comes with nightfall. The Blair Witch Project’s central fear is primal: scary things (strange sounds, mostly) happen after dark, nightfall is coming and there’s not a single thing our heroes can do to stop it. What happens during the day is unsettling; what happens at night is petrifying as the filmmakers leave it all up to the audience’s imaginations—the cause of fear is entirely aural and invisible; the screen goes black for minutes at a time.

The filmmakers’ trump card is the first-person camera; by witnessing all the action through a camcorder, the camera becomes a character—we become the camera—and the terrifying mystery that the characters suffer falls on us, as well. All atmospherics and formal trickery, the film reminds adult viewers why it makes sense to be scared of the dark. (And why haughty cityfolk ought to pay more respect to the mysteries of “the woods”.)

In hindsight, the characters’ powerlessness and the frightening uncertainty that surrounds them perfectly tapped into the pre-millennial, late-Clinton-era zeitgeist. Having lost their map, the characters randomly choose the direction in which to travel, paralleling their country’s aimlessness. In Heather’s infamous, boogery, direct address confessional, she admits with shame her responsibility for what’s happening to her and her team, acknowledging that it’s a direct result of her pigheadedness. “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days,” Heather says earlier, reflecting the smug American confidence that would combust on September 11th.

But The Blair Witch Project also functions as a commentary on the compulsion to watch and produce movies. As they wander the woods hungry and afraid, Heather refuses to stop filming. Finally, Joshua snatches the camera and begins shouting, pointing the lens at her as though it were a weapon or accusatory finger. “I see why you like this camera so much,” Joshua tells her. “It’s not quite reality.” The easiest way to escape from the fear of Y2K and the impending unpredictability of a new millennium is, of course, through the movies. As Heather says, “It’s all I have left.” Ditto for America.

Watch the grainy teaser:

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