One of the scariest films ever made
In honor of the new Blair Witch coming out later this month, I felt obligated to go back and review the 1999 found footage horror classic, The Blair Witch Project. It's directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and stars Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, all who play fictional versions of themselves.
Three film students, Heather, Michael, and Josh set out into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland to shoot a documentary on the fabled Blair Witch, a local legend. Viewers are told the three disappeared and were never seen again, but that the footage they filmed was found a year later. This recovered footage is the film the viewer is watching.
When I think of the scariest films ever made, the first few movies to come to mind are The Exorcist, The Shining, Alien, and Psycho. I am one to make the claim that The Blair Witch Project should be included right alongside these other horror films. Others would argue this movie is devoid of scares, largely in part because our three characters are all college-aged and they continually make idiotic decisions. Brainless teenagers/young adults are typically the primary characters in slasher and cheap, cash-grab horror movies nowadays. So why should The Blair Witch Project be seen any differently? Because unlike many slasher and horror movies, Blair Witch does not rely on cheap jump scares and excessive gore. Our characters may be not-so-bright college students, but their situation is one of pure terror. It's a situation that forces you to fill in supposed holes with your imagination.
- The lack of gore and jump scares. I'm not sure why horror movie filmmakers seem to believe scares and terror come from making you jump and/or exhibiting the gross-out factor that comes from watching human bodies get ripped to shreds. I cannot recall the last time I saw a modern day horror movie trailer that did not at any point have a moment where there is brief silence, and then the next moment something pops out to frighten you. The Blair Witch Project relies on suspense and imagination, both of which are severely lacking in modern day horror.
The key behind The Blair Witch Project is the fear of the unknown. People are scared by what they do not know, and the film never presents us enough evidence to conclude what exactly is happening to our three characters. Are they being pursued by a witch ghost? Or maybe it's an ugly monster? We are forced to use our imaginations to make an assumption, and that's what terrifies us. People want answers to questions that interest them, but when they don't have or don't get those answers, they'll get either frustrated or scared. In this case, they get scared. We are watching three people travel into the woods. There is no communication with the outside world. Their supplies start to run out. Nobody knows where they are. They're lost and have no idea where to go.
The film slowly builds up suspense, and when our three characters realize the magnitude of their situation, terror strikes. There is no need for excessive blood or to have something pop out to make you jump, because we are right there with Heather, Josh, and Mike as their fear and hopelessness sets in. They don't know what's happening to them, and neither do we. Their fear becomes our fear.
- I could not find anything in The Blair Witch Project that I could consider to be a major flaw. If anything, Josh is, arguably, the member of the trio that gets the least amount of attention. Much of the first-person perspective we see is from Heather and Mike. The only noteworthy times that Josh is holding the camera is when he is yelling at Heather for supposedly losing their map, and later on when he brazenly taunts her about the three being lost. Something significant involving Josh does happen later on, but too often it feels we are getting either Heather or Mike's respective viewpoints. I can safely claim that Heather is the most important of the three because she is the one who proposes creating the documentary, and Josh and Mike continually ask her if she knows where they are going. Again, this is more of a precise nitpick that I can understand if you disagree with.
Found footage is a horror film gimmick that gets many complaints nowadays because of its general overuse, but when done well, credit should be given where credits due. The Blair Witch Project is the defining example of found footage, using it as a medium to express the idea that imagination and the fear of the unknown can contain true and unadulterated terror. There are no cheap jump scares or examples of grotesque gore, but instead an underlying sense of realism to tease you just enough into thinking maybe this film could've actually happened.
There will always be a divide between those, like me, who believe The Blair Witch Project is a classic in horror cinema, and those that claim the film is laughable and scare-free. If you're unsure, think not so much about who the characters are and the way they behave, but what their situation is and what could possibly be lurking behind the trees. If your answer is "I don't know", that's good, because what you don't know is the undeniably frightening truth.
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