The Blair Witch Project: clever film that manipulates its audiences’ fear of the unknown and the ordinary

Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, “The Blair Witch Project” (1998)

About fifteen years after it was made and the hype surrounding it died down, this hokey fly-on-the-wall mockumentary still stands up surprisingly well as an enjoyable B-grade horror film. Three student film-makers interested in the local lore of their rural Maryland community decide to make a documentary about a notorious local legend called the Blair Witch. This character has been responsible for causing a local man to murder several children in a house in the 1940s, a disappearance of searchers looking for a man in 1888 and other odd incidents involving ritual murder.

The intrepid student trio venture into the woods with their camping gear and promptly lose their map and bearings. They wander about in circles (though the landscape may be changing so as to give that impression); they become tired, cold, wet and hungry; they lose their tempers and self-control, and panic a great deal; they hear strange voices in the distance and find weird stick figures, bundles of faggots, slimy blue goo and some bloody body appendage bits in one of their shirts which their frazzled fevered minds interpret as supernatural Blair Witch business cards. Anything and everything they can do that’s wrong or stupid is done, and after one of them vanishes into the ether, viewers can assume the other two youngsters will soon follow in the inevitable downward spiral. (TBWP itself is based on the infamous “Cannibal Holocaust” by Ruggero Deodato, in which a film crew disappears in the Amazon rainforest, an anthropologist is sent out to discover what happened to the four people and is given their equipment and film footage by the local tribal people. He takes the film back to the film crew’s sponsors and they watch the film which reveals the horrifying fate of the film-makers.)

The film derives most of its suspense from its cinema verité style: jerky filming thanks to the use of hand-held camera, deliberately blurry and unfocused images, the camera pointing upwards or sideways, the constant obsessive filming and the actors’ actions, behaviour and language all force the audience to become more than passive voyeuristic observers. The actors themselves might be typical examples of the film’s target audience (they are all young teenagers enthusiastic about making their own home movie) so there is no need for the film-makers to force the audience to identify with the trio. In addition the three actors used their own names, lending the film the patina of faux authenticity.

The three young people constantly over-act and swear unimaginatively but the hokey goings-on fortunately don’t overpower the one positive element here and that’s the forest setting. The film-makers deliberately draw on the audience’s knowledge of fairy stories like “Hansel and Gretel” in which characters are cast out into the dark woods to survive as best they can. With clever use of filming, including filming at night, and the emphasis on close-ups and sharp night lighting, the film-makers turn ordinary forest objects like tree branches and rubbish on the ground into the extraordinary and supernatural.

A major gripe some viewers will have is that its premise and plot don’t sustain the film’s length. There’s a lot of repetition (though some of that is necessary for plot development and the maintenance of suspense and growing horror) and character development is uneven and mostly flat. When one student disappears, viewers may not feel much sympathy for him. Heather as the leader of the expedition, smug in her certainties at first but breaking down gradually throughout the film, is the most developed character and her address to the audience as if they were family members in the well-known scene where everyone can see up her nostrils is riveting viewing for its pathos. The kids engage in constant whingeing, swearing and fighting, though this is necessary as a way of covering up their fear and panic at being lost. When the film exhausts all available plot possibilities – and they don’t come more stereotyped than a derelict house in the woods – the ending is abrupt, horrifying and open to interpretation.

As a psychological study that deliberately manipulates its audience and plays with its expectations, TBWP is a good work of experimental film-making done on the cheap. It shows that there is nothing so terrifying and horrible as ordinary objects draped over with opinion, beliefs, emotion and personal and community fears.

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