' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: The Blair Witch Project

Friday, October 30, 2009

My Great Movies: The Blair Witch Project

As an adult only one film has given me nightmares - honest-to-goodness, wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-with-a-gasp-and-realize-you've-just-sweat-through-all-your-sheets nightmares. That movie? 1999's "The Blair Witch Project".

What makes a movie scary? I supposed that depends on the person. I'm not a horror movie aficionado (that would be my friend Brad) but one phrase that drives me absolutely crazy is when a person values a scary movie's worth by saying, "I jumped in my seat (however many number of) times." This means nothing. Any hack director can make you jump in your seat by coinciding the opening of a door with an ominous, out of place banging of the piano on the movie's soundtrack.

"The Blair Witch Project" never made me jump in my seat. Instead it made me sink lower and lower into my seat, hugging myself in terror, a pit growing in my stomach. It felt so horrifyingly real that I have only seen it three times, the last coming about eight years ago.

My first viewing came via a midnight sneak at the time of the film's release when I still managed the movie theater. My friend Brad (different from the Brad I just mentioned above) and I rode home together, chattering about who-knows-what, simply trying to distance ourselves from what we had just witnessed. That was the night when I awoke with awful nightmares. The second time came a year and a half later on Halloween night....by myself. When it was over I stood up, saw someone in the window, screamed out loud, and fell back in the chair. Then I realized the "someone" was my own reflection. The third time my friend Nicolle made me watch it and after that I decided enough was enough. I was too old. I couldn't take it anymore.

It belongs on my DVD shelf but I don't own a copy. I can't own a copy. I don't want it in my house, man. The cover alone gives me the creeps. But since this year's mark its 10th Anniversary and since Halloween was fast approaching I chose to suck it up, Netflix it and re-watch it. Alone. The lights off. In my (gulp) basement apartment. Oh, Sweet Jesus.

The gimmick, for anyone who might not be in the know, as developed by its writers and directors, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, is this: three people go into the woods in the area around Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about a local legend known as “The Blair Witch”. They disappear. A year later their footage is found. The film is framed as being this footage in its entirety, shot both with a color camcorder meant to be a documentary of the movie being made and in 16 mm black and white of the intended film footage.

The trio is Heather, Josh and Mike (played by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Mike Williams). The movie starts with lazy rhythms as they prepare for their filmmaking sojourn and interview people around the town in relation to the Blair Witch and because it is done so matter-of-factly it never feels foreboding. The comments of the town folk come across more as rumor and legend than anything factual. They meet a local recluse named Mary Brown who claims to have actually encountered the Witch herself. Heather, Josh and Mike listen to her but not really. (“Do you remember something Mary Brown was saying the other day? I wasn’t paying attention because I thought she was crazy.”)

In the woods Heather is entrusted as the guide, though it becomes apparent from the get-go she is not the world’s most skilled navigator. They do manage to shoot eerie footage, of a place called Coffin Rock where five men were killed in the 1800's and of a creepy cemetery where rocks are piled in some sort of obscure formation. In the evening, after dark, events slowly build. The first night one character claims to hear cackling in the distance but it is quickly laughed off. The next night they hear the sound of twigs snapping from every direction. The next they swear they can hear a child screaming in the distance. But for the entire movie they only hear. They never see. That’s the movie's most vital trick. They never see.

During the day tempers flare when it becomes obvious they are lost. Heather remains insistent on filming this documentary despite these ominous, unknown sounds drawing closer every night. They wake up one morning to find rocks piled right outside their tent. They find trees of hanging stick figures that feel all too ominous. Slowly they start to come unglued. They walk south all day but wind up in the exact same place. Little water, no food and, worst of all, no cigarettes, and knowing all the while in the back of their mind that when night falls....

Certainly “The Blair Witch Project”, despite much praise, had its critics. The most common complaint leveled at the film, at least the one I recall hearing the most, was, “Why don’t they put the cameras down?” At night when something is rattling around outside their tent, yes, Heather still turns on the camera to capture it. No matter how dire the situation, they continue filming. (It should be noted the almost entirely handheld camera work can make for an unsettling experience on the head and stomach. Managing the theater during its release I can recall several instances of sending poor ushers into the bathrooms to clean up That Which Is Caused By Motion Sickness.)

First, I was struck this time by how much they try to set up the Heather character as a person who, in fact, would continue filming in these moments. She gets a line about “If the camera is on, it doesn’t feel real” but that affected me less than how the film totally draws her as a somewhat un-genteel person of the female persuasion. By establishing her in this light you kinda do believe she would keep the camera going. Her insistence is how she attacks. If Heather had made it out alive I think she might have needed some therapy.

Second, if you’re watching this most agonizing of movies and that’s your prevailing thought – “Why are they still carrying the camera?” - then you and I are on completely different wavelengths. Seriously, how you can enjoy movies, if that’s what you’re thinking? How can you watch movies?

And how do the characters get so lost in the woods? Why not follow the creek out? While not specifically saying so, the movie seems to make it clear this mysterious force following them is messing with their minds. It places them in an eternal loop. This question also falls prey to Comfort Of Your Own Living Room Syndrome - wherein movie viewers always know what the characters in the movie should do. It’s like watching a movie character on a jet plane where the pilot has suddenly parachuted out, leaving the cockpit empty, and the gas light on has come on and they are headed straight for an immense mountain and the viewer in his or her living room is criticizing the character for not reacting properly. “No! Why would you do that?!” Uh, you’re in your living room. If you were on the plane your thinking may be a wee bit less clear, don’t you think? But here I am taking on imaginary detractors.

Ten years on is the movie still as scary? For one thing, there is a bit too much arguing between the characters during the day. I understand we need to get a feel for their marbles being lost and I also understand the nature of these scenes is to feel repetitive but that does not prevent them from getting to feel, well, repetitive. A little more editing there would have gone a long way. I also didn’t have nightmares, though when it ended I first scanned my entire living room to ensure no one had crept up behind me and then turned on just about every light in my house. It is still scary but it’s scary in a different way. Watching it for the fourth time I, of course, knew the outcome and remembered, more or less, how the main events would play out (though there was one major plot development I somehow forgot). Knowing all this made it a little less scary and a whole lot more tragic.

Imagine you’re in those woods and you’ve finally made the realization, finally stopped denying it - something is out here and it wants to do me harm. I am not going to find my way out of here because the Blair Witch, or the whatever, is going to ensure that I do not. Now what do I do? The end is still just as terrifying as the first time I watched it. You want to scream “For God’s sake, don’t go into that house! Don’t you know what’s going to happen?!” But the point, I think, is they do know what’s going to happen. How could they not? At this point it’s time to stop delaying the inevitable. Let’s just get it over with.

It’s why to this one guy alone “The Blair Witch Project” remains the scariest movie ever made. I've never found the sudden as frightening as the slow. The most memorable image in "Alien" to me was never the creature of the title popping out of poor John Hurt's chest, it was always Tom Skerritt in the vent, not being able to see that same creature, now just a mite larger, but everyone back in the control room below knowing exactly what's coming. I remember reading about the heavyweight boxer Max Baer (the villain of "Cinderella Man") and in the moment he had the heart attack that killed him he supposedly bellowed, "Oh, God, here I go." That's what scares me, when you realize what is about to happen and there is nothing - absolutely nothing - you can do. The entire third act of "The Blair Witch Project" is an exploration of that feeling, and when they get to that house they are basically saying, "Oh, God, here I go."

Oh, and one more thing, if I never watch this movie again for the rest of my life I would be content.


Jacob said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again. The Blair Witch fails to be scary because they can out run the bad guy. Yes, waking up to your tent shaking vigorously would be terrifying, but if you can then bolt out of your tent and run away and be ok, whatever was shaking your tent isn't that scary. Oh and these people were stupid. Everyone knows, if you are lost in the woods fine a creek and follow it, you will hit a road eventually.

Silence of the Lambs, much scarier. You know why, it could really happen. Supernatural movies just don't scare me. Movies about f'd up people doing f'd up things scare me. Lets face it, people are the scariest animal.


Nick Prigge said...

No, no, no, no, no, there's no "bad guy" in this movie. The witch is all encompassing. It's the whole woods. They run away from whatever it is at the tent but they're not really getting away at all. It's the same reason they can't follow the creek and get out. Because this force in the woods won't let them. You Americans (wait, what?) always need a "bad guy".

I do agree that realistic situations are much more frightening than typical horror movies. "Blair Witch" is on my Movies I'll Never Watch Again Because They Horrify Me Too Much List (I watched it again just because I really wanted to write this review). The other two: "Requiem For A Dream" and "Panic In Needle Park" which ironically, or perhaps not, are both about drugs.

The scene in "Panic" when Kitty Wynn is slumped on the park bench completely strung out....I mean, woah. That is as scary as anything in "Blair Witch".