Monday, October 31, 2011

Underrated: The Blair Witch Project

You know, in the years since it came out, The Blair Witch Project has been the subject of a rather strong backlash....
See, back in 1999, it was friggin' HUGE there for a couple of months, despite its humble origins. Largely due to clever viral marketing and strong word of mouth, The Blair Witch Project surprisingly turned into a runaway hit, and the studio behind its distribution did everything in its power to milk that cash cow for every penny possible until it was utterly spent.

(And it succeeded.)

However, by the time the release had finished making, oh, about 1441321874656143045783 billion dollars, people turned on it. In most circles nowadays, I see The Blair Witch Project, at the very least, dismissed, and at the very worst, blasted without mercy...sometimes with what comes across as downright malice. The detractors say that it had no plot; they say its actors were bad and characters obnoxious; they insist that the film is boring, repetitive, and even responsible for motion sickness....You know -- they basically can't STAND the friggin' thing.

And, honestly, I can't, per se, argue with many of their points. After all, The Blair Witch Project is no doubt an unusual specimen -- more of an experiment than a conventional motion picture, really. From its almost total lack of pre-written dialogue, to its decidedly amateurish style of camerawork, this movie abandons most conventions of "normal" filmmaking. It is intrinsically different, bravely throwing out of the window just about everything that we think a movie should be from the get-go. It's to be expected that such a gamble simply won't click with many viewers, and some folks will even be so annoyed as to suggest that the result is not a "real movie."

Well, technically, I'll concede that such critics may, on the surface, have a point. The Blair Witch Project doesn't come across like (and wasn't made like) nearly any other movie one could find, and few parts of the standard skillset to make a motion picture ever come into play with it. Yet, that's precisely why I consider the whole thing such a remarkable triumph of creativity.

(Yeah. They creeped people out with a bunch of sticks. --Hell of a lot harder to do than it is with vampire fangs or buckets of zombie blood. with it.)

Look, you can talk until you're blue in the face about how The Blair Witch Project is a cheap piece of crap, but at the end of the day, nothing is going to change the fact that, during the magical summer of 1999, millions of people saw this movie, and a good portion of them (in the beginning, anyway) ACTUALLY BELIEVED that it was for real. Try to deny this assertion 500 million times if you wish, but I know that you are wrong because...well...I REMEMBER what went down.

It was a juggernaut, and never before had I witnessed an independent motion picture of its ilk create a phenomenon quite like that. HOW did such a cheap-as-heck, micro-budget little flick along these strange lines get anywhere at all?

Well, I'll tell you why: because it was an ingenious concept that just happened to find a core crew of incredibly talented individuals who were uniquely capable of making it all work in JUUUST the right, very specific, and ONLY way that it could have.

Listen: even once the film had received a wide theatrical release and the truth about it was well-documented, lots and lots of viewers still had the pants scared straight off of them by experience, convinced that the college kids depicted therein HAD to be dead. Hell, it took an appearance on the friggin' Jay Leno Show by those three actors to conclusively shut down such speculation...and the fact that any movie could so deftly dupe the supposedly media-savvy modern American public really boggled my mind at the time. Looking back, I'll admit that such baffling hype was ultimately what made me finally decide to go check the dang movie out for myself.

And, when I saw The Blair Witch Project for the first time, it was at a major chain movie theater, AFTER the film had achieved its massive mainstream success. The Blair Witch Project was still at the height of its fame, hovering in the number one position at the box office for what seemed like an eternity, having been fully vetted by the media. When I walked into that theater, I KNEW that it was fake, and I KNEW exactly how the story was going to play out, OK??? I KNEW that it was not real when I saw it. I can't stress this enough.

Yet, that did not stop me from basically having a panic attack right there in the theater. I mean, I had already been told by friends exactly what was going to happen in the film, but nothing they'd said had actually prepared me. The Blair Witch Project scared the hell out of me in a very deep and new kind of way, blowing my mind in the process. In particular, I remember that, no matter how many times I saw it, there was always a certain point towards the end (when our heroes are entering the abandoned house) that caused my heart to start racing, thumping harder and harder, as I desperately fought off dizziness and prayed to God that I wouldn't totally lose it and make a public scene. No movie had ever done anything like that to me before, and it was both frightening and exhilarating. I certainly knew better, but that didn't make any difference; it was like a challenge for me to make it through this particular experience.


And I treated it like one. This may sound weird, but I wanted to "beat" The Blair Witch Project by getting all the way through it without being stricken with that sudden burst of straight-out panic. It was like I needed to prove something to myself, and I ended up seeing the film a grand total of eleven times that summer. It still occupies the top spot on my coveted list of Movies That Drew Saw In A Theater The Most Times.

So, more than ten years after its release, I decided to pick up a DVD of The Blair Witch Project to give it another look, and I'm devoting my super special Halloween post to it.


The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Netflix description:
Brash student filmmakers Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard) and Mike (Michael Williams) march into the woods near Burkittsville, Md., to make a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch, who's credited with a string of heinous murders dating back 200 years. But the trio loses their way and soon find themselves surrounded by a malignant terror. This shot-on-a-shoestring-budget indie sensation earned instant cult status.

In case you live under a rock, here's the concept of The Blair Witch Project: Three student filmmakers disappear into the woods near a small town while making a documentary about a local ghost legend. They are never seen again, but a year later, their footage is found. Their footage IS the movie. Got it?

Much (in fact, most) of The Blair Witch Project is actually VHS-grade camcorder material, shot by our main heroine, Heather (Heather Donahue). She's excited about getting to direct her first student film, and wants to document the experience with these little "behind-the-scenes" video diaries. Also, since she's the one holding the camera and doing most of the talking, we get to know her best. Heather's a little bit bossy, but by no means a bitch (at least, in my opinion). She isn't afraid to party, seems fairly intelligent, and jokes around with the other guys. Frankly, I always admired her.

And speaking of the other two guys -- there's Mike (Michael Williams), and Josh (Joshua Leonard). Mike is their sound guy, and a bit of a fraidy cat, while Josh is the camera operator (that is, of the "REAL" camera intended for the documentary the trio is shooting), and comes across as a simple stoner. Get used to these kids, as they're the ONLY people we hear from for 75 percent of the movie. Once they hike out into the woods to visit some sites relevant to their documentary, it's all them, man!

But first, the kids interview people around the tiny Maryland town of Burkitssville (formerly Blair) about the legend of the Blair Witch for us to get some backstory. See, it seems that there are long-running rumors about the woods surrounding the community being haunted, and everyone in town knows at least a little something about this myth. Folks over the years have described strange noises, creepy visions, and a variety of difficult-to-explain events having occurred out in this vast woodland, even if few of the stories have any credibility. Heather, as part of her documentary, relates to us a couple of incidents involving bizarre murders to have taken place near Burkittsville which some suspect were related to the alleged haunting of the area -- for example, the case of a man who killed eight children in his cabin back in the 50s, claiming that the Blair Witch made him do it. It's extremely important to pay attention to these scenes, as the information they provide will explain just about everything that transpires later.

So, yeah -- Heather, Mike, and Josh head out into the wilderness, planning to be out there for no more than a couple of days, TOPS. They've got a map of the area, and instructions on how to reach their destinations. In and out, baby. A real piece of cake!



Nah. Actually, things go awry for these kids pretty quick. In the beginning, the trio simply gets a little lost...but as their journey takes them deeper into the woods, stranger and stranger things happen. They hear the sounds of trees being knocked over in the middle of the night; they come across bundles of sticks arranged to look like murder victims lying around; they eventually get attacked one early morning by forces unseen....The gang is soon desperate to get out of that forest, and as fast as possible.

But they CAN'T.

See, after having walked ALL day in one direction along the side of a creek at one point, our heroes wind up back at the EXACT SAME SPOT where they started. It becomes obvious at this juncture that something far worse than mere harassment by creative rednecks is going on.

This is where the true paranoia begins, and really, the true FEAR. See, The Blair Witch Project relies entirely on an emotion that few movies are able to properly convey: the fear of things we cannot see. Heather, Mike, and Josh don't actually SEE their tormentors until, really, the moment of their death...and we the audience never see their tormentors at all. These three are just running around lost in the woods, terrified of what will happen next because they don't even necessarily know what's after them. It's like when you're a kid and afraid of the dark -- you haven't seen anything, you haven't actually heard anything, and you can't really even define what it is that's so terrifying to you....You just know it's there, and THAT is all you need to be kept awake all friggin' night.

Yes, as an audience, we never get to view the source of the horror in The Blair Witch Project. Everything is implied to us, but never displayed. The ending of the movie, to me, was its most brilliant moment, as the filmmakers here stuck to their decision to NOT show us anything, even at the point when it would have been the most tempting.

Here's a comparison: You ever see Paranormal Activity??? --It's that haunting movie that everyone rates against The Blair Witch Project uses the same concept. Well, I really liked Paranormal Activity ALMOST the whole way through. However, the film almost completely blew my goodwill in, literally, its final three seconds. Yeah -- Paranormal Activity is the only movie I ever saw that was good until the VERY LAST couple of seconds. Way to screw it up, guys!

And, you wanna know how??? Well, it's like this: the very last shot of that particular motion picture is of its heroine lunging at the camera with a mutated face, making a typical Hollywood monster shrieking noise. Up until that point, I thought the movie was great -- mysterious, spooky, keeping us guessing -- but then, at the final moment, they just couldn't resist breaking out the stupid makeup and sound effects. God, that pissed me off.


Well, The Blair Witch Project never makes that mistake. It sticks to its premise of forcing us to imagine what the hell is going on. No silly last minute monster shots or gore orgies -- it has RESTRAINT from start to finish. It's a slow, rolling boil; tension builds, and drama deepens. It's all a mind game from start to finish, and a masterful one at that.

Also, the fact that it's so darn simple has always been inspiring to me. Imagine -- making a movie with almost no resources whatsoever, but ending up with a massive box office success, simply because you were able to come up with a concept that was clever enough. Only Kevin Smith's Clerks has ever managed to be so damn cheap while reeling audiences in due to nothing more than a novel concept or smart writing. That's awesome!

And, yeah, I know that The Blair Witch Project was by no means the first movie to use the "discovered amateur footage" angle (Cannibal Holocaust comes to mind as a much earlier example), but it's the first one to actually do it RIGHT. People bought this stuff, hook, line, and sinker while it went on to become one of the most successful horror releases of all-time...without using any special effects. Sorry, but that's impressive.

And, do you know who I think deserves the most credit? --Its actors. Anyone who claims they weren't good is full of crap, and the proof of that is in the fact that the movie caught on so well. If these kids had been bad, people would never have found the film so believable. I've always felt that Heather Donahue, in particular, deserved far more accolades than she ever received for this excellent performance. SHE is the center of The Blair Witch Project; SHE makes it work. Frankly, I think the only reason she wasn't considered for any serious awards for this one was because it was a micro budget horror flick (in other words, snobbery). I SO hoped to see her in a million other movies after The Blair Witch Project took off.

Heather, you ROCK!

(...And yet, you wound up doing Streak 'N Shake commercials...Damnit.)

Even if one doesn't find The Blair Witch Project to be his or her cup of tea, I simply cannot understand how they would fail to be impressed by the fact that a couple of enterprising young filmmakers were able to use little more than a cheap handheld camera to make something that actually went on to scare millions of people. It relies on the most basic kind of terror of all -- that which exists only in our minds and can't even be described -- while hitting a grand slam in the process.

Compare it to other motion pictures of its ilk, but none of them are quite what The Blair Witch Project was. This one never needed special effects, makeup, or even a friggin' soundtrack; all it needed was an IDEA.

And it's still better than your favorite horror movie.

Go figure.

5 out of 5.



  1. I liked Blair Witch and yet, I don't like found footage for the most part. Give me every single detail in gore-tastic living color. I paid good money after all to see someone's insides NOT to imagine them. :) Still, I can't believe Heather is doing Steak and Shake. She was rockin in Blair Witch.

  2. Awesome write up, Andrew, and I agree with everything you've said here. The movie creeped me out, too for a couple days. I got goosebumps just talking about it. Unfortunately, a lot of people these days have been programmed to think a movie has to have gore and severed limbs thrown at the screen every few minutes. If not, it's a waste of time, or just stupid.

    CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, though, had even worse problems, at least for its director who was facing prison time till he provided proof that he hadn't actually slaughtered his cast. That film is just as brilliant, if not more so, in my view as it hammers home the notion of the heartless media presence who are willing to do anything to get their story whether twisting the facts, or creating the violence to get the effect they desire.

    But yes, BLAIR WITCH is an amazing movie, but even at the time it came out, I was hearing just as many people stating it to be stupid and shitty because you never see anything. One girl was very vocal about how "stupid" it was as she was exiting the theater. Also, I do remember a lot of people continuing to believe it was real long after it was shown that the actors were still alive, lol. The sequel was pure garbage.

  3. Melissa -- I can understand your viewpoint. I mean, USUALLY, I'm with you. I LIKE seeing tons of gore and nastiness. It's just that, in the case of a film going for the very specific thing that The Blair Witch Project was, I gotta hope for them to follow through with the idea of holding back all the way.

    Oh, and PS -- Heather is actually doing all right now. She did end up starring in a Sy-Fi series, received pretty generous royalties from The Blair Witch, and actually has a book coming out next month about her experiences as a medical marijuana grower out in California.

    Venom -- GREAT comment. I agree with most of what you say here, although I gotta be honest and admit that Cannibal Holocaust just went too far for me to find it an enjoyable experience. It's one of very few movies that truly bothered me (the original I Spit on Your Grave is another one). Maybe I'll give it another chance, though.....

    And, TRUE about the Blair Witch sequel -- it was horseshit covered in monkey puke.

    Great to find another Blair Witch appreciator, though!

  4. I thought it was a stupid movie as well, but what do I know? Not like I've got a few mill in the bank from getting lucky with a hand held camera, running round the woods eh.

    Happy Halloween!

  5. It did launch a slew of other documentary-style films, many of which have been quite good. They were marketing geniuses with this film.
    Remember when studios tried to do that again with Snakes on a Plane? Now that was an awful film!

  6. Great writeup, and I completely agree. I usually don't enjoy "scary" movies. But this one was interesting.

    And I'm sorry - the ending, as predictable as it was (the clunk and drop of the camera) was fantastic. Why fantastic when it was so predictable? Because it brought back something that was mentioned in the very beginning of the story. As soon as I saw that poor bastard standing facing the corner, I got chills, and I remembered that tiny little detail in the early part of the story. *That* was well done, in my humble opinion.

  7. ROFL @ The Blair Witch sequel comment on the horse shioz and monkey puke! (I actually spit my coffee out on that one..) Ehhhh, I'm easily amused!

    Cheers for Friday!

  8. My big complaint about modern horror filmmakers is their failure to create a believably scary atmosphere. CGI, SFX make-up and loud music stings are no substitute for good acting and solid direction in the right setting. Exhibit A is The Blair Witch Project which literally conjures a spooky atmosphere out of thin air. There are very few horror films that have unnerved me as an adult, but this one did it with some sticks and a boy standing in a corner.
    Nice write up Andrew. I think if TBWP had not been the huge hit it was, the same people that are dissing it now would be championing it as a cult film. If you haven't seen it, check out The Last Broadcast which is another found footage film. Also Lake Mungo from last year is quite good.

  9. I'll stick with the Blair Thumb. Funny, funny movie! :D

  10. Friends, I love all of you, but I think this is my last post. I really do appreciate everything...but things are changing for the old Drewmeister, and I cannot write blogs anymore.

    This seems like a good place to end Who Wants Taters.

    Thank you, oh so much.


  11. I know what you mean, Andrew. I been having similar feelings the last few weeks. Maybe just a break from it all is what you need? But if this is really your last, it was great corresponding with you and reading your witty, wily posts for the past couple years. Take care!

  12. Good assessment on this film. It's among the last films I saw in a theater. I still need to see it on TV where it should be seen. Too much motion for the big screen. The ending was totally creepy.

    Cloverfield also uses the found footage premise and I thought they did that one well. I gained even more admiration when I saw the Special Features on the DVD and saw how much technology went into giving the film an amateurish appearance.

    The two films show two film making extremes to create a similar effect.

    A Faraway View

  13. Andrew! You're leaving the blogosphere?? I do wish you the best of luck with whatever you do next and I'm so sorry I just now got around to sitting down and re-reading your blog again. Missed it, in all of its droll wisdom. Do follow me at my own tumblr blog (which I know you do!) and keep in touch.

  14. Heather -- Thank you so much. It means a lot to me that you would notice this and bother to say something.

    I just can't continue blogging. The emotions and the passion are gone....I don't feel like I have anything left to say, and frankly, I don't feel like trying anymore....

    I'm still out there, watching crappy movies...but I feel not much else to do with them beyond that. I honestly wish I did; but I just don't react with much of anything these days, other than a vague curiosity.

    And, yes -- I'm following you on Tumbler...although I can't figure out how to leave comments! Help me out with that, will ya?

    Thanks again, buddy.

    PS -- Thank you to you, too, Venom and Lee. You guys truly rock.


  15. I think you just need a new platform to write on as I remember feeling the same way about Blogger myself. Tumblr was so much easier to deal with and work with and now I doubt I'll ever return to Blogger or Blogspot again. In any case, message my inbox at tumblr- on the top of my page a button will say "ask" and from there you can leave comments and ask any how-to tumblr questions you need to! See you on the tumblrverse :)

  16. I missed that comment about a last post. No, say it ain't so! Tell us you were just in a weird mood of late. I think that same thought about quitting sometimes, but I don't think I could. I hope you bounce back from the funk and keep writing this crazy fun stuff that you write. I really hope you rethink this. And if not please stop in and visit now and then. We'll miss you.

    Enjoy my delightful interview with Susan Kane on
    Wrote By Rote Saturday 11/26

  17. Different approach to what determines the growth of a project.

    Blair Witch Project

  18. Hey, doll, I know I've got no right to complain given my own AWOL status, but where are you? Hope all is well. x

  19. Hi all World historical events,Android apps tamil news,World news on android Breaking news for iphone

  20. What a superb review. Not because I happen to agree with every single point you made; Because you managed to deftly convey your points with an eloquence that eludes me when I argue with BWP nay-sayers. Yes I happen to love the movie and every so often I come back for another watch which makes me extremely biased towards it... I too fought back a panic attack (two actually) in the theatre and ground my girlfriends handbones into dust within flesh. I thought I might have to leave. I sweated. I was completely taken in with the hype... that happens SO rarely with any other given movie. I doubt the new Batman movie will affect me in such a way.
    Bravo for demonstrating so well why the Blair Witch Project was and is still as JUST good as it is.