Premise: Three documentary filmmakers (Heather, Michael and Josh), two cameras, one creepy forest and one legendary witch. You do the math.
A few months ago I was talking with some friends about Poltergeist, which is probably the first movie that ever really scared the crap out of me, and specifically we were talking about the scariest scenes in that movie. Of course someone brought up the tree. I mentioned the scene where the one guy rips off his own face. But my friend Scott came up with an interesting answer: the scene that scared him the most is the one with the furniture.
Most of the scares in Blair Witch are furniture scares. There’s almost no violence (people hit each other, but there are no significant on-screen injuries, let alone on-screen deaths), a tiny amount of gore, and only a couple of big dramatic scary scenes (and even then, they’re not your average frights: the scene that freaked me out the most can essentially be reduced to an unknown party beating on the wall of a tent). Hell, there are only a couple of small-scale scares in the film, most of them involving piles of rocks. If you like getting your head messed with, here’s yer movie.
The scary shit-to-character development ratio is skewed waaay further towards character development than in most horror movies. In fact, it’s the focus on character development that keeps me from truly “buying” Blair Witch as a document of something that really happened: it’s presented as found footage, but it’s definitely structured as a horror movie. (At one point, the characters refer to an interview that they recorded but whose footage isn’t included in the film, an interview that may or may not consist of important information germane to the situation the characters find themselves in. At another point, however, we get to watch the gang discuss Gilligan’s Island for a couple of minutes. Gilligan’s Island: important. What the interview subject said about the significance of piles of rocks: not important. Yeah. I still say that when it comes to mockumentaries, The Tunnel beats all.)
Unfortunately for me, almost all of the character development is performed through having the characters bicker at each other. I’ve complained about this sort of thing before, particularly in the works of George Romero. Suffice it to say that within half an hour, I hated Heather and Michael and Josh and I wanted them all to die. Maybe then they would stop shouting at each other.
I’ve been criticized in the past for not liking films with no sympathetic characters, but I look at it like this: I understand that what’s happening during a movie isn’t real things happening to real people. It isn’t enough for me to watch icky stuff. In order to truly be effective, I have to have some sort of investment in the people that the icky stuff is happening to. If I outright hate the characters, then I’m reduced to hoping that they’ll at least have the decency to die in an entertainingly disgusting fashion (and sometimes, that’s okay: gore executed well has its own aesthetic value) but that’s not what I go to horror for as a genre.
So here’s a movie with only a few scares and a tiny amount of gore and three obnoxious characters who are so inconsiderate they can’t be arsed to die in front of a camera in an explosion of blood and guts, the bastards. So why the hell am I giving this movie three stars?
Because I do think it is a genuinely good film, from an objective standpoint. Those big scary moments may be few and far between, but they’re very well-done; the final sequence in the abandoned house deserves every ounce of its legendary status. The ambiguity of the force the characters are set against–is it the Blair Witch, some sort of cult, a hoax?–isn’t as much of a problem as it seemed back in ’99. (Although I do have to say, considering how much effort was put into developing the Blair Witch mythology–including a special that aired on what used to be Sci Fi Channel–it’s a bit unfair to dismiss criticisms of the ambiguity by saying the film’s not really supposed to be about the Blair Witch.)
It’s just that the film is developed along lines that I tend to find alienating…and even then, while I hated the characters, I understand what the filmmakers were trying to achieve. The real threat isn’t the scary monster in the woods, it’s the characters’ inability to pull together in the assumed face of the scary monster in the woods. Personally, I find that more pathetic than scary, but hey, your mileage may very.
My rating: 6 of 10.
87 minutes. Directed by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez. Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams.