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.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT poster

8 thoughts on “The Blair Witch Project

  1. When I worked as a journalist in college, I wanted nothing more than a shit-ton of hate mail. I only ever got one piece, and it was when I said that I didn’t like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. I said that it’s a fine experimental movie, and if I were a film professor, I’d give it an A. However, as a movie itself, it just didn’t do it for me. I got a letter from a student saying that I was insane for not liking such a masterpiece of horror.

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    1. That pretty much sums it up: well-made, great gimmick, proved the value of viral marketing at an early juncture. Yet while I don’t begrudge the studio and the filmmakers their financial success and I’m glad the film reached masses of people who ordinarily wouldn’t see it…by all rights, it should have been a Donnie Darko or Office Space, flopping in theaters and then becoming a cult classic on home video. There are films (not necessarily within the horror realm) made in ’99 that deserved this kind of success a lot more than Blair Witch did.

      The fan base–and maybe I’m unfairly making a blanket generalization here, but it certainly felt this way back in ’99–had a tendency to be condescending and insufferably smug.

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      1. While I really did enjoy the movie, I can see what you are saying. But I’d have to disagree with your, as you did say generalization, comment about the fan base. There are always fans that will think their favorite movie is the best and anyone that disagrees is just stupid, but I’ve never come across anyone that came off condescending or smug about Blair Witch (just a little over enthusiastic). Now a movie like Donnie Darko (which I also enjoy) has the fans that tell you, if you don’t like it that you “just don’t understand” or “get it”. I feel that is condescending and smug. Maybe you’ve just met some different fans then I have. I also think that it did pretty well in theaters because it was actually scary. The modern stream of horror movies are just not truly scary, but Blair Witch was.

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      2. When Blair Witch came out in ’99 I hated it; the number #1 argument I kept getting from fans was that I didn’t “get it.”

        This is the top user review on the movie’s Netflix page, and it’s pretty representative of what I was hearing from the movie’s fans back in ’99.

        The problem many people had with this movie is that there’s no gore, no knife stabs in the forehead and no mindless nude teenagers getting picked off like moths near a bug zapper to pacify your typical younger audience.

        I could be taking this a bit too far but I do feel that the tone of that sentence is more than a bit condescending.

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  2. Something I thought was interesting about this movie is that it was a bit of a fear bomb for some movie goers (myself included). I was very disappointed in it while watching, though I didn’t hate it. But for hours after I was also very uneasy, like I’d seen a much scarier film than I actually had.

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    1. I know the feeling. I’ve ragged on the movie quite a bit over the years but I have to admit, it’s got two scenes that kept me creeped out long after the movie actually ended. Most modern movies, even ones I like a lot more than Blair Witch, don’t even have one.

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