(Revisionist) Movie Review : The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Twenty years ago, the last culturally significant horror movie was unleashed on collective consciousness. The Blair Witch Project, armed with a terrifying trailer and suspicious folklore, tantalized the masses into experiencing a new breed of horror: the found footage film. Both the movie and the filmmaking technique have been heavily criticized and debated ever since. Is The Black Witch Project a good movie? Is it simply the beginning of an era of gimmicky horror? Few of us have seen it since the initial theater run, so I’ve rewatched it in order to find answers.
This is a revisionist review.
In case you’ve lived under a rock all this time, The Blair Witch Project is the story of three film students: Heath, Josh and the newly acquainted Mike, who decide to shoot a documentary on a Maryland myth. They interview local residents about the Blair Witch, stumble upon testimonies of first person encounter and quickly decide to say “fuck it” and go into the woods to find her. Little did they know, you don’t go out looking for a witch. She comes looking for you. The witch comes for them and fucks their shit up Jason Vorhees style. Or almost. I mean, you don’t see much.
It’s tough to say whether The Black Witch Project is a good movie or not. Objectively speaking, it’s a poorly made movie with a shoestring budget, but it has a youthful energy to it and it’s throwing all sorts of cool ideas at the wall to see what sticks. So, here’s why The Black Witch Project is both better and worse than you remember it to be.
Better: A pre-internet movie
The Blair Witch Project could’ve only been this culturally important in a world where people didn’t know how to use the internet. If student filmmakers would pull such a bold-faced setup in 2019, they would be debunked by a basement-dwelling film nerd in mere hours or so and raked over the hot coals on Salon, Slate and whichever proverbial hammer that was looking for a nail on that particular day. It was made in a world where Ted Bundy could kill women in Utah and Colorado while unsuspecting Floridians didn’t know what the fuck was about to hit them.
Sure, the widespread and democratic access to information we have now is awesome and whatnot. But it killed off a certain kind of cultural innocence. If you put an eighteen year-old through The Blair Witch Project, I’m sure it’s going to piss him off that people fell for it. But that’s what makes the movie’s charm in 2019 for someone who remembers the initial theater run and the moral panic that ensued. I miss taking stories at face value. Especially in horror movies, where it’s the freaking point. The Blair Witch Project is a memento of a cultural earnestness we lost.
Better: Peripheral creeps
If you’re looking for witch-themed scares, The Blair Witch Project might feel a little undercooked to you. The film was made on a 60 000$ budget according to IMDB, so there’s no eerie CGI scenes or anything like that. But directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez understand how to exploit the most important mechanism of horror: whatever they could’ve come up with couldn’t possibly compete with the scares you come up with in your own mind. So, The Blair Witch Project exploits the gap between giving you a solid answer and no answer at all.
Here’s a couple genuinely creepy moments in the movie: a mother telling her version of the Blair Witch story while her child is freaking out and begging her not to; Heather loosing her shit at Mike off-camera for randomly kicking the map into the river; Heather losing hope and begging for forgiveness on tape in the middle of the night; any panicked sounds heard while you don’t know what the fuck you’re looking at. If the reveal of The Blair Witch Project was that it was something else than a witch preying on people, it would perhaps still be in the running for creepiest fucking film ever.
Worse: It’s not about the goddamn witch
Here’s the weird thing about The Blair Witch Project: it’s a movie about getting lost in the woods and losing your goddamn mind. This is what’s truly scary about it. The growing panic that spreads like a virus to Mike, Josh and finally Heather. The exhausting walking days that end up at the exact place where they started. The overinterpretation of every sight and sound. Sometimes when you’re writing a story, it kind of turns organically into something else and The Blair Witch Project feels like it was fought back into an initial plan and I think that’s why it disappointed some viewers.
Seriously, The Blair Witch Project is really fucking close to being a Laird Barron story where a party wanders into the woods and one of them murders the others because witch runes talked to him in his sleep. Fuck, maybe that’s what happened. The movie is so open-ended anyway. So, the marketing for The Blair Witch Project is the reason why it was such a tremendous success…. but it kind of got in the way of what the movie really is about. This is what happens when hype and speculation overgrow the ambitions of your movie, I guess.
Is The Blair Witch Project better or worse than I remembered it to be? I guess… sliiightly better? It’s sloppy-looking and it hasn’t aged particularly well , but it offered more genuine creeps than I first recalled and it made me feel nostalgic of a time where you couldn’t instantly verify everything. It will probably falter in cultural significance over the years because it will increasingly not make sense to internet-savvy people, but it will always have a place in history for popularizing found footage horror.