[written by Witch Awareness Month member, Mark S. Deniz]
[Part One of Mark’s ‘Handheld Cinema’ trilogy]
“I can see why you like this camera so much. It’s not quite reality”
When it comes to horror films, The Blair Witch Project takes some beating. There are so many reasons for this that I am unsure where to start. It is with this in mind that I start with the trivia, not often found in my film reviews but having some significance here.
Although not fully confirmed, the estimated figure for the cost of the film stands at $35,000, with Artisan acquiring it for $1.1 million, before spending $25 million on marketing.
The film, mainly due to an excellent marketing ploy, went on to make $248 million worldwide, thus making it the third most successful independent film of all time (after Paranormal Activity and Mad Max).
Filming took eight days and, during that time, nineteen hours of footage were edited into ninety minutes of film. There has also been much talk about the techniques used by producer Gregg Hale to keep the actors on edge throughout the filming. They were deprived of food, sleep and constantly given conflicting information about the production. This was inspired by military training experienced by Hale previously.
The Blair Witch
Having been brought up in the Pendle Witch area of England, I have a healthy fear of witches and the mythology surrounding them. However, I do not think this in any way means that this film cannot be fully appreciated without some sort of history behind it, just something I am always reminded of when watching the film.
The legend of the Blair Witch is built up in the town of Burkittsville, formally Blair, with some of the events having basis in legend but most of it created by the producers. Most of the filming of The Blair Witch Project takes place in Maryland’s Seneca Creek State Park.
The people interviewed at the beginning of the film are a mix of locals and planted actors. The three students: Mike, Heather and Josh had been informed that all were locals. The film is full of little touches like this.
It feels like a documentary. Even knowing it isn’t, doesn’t diminish that: the actors are unknown, the camera work is very visceral (Heather Donahue took a two day filming course before shooting) and the filming focuses adequately enough on unnecessary information (such as whether the camera shots should be measured in feet or metres) to give it authenticity.
The documentary follows three college kids, mentioned above, as they travel to Burkittsville, to discover if the rumours surrounding the famous Blair Witch have any substance. We receive all this through early reports from locals and readings from material that Heather has brought along.
They are in pretty high spirits as the project begins, eager to get on with the filming and making quips at each other about their involvement/beliefs. Heather and Josh know each other already but Mike is new to the bunch.
Introductions are made and they make their way to Burkittsville for some early shooting of the town, and the interviews with the locals, before making an early night of it in readiness for the day ahead; a day in the forest, searching for clues about the witch, and killer Rustin Parr (rumoured to have killed seven children in a house in the very forest they journey to).
After leaving the car, and having found Coffin Rock, where five men were reputed to have met their deaths at the hands of the Blair Witch, Heather admits that she has lead the group off the map but refuses to accept the fact that this was in any way wrong. This is a pivotal moment, as this is what leads the group into more and more danger.
The stress builds, not so much in terms of a sense of any supernatural force but that sense of being lost in an unknown forest. A very real, very tangible fear.
The group seems to cheer up as they make camp and we are given a sense of relief. That is until Josh kicks over a cairn in the cemetery and Heather rebuilds it as quickly as possible. The party then begin to hear sounds in the forest, leading them out to investigate. They find nothing but can hear cracking sounds.
A day of getting more and more lost finds the party waking up to three specially made cairns outside their tent. This is just before we find out the Heather has no idea where the map is, leading to a massive argument between Josh and Heather, both claiming the other has it. The sense of panic is mounting and they try to convince themselves that family members will soon be calling the police to send out a search party.
A huge moment in the film is when Mike admits to throwing away the map, as he feels that it has not been helping them, but instead hindering them. The reaction of Josh and Heather really ups the tension here and when Mike defends himself all hell breaks loose.
Panic builds as they then see the wooden, human effigies in the forest and any doubts that there is something or someone in the woods with them are well and truly put to rest.
Once we see the creations in the forest, the film kicks into gear and that night the sounds intensify, leading to Heather leaving the safety of the tent (followed by Josh) and fleeing into the woods in the dead of night. Of course, we see nothing but this scene serves to intensify the anticipation of horror. We now know that not only is there is something here but that it is, in fact, out to get them, as upon their return, the group see that the campsite has been defaced.
On intensifying their desire to return home the party begin to fight again with Josh giving one of the monologues that describes a major theme of the film, the opening quote of this:
“I can see why you like this camera so much. It’s not quite reality”
Before they get to a log, over the river, which Heather is reluctant to admit is the same one they crossed the day before. This culminates in Josh’s vicious attack on Heather, using her as the protagonist for the DV footage, and leading her to an onscreen breakdown.
The following morning Josh is missing, and Heather and Mike break camp and attempt to find him. The day is very ominous and melancholic, leading to a powerful evening in which the pair hears Josh’s screams from somewhere in the forest.
The following morning Heather finds a bundle wrapped in material from Josh’s clothes. Upon opening it Heather finds what appears to be hair and body parts (a finger maybe) covered in blood but makes the decision not to tell Mike.
That evening Heather makes her famous apology speech, asking the parents of Josh and Mike and even her own, for forgiveness, for leading the party into the woods and to their deaths.
“I’m scared to close my eyes; I’m scared to open them”
They then hear Josh again and go looking for him. The search leads them to a house in the forest and it is here that we see the end of Mike and Heather, Mike forced to stand in the corner whilst we hear Heather’s screams…
The Blair Witch Project is an incredibly powerful film, helped by its unknown actors, realistic camera work and the sense of foreboding that, for fans of slasher horrors, never quite comes to fruition. In the film we see cairns, effigies, blood soaked clothing and finally we are given the proof that there is something there when hearing Heather’s screams, whilst seeing Mike stood in a corner, awaiting his fate.
What we don’t see is the Blair Witch, we don’t see Rustin Parr and we don’t actually see anyone die, proving that in order to have a genuinely creepy film we do not actually need to see body parts flying about and gruesome creatures jumping out at us from dark places. It’s the anticipation of this, the fear that something is there, the not knowing what that is that one of the elements that several classic horror films follow.
One of the most frightening scenes I have ever seen in a film is in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, when the protagonist is afraid that there is something awaiting him in the bedroom of his apartment. We follow him, on his journey through the dark corridor from his living room to his bedroom, all the while waiting, dreading before the terrifying conclusion of…nothing. There is nothing there and not only have we been forced to hold our breath in terror but we have not had that release (however terrifying) that awaits us. The Blair Witch Project builds up this tension throughout, and we only get our release at the end but by then it’s too late, we are already deeply affected.
The camera work is too real, we see everything too close, too raw and this, in turn, affects us more than a film using standard techniques might. The sense that we are watching a documentary also affects us and adding these two elements to three college kids who seem very real gives us no escape at all.
I love the film for this and for the fact that is one of the few horror films of the last fifteen years or so that truly terrifies me, that makes me feel uneasy whenever it ends and actually fills me with trepidation every time I put it on.
I still remember my first words, after leaving the cinema at three o’clock in the afternoon, on the day of its premiere in Berkeley, California:
“I’m glad it’s daylight out!”