The other day I was watching a video on YouTube by Mitch Benn, where he listed the 5 reasons why David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune is still great. It’s an absolutely excellent video, you really should watch it. He made it in light of the fact that Dune is due to get another remake, this time directed by Denis Villeneuve of Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049 which, if you know anything about my thoughts on those films, means that you’re very much aware that I’m very excited to see that film. But it got me thinking, if I was to do a list like this, which film would I pick? And then it hit me. There are only a few films which I think are unnecessarily maligned and deserve to be talked about a lot more favourably. And I thought I’d start off with this film since it’s more divisive than it is one way or another, The Blair Witch Project.
Released in the late 90s, it was a hell of a landmark in the horror genre and it’s one of the most profitable films of all time. It was shot on a budget of $50,000 and turned in £250,000,000. Now I know what a lot of you are thinking: The Blair Witch Project has never been good, it’s always been bad, and you’ve got a million points about why it is bad. What I would say is to hold off those points for the comment section. Read through this and take in some of my points before you immediately say I’m wrong and click off this article.
Here are five reasons why I think The Blair Witch Project is not only great but is still the best found-footage film that has been made:
1. It used the found footage gimmick well.
Here’s the thing, found footage films have never been a particular love of mine. If anyone has read my reviews over a long space of time, I’ve often complained about them. They cheat with the editing; they show way too much; there is never a belief that it’s genuinely happening which is half the point of found footage. This is the stuff Blair Witch gets right. A lot of people say, “Well, why are they still filming everything?” The film comes up with a good explanation – they are film students making a documentary. These are people that typically will film just about everything and then try to work it in an editing booth afterwards, so it makes sense why they’re filming everything. It’s also the fact that Heather’s character is almost using the camera as a way to separate herself from the situation. If you ever actually re-watch that film, it’s really not until the famous scene where she talks to the camera that she actually really acknowledges just how screwed they are. And of course, she’s filming most of the time. Some of the few times she’s actually on camera are part of the fake documentary that they’re filming, not to mention that the filmmakers used viral marketing before it was even a thing. They did an excellent job using a barely used internet and did amazing viral marketing. I was there; a lot of people believed this was real, and the debates went on quite some time. The filmmakers were brilliant in being coy about not answering too many questions. Obviously, we now know it wasn’t because we know all the actors, but I stand by that this one used it well.
They also didn’t give them a particularly good camera. Most found footage films I see now, in spite of the fact that camcorder technology is way better and more accessible than it’s ever been, I get a sense with these ones that I could not believe that it was a genuine home-video camera. It just looks too professional most of the time, like you would not get that shot unless the room was lit in a certain fashion and everyone happened to have a microphone on them, which obviously they all do to make the job of editing easier. TBWP actually absconds from that. I’m pretty sure none of them were actually mic’d up and the whole thing is done through the camera’s internal microphone, and it’s not the best camera even by the standards of the time. So as a result, the believability is there, which adds to the fright factor. This all culminates in a film that really understand what makes the found footage genre work: it has to be believable. Because of the way it’s shot, you really feel like you are there with the characters as all this is going down, or that you could easily be watching something that you could just pick up by finding a camera in the woods.
2. The performances are well-improvised.
Blair Witch Project is actually shot with very little script; they weren’t really told much of anything. They were given a small map, the camcorder, some general motivation about what the character’s going through at that particular point, and then were just sent into the woods. So as a result, they kind of were in a very similar situation. Granted the team were on standby to make sure they were safe, but from what I can tell from anyone involved it was a very hard shoot, and it really shows in the performances. I think they play a group of people going slowly madder very well, there’s a real progression to that situation, particularly in Mike’s character. The thing about a lot of found footage and a lot of horror films in general is that I don’t believe the characters, the worst idea being when they make really dumb decisions. In Blair Witch it makes a lot of sense why they’re there – they’re film students trying to find a good scoop for a project and don’t realise that they’re way out of their depth. It’s not stupidity that brings them into this situation, it’s arrogance. And what’s more, it’s really amazing how they show just how much they change throughout the entire film. These are characters which seem to constantly change their mind on how screwed they really are. Plus, it helped the fact that they weren’t aware of what the filmmakers were going to do. For example, the tent-shaking scene was actually another example where they didn’t know it was going to happen – that was several members of production crew moving the tent. There was also meant to be a scene where we would actually see a bit of the Blair Witch. Well, not exactly. They actually dressed up a stagehand in all sorts of white clothing, and the shot was going to be that we just see a brief flash of a figure all in white to contrast with the dark environment. However, the actress playing Heather forgot to film the scene and they didn’t have time to go and do a reshoot. Brilliant decision on their part, for reasons that I’ll go into in the next point.
3. The budget is necessarily low, and they make the most of it.
This ties further into the found footage gimmick. The fact of the matter is they’re making a film about a group of students going into the woods, and they make it look like a film where a group of students go into the woods. This film is really terrifying in how it shoots its environment and it does it with real minimalism. I used to live just near a lot of woods in Derbyshire, and believe me, the woods look really frightening at night, and The Blair With Project is really good at capturing it. It’s really amazing just how well the film looks. They once again were doing a bunch of improvisations for things to freak out the actors when they left their tents. For example, the straw dolls that hang outside – they did not know that was going to happen, so that must have really freaked them out when they showed up. I can imagine the director got a few slaps to the face for half of what he put them through.
What’s more, they obviously didn’t have a great set, but where they shot the witch’s house is amazing. I knew a ton of houses in the countryside you could go around which looks just like the witch’s house, and they can Freak. You. Out. It again adds to the authenticity – they make the most of their budget and they make it look like a scary environment. Many films overdo it with their budget, putting a ton of effort into getting a big CGI monster to appear on camera. They don’t have the budget for it in this film, so what do they do? They don’t show the witch. Everything about her is in our imagination, and that is the best decision possible – it’s more frightening to have an unknown ghoul that could be just about anywhere and absolutely has it out for everyone that comes anywhere near her home. Plus, the shots with the locals are really well done. You can genuinely believe this is a town where everyone is sick of hearing the stories and their town being turned into a tourist attraction.
So yeah, when a lot of films overdo it with their budget and try to get more money to make a better film, it really stands to a test that this film had a low budget and made the best of what they had, and as a result made a more believable and more frightening film than many others. I stand by it: The Blair Witch Project is a genuinely frightening film when you consider just how screwed they really are. The film puts great emphasis on just how much trouble they’re in, and of course, because we’ve found their footage we know it’s not likely for any of it to end well, yet because of their characterisation we’re willing them to get out of there. Which leads me onto my next point…
4. The ending is perfect, and they picked the right one.
The team actually shot four endings for The Blair Witch Project. All of them take place at the witch’s house and, no, without going into spoilers, the Blair Witch doesn’t actually show up in any of them. (But I think you would have expected that.) Again, without going into spoilers, the ending they picked was perfect – it’s just minimalist enough to drive home the point and to frighten the audience, but not so overt that it feels out of place. The thing about the other endings are they feel like they’re just a bit too much. They’re just way too over the top and they’re trying really hard. From what I hear they didn’t do too well with test screenings, so they just didn’t have much to work with. But again, they did an excellent job with what they had. Blair Witch was always going to be a hard film to end on. You have to create tension and fear in a film that has an inevitable outcome, and I think it nails its ending really well. You feel the terror of the situation that’s happening, even though – again, without giving away spoilers – not much is really seen, just one image that will stick in your mind. And then the film abruptly ends just as it should. It’s something that a lot of found footage films fail at. I think a lot of found footage films I’ve seen recently try to end on a massive sting, and they don’t quite get what made Blair Witch’s ending work.
5. It’s endlessly open to speculation.
I stand by that the best horror films are really open to speculation, and a lot of the films that have failed have tried to give too much mythos to the story and tried to explain everything. There’s more fear in the unknown, hence why my favourite horror film ever is John Carpenter’s The Thing. So, that leads me to The Blair Witch Project which again is another film which is open to speculation. I saw Matt Patt’s movie theory video where he actually speculated that there is no Blair Witch and that the two students who go along with Heather are actually part of a plot to kill her. It’s actually one of his best videos and I would actually recommend watching it. You can tell he has a real passion for this film, but there’s all sorts: Is there a witch? What does she look like? Is the witch genuine? It is the child killer that one of the locals mentioned messing with them, or is a copycat? It’s always open, and again it’s because they made the wise decision that we never see the witch. We are put in the position of the characters and their true fears are put in our face for us all to see. Yes, there’s a lot of shaky cam; that’s what people in a frightened situation would be like. It’s not automatically scary, it’s just scary because it’s done in this way. And that’s one of the things I think that makes TBWP truly terrifying, it’s an unknown entity in a seemingly endless wilderness. You will get lost, you will be stuck in her domain, and you will never escape; the second you entered those woods you were in her control. It’s everything that I think the other versions of this story have failed to capture, including the 2016 sequel, the awful Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows which I have no idea what anyone was thinking putting that film together, and the sadly disappointing Xbox and PC game which I actually had a lot of high hopes for.
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