Written by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick (uncredited dialog by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams and the cast)
Directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick
An Artisian Entertainment Picture
Starring: Heather Donahue (Heather); Joshua Leonard (Josh); Michael C. Williams (Mike); Patricia DeCou (Mary Brown); Jackie Hallex (Woman with child)
Stephen King once wrote in Danse Macabre (1981) that the true horror fan is often like a gold miner; he must prospect, dig, swish the water around in that pan for a awhile, just to get a glimmer of gold. He went further to write that a true aficionado can get something of a taste for the crap that he has to wade through in order to find the gold, that this type of love for bad horror films might be, “the love one spares for an idiot child… but love is love, right?” I will not, for a moment, criticize the sentiment of Mr. King’s feelings and will heartily agree that, when one treads into the realm of horror, one must enter with his sense of humor intact. But by the 1990s, an alarming amount of idiot children had been rearing their ugly heads. An example of this style, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), is a limp noodle in the fans’ faces: a film more concerned with making fun of its own well-worn clichés so that the audience won’t point them out. What else can you say about a film whose most original moment comes when one of its victims tries to escape her fate via the cat flap? In the forties, when the Universal Monsters lost their ability to scare, Abbot & Costello arrived on the scene to get a few laughs out of them before they slumped into their mothball-lined crypts for a much-needed rest. Today fans are far more sophisticated; they don’t need Bud or Lou to make light comedy out of horror and Scream is the crowning achievement of this trend. Scream may have kick started a few careers, but it did little for those who were begging to be frightened.
And then came The Blair Witch Project.
The Blair Witch Project, dreamed up by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick but executed by its three-person cast/crew, stunned the public not only with its scariness, but also with its unbelievable simplicity. Starting with a crawl that claims what we are about to see is the found footage of a party of kids who disappeared in the woods, we are summarily introduced to Heather (Heather Donahue), an energetic but pretentious film student who is determined to make a documentary about The Blair Witch, an old legend said to be the cause of mysterious disappearances and murders in a Maryland forest. Her two-man crew, cameraman Josh (Joshua Leonard) and sound man Mike (Michael Williams), reluctantly follow her into the woods and disaster begins to slowly unfold around them. Although armed with a map and compass, they get hopelessly lost. The boys start distrusting Heather’s determination. They come across creepy woodland artifacts. Things start to seriously go “bump” in the night and the group comes to suspect that they are being followed.
While much was made of the entire film being made up of footage shot with either the crew’s Hi8 or 16mm cameras, the gimmick lends itself naturally to one of the guidelines of horror (one that most horror filmmakers these days have apparently forgotten): the horror that we can see is never as scary as the horror we can’t see. Whenever the presence that is stalking the crew periodically catches up to them, it is almost impossible to get a good look at it. Not only is it too dark to see what is happening (the attacks happen only at night), the cameras are being manned by people who are too scared to get a still, unblurred shot of their attacker. A terrifying sequence that ends with the trio running in terror from their tent consists of jumpy footage revealing only dark trees and the occasional glimpse of Donahue’s retreating form. Something is definitely stalking them, but neither Sanchez nor Myrick are interested in providing any clues whatsoever to the stalker’s identity. It could be the supernatural spirits of the Blair Witch or the child-murderer mentioned during the interviews that open the film. In the end, it really doesn’t matter. It ceases to concern Heather and her friends exactly what is hunting them. They are being hunted, and that is enough.
It is for this reason that the film ends without resolving the mystery. In the end, this has been a film concerned not with “Why these events are happening” or even the most basic “What is happening.” Instead, we are given, “This is what happened while the cameras were running.” In this respect, it is tempting to see the film as what would have happened had Agatha Christie not included the final chapter to And Then There Were None (1939) or had Orson Welles’ camera not panned to a close-up to the burning sled at the end of Citizen Kane (1941). Although the world which encompasses Kane’s never discovers the piece, Welles’ objective camera gives us a glimpse at the puzzle piece that the characters do not have. However, the cameras recording the horrific ordeal of The Blair Witch Project are subjective. They capture only what Heather and her crew discover, miss whatever they themselves don’t see, and finally fall uselessly to the floor, telling us nothing of what has happened to their operators. It is the final horror in the students’ lives; not only have they been killed (presumably), but the one hope that their attacker will be discovered is erased as the cameras fall to the floor and record only blurred images. Heather’s purpose of clarifying the mystery of the Blair Witch has ended with her own disappearance, muddying the legend’s waters even further.
With a lack of special effects, a monster to jump out at us periodically or even interesting set designs, the film depends on the characterizations of the three leads (improvised by the actors and based on the directors’ ideas). The film is not so much a story about how three people meet their untimely ends but how three people interact when faced with chaos. In this respect, the film is not unlike Hitchcock’s The Birds (1962), which presented us with the nearly unflappable smarm and wit of Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) only to have us examine what these two are really like under extreme pressure when the bird attacks commence. At least Melanie and Mitch have a budding attraction between them that brings out their better qualities. The protagonists of The Blair Witch Project do not have even that much going for them. At the beginning, Heather and Michael have never even met before (Josh is their mutual friend). As expected, Mike is very distrustful of Heather’s confidence, which causes her confidence to branch into obsession. They wander for days, lost, but still filming with their Hi8 as if to capture their moment of triumph when they at last escape from their ordeal. Heather’s pretentiousness is revealed in her insistence at filming her Hi8 featurette of her own documentary, imposing a self-importance to the usually laborious process of making a film (as a former film student, I can attest with first-hand knowledge that Heather is not unique among her peers). Mike rebels against this attitude in the completely insane gesture of throwing away the map. The trio is now forced into a confrontation, with Josh being torn between loyalty towards both his friends and a fierce anger towards them. Slowly, the goals of the trio change. Worries about “getting back in time for work” and “getting the equipment back on time”, change to worries about their safety and blaming each other for the crew’s plunge into disaster. Little by little, the strain creeps into all three: Josh breaks down away from the prying eyes of the camera, Mike becomes withdrawn and blusters through with false humor (such as bragging that he’ll never see the next baseball season or eating a dried leaf), and Heather’s shield of confidence cracks and splinters in the face of hopelessness.
It is Heather that we look at the hardest as it was her voice of confidence that led us into the woods in the first place. As the one doing the most camera work, Donahue is forced to do most of her acting with her voice alone. She starts as the voice of reason and it is terrifying to hear it slowly become the voice of hysteria. We want to believe her when she immediately tells her crew, at the first sign of group’s getting lost, that she knows exactly where they are, but we suspect otherwise. Heather and Mike are forced to reevaluate their attitudes towards each other when Josh disappears and they must rely on each other for support. Heather tries to be Mike’s strength when she sits down next to him and puts her arm around him. This sweet moment is tempered (as is most of the film) by Heather’s insistence to capture their ordeal on tape. At one point, Josh peers through the Hi8 viewfinder and says, “It’s not like reality”. Then he mocks her determination. “You’re lost in the woods! Something’s following you! No one’s coming to help you! What do you do? That’s your motivation!” he screams while the crying girl tries to avoid the camera’s gaze. The line between being in a movie and experiencing reality is thin. The situation presented to us, the audience, is so simple, it could easily be us up on the screen. We do not have to drive all the way to Texas and wander into a freaky-looking house (as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)) or find and read the wrong passage from the wrong book (as in The Evil Dead (1981)) or agree to spend the winter in a haunted hotel with your unstable husband whom you should have divorced a long time ago (as in The Shining (1980)). All you have to do, The Blair Witch Project tells us, is walk a little too far away from your car. Once you are just out of sight of civilization, that’s when the horror takes over.
The Blair Witch Project works most effectively because it transcends the suspense that Sir Alfred Hitchcock spent his lifetime pioneering. Although the film is certainly suspenseful, it goes one step further by bringing us into a land that few horror films have ever dared to tread: the land of dread. From the moment of the opening caption telling us that the trio were never found, we are forced to watch the film through only one pair of eyes, that of the knowledge that no matter how we feel about the characters, no matter how well or poorly they react to what they find in the woods, their fate is sealed. At least Hitchcock’s great suspense vehicles allowed us some hope for the hero’s survival. The changing of the times and attitudes of the audience has called for far more desperate and permanent measures and this dread sits in the pits of our stomachs throughout their ordeal. And it all comes to a head during the most celebrated sequence of the film.
During the final night of the ordeal (or at least the final night that the cameras record), Heather takes the opportunity to turn the camera on herself for a change. The camera is steady – it has apparently been mounted on a tripod – and we can assume that Mike is sleeping and that Heather is taking this time alone to bare her true thoughts and fears to the instrument that she has used to record the thoughts and fears of her friends, those that she has led into disaster. Her face partially out of frame (no one is looking through the viewfinder to correct the shot), Heather begins by apologizing to her parents. She takes full responsibility for their impending deaths, thus reversing her earlier assertion that Mike’s act of throwing away the map has put them in danger. She is now talking to unknowns, to those who will hopefully find their cameras after they are gone. Briefly, she turns her frightened eyes from the camera to look towards the walls of the tent, the flimsy shelter that they have erected and that will not keep danger from them. Something’s coming, and it will get her. “We’re gonna’ die out here,” she whispers. Her subsequent claim, “Every night, we wait for it to come,” reveals that she almost wishes for the monster to finally strike, for the witch’s curse to finally fall upon them, if for no other reason than to just take the pain away. As we do not share Heather’s complete conviction in her guilt (we cannot completely dismiss a supernatural influence over a group of hikers who, armed with a map and compass, still managed to travel in circles through the woods), we hope that our feelings of dread may be unfounded. It is, however, a small hope, and it is quickly dashed in the final sequence when Heather and Mike follow Josh’s voice (or is it his voice?) into a dilapidated house. There is deception in the walls, handprints of those who have died before along the stairway, and doom in the cellar. When audiences walk out of the theatre looking as if they have been severally beaten, it is because they have been: beaten with their own worse fears, that they are lost, that no one is coming to help them, and that death – as Stephen King so eloquently put it in ‘Salems Lot (1975) – is when the monsters get you.
The film was an incredible success, changed the audience’s attitudes to horror and ushered in a new wave of great cinematic scares. The summer of The Blair Witch Project’s opening, audiences virtually ignored Jan Du Bont’s remake of The Haunting (1999), a big budget, barely frightening, remake of a film that virtually pioneered the concept of the unseen horror. In the opening paragraph of her 1959 book, The Haunting Of Hill House (the so-called inspiration for Du Bont’s remake), Shirley Jackson describes the relative structure of the house and then, almost matter-of-factly, goes on to say that “whatever walked there, walked alone.”
And when it got tired of walking alone around Hill House, I have a feeling that it sometimes wandered over to the Burkittsville woods in Maryland and waited.