Monday, 24 June 2013

The Blair Witch Project - Movie Review

There's somethin' happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear...

After seeing both The Frankenstein Theory and Troll Hunter in quick succession, I decided it was time to fill a particularly glaring hole: The Blair Witch Project. Probably regarded as one of the most important horror movies of the 90s along with Scream. But where Scream looked backwards and simultaneously satirized and borrowed from the slasher films that dominated the horror market, The Blair Witch Project, (made with a very small budget, and marketed with the first truly viral campaign) was going to blow the dusty cobwebs off and revitalize it.

At least, that's the impression I always had. To be fair, I was 11 when it came out.

With nearly 15 years distance on it, however, we can see that things didn't exactly pan out that way. The 'found footage' genre went mostly underground until the emergence of Cloverfield in 2008. As such, it seems to stand alone, an odd relic.  So how does it stand up today, to a completely fresh viewer, devoid of it's marketing campaign?

(First off, I would like to say that I went into it knowing nothing of the background or the 'mythology'. Cardinal Rule of Movies - It has to stand on its own.)

If you don't know the plot, it's very straightforward. Three young filmmakers invetigating the legend of the 'Blair Witch' hike into the woods she supposedly haunts and are never heard from again. Their footage is found a year later. This is the footage.

Two things struck me straight off the bat. Firstly, this is very much a product of its time. It seems odd to say that about a time I actually remember, but there are little things that pin it down in the same way the mall is unmistakably from the 70s in Dawn of the Dead. All the protagonists smoke, for instance. They also reference pop culture that is rapidly going out of date (Gilligan's Island, anyone?). I imagine that diminishes it's impact slightly with a modern audience, as they are no longer Just Like Us. 

The second is that this is far more dedicated to the 'found footage' being presented as actual found footage. Most (including the two I mentioned at the start of this review) stretch the boundaries a little, allowing for voice overs, location shots and enough suspension of disbelief that the people would still be filming. In this, there are fights for the camera to be turned off at critical moments, no external exposition is provided and what you see on screen is pretty much what you're getting.

Which leads to a problem. There is no doubt at all that this is a very effective movie. It is exceptionally creepy at several points and the plight of our dynamic trio elicits sympathy, as they slowly get more and more lost, hungry and terrified. It is implied that the woods are rearranging themselves in order to keep them lost, although they do fail to do one or two incredibly obvious things (like follow the river or climb the nearest hill). 

The problem is one William F. Nolan described - nothing is as frightening as what is behind the closed door. Or out of shot with one of the protagonists yelling "WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?" and never seeing what 'it' is. The trouble is, eventually you have to open the door, not enough that the monster is fully exposed and rendered harmless, but just enough to hint at what is behind it. H. P. Lovecraft at his best is the absolute master of this technique, and he only gets it right about 25% of the time.

Or to put it another way, implication trumps explanation.

The challenge then, is to give juuuust enough away for the reader to draw their own conclusions about what is behind the door. Too much information renders something harmless. It's a problem many films suffer from. 

This film has the opposite problem. I'm sure if you had seen all the trailers, the faux-documentaries, the website links, the ominous piles of rocks that appear overnight around the tent at one point will seem incredibly sinister and threatening. As it stands, it's creepy and, well, vague. What are they being menaced by? "I have literally no idea" is not the greatest of answers to give, as someone like me who is trying to puzzle out what's going on is only doing that and not engaging with the characters or being scared silly. Vampires and zombies can still be scary now (when done well) because we know exactly what they are going to do to us. The 'Blair Witch' is an unknown quantity. It's sinister, but not horrifying. Scary, but not terrifying.

These, however, were terrifying

I'm sure if I wanted to I could delve into the mythology and find it creepier the second time around, but I shouldn't ever have to. As it stands, The Blair Witch Project is a fascinating ur-example of the 'found footage' genre, a triumph of low budget film making, and certainly worth seeing, but for me it worked on the same level as a haunted house ride. Kids go into the woods, sinister stuff happens, I get creeped out, film ends. I felt like I had just been on a rollercoaster, not watched one of the scariest movies ever made

It sounds like I am bashing this film. I am not. It is excellent, and definitely worth seeing. Just don't expect something mind-blowingly incredible.   

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