Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 14, 2009: The Awkward Movie Challenge: The Blair Witch Project

The following piece is an excerpt from a feature I’ve been writing with my friend Jeffrey Dinsmore for his site Awkward . Each week he and I do the Siskel & Ebert thing with a different movie (last week we covered Isthar). Since we’re covering the Psychobabble-friendly Blair Witch Project (which is celebrating its 10 year anniversary today) this week, I’m posting my half of the feature here. To read the entire piece, check it out here on Awkward

Although its reputation seems to have diminished considerably over the years, when The Blair Witch Project premiered a decade ago today, it was considered to be a revolutionary piece of cinema. First of all, there’s the radical way it was produced. Filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick set amateur actors Heather Donohue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams loose in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, for eight days with a camera and sound equipment. The actors were responsible for filming their own scenes and adlibbing their dialogue. Sanchez and Myrick left them little notes indicating the plot developments. All of this cost somewhere in the neighborhood of five grand, but raked in an astounding $248,639,099 at the box office, partly due to a brilliant advertising campaign suggesting that the events in the movie were real (here come the spoilers).

The hoax with the moax.

Then there’s the movie. Forgoing contemporary horror flick staples like elaborate special effects, graphic gore, and boobs, The Blair Witch Project cast its spell with verisimilitude, atmosphere, and an easily relatable premise. While few know what it’s like to be stalked by a supernatural mental patient dressed like the goalie from the Philadelphia Flyers, most know what it’s like to be lost. In The Blair Witch Project, three college kids get lost in the woods of Burkittsville (formerly Blair) while making a documentary about local mythical monster the Blair Witch. A year after they go missing, their footage is found. In this footage, the kids argue, hear some spectral crackling in the woods, argue, find some creepy twigs, receive a care package full of bloody teeth, argue, run out of cigarettes, argue, cry, argue, and come upon a derelict house where some vaguely disturbing shit goes down. That’s about it.

Look out, Heather, Josh, and Mike! It’s a twig!

So, what was the big deal with The Blair Witch Project? For a lot of viewers, there was no big deal. That portion of the audience rated the movie as the worst kind of hype and left the theater feeling severely hoodwinked and possibly sea sick from the shaky handheld camerawork. The rest of the audience was apparently chilled to its core. I’ve discussed The Blair Witch Project with many people over the years, and I’ve rarely encountered anyone who does not fall into either the “love it” or “loathe it” camps. When I saw it for the first time, I remember feeling a bit cheated as the credits rolled (although there certainly were moments in the movie that got under my skin). Then a friend pointed out that the final image related to something discussed earlier in the film. That’s when I first started stepping out of the cheated camp and into the chilled. The real decisive moment arrived when I got into bed that night and could not shake the image of a figure facing the corner with its head bowed. I couldn’t sleep. Same deal the next night. And the next. Seriously. Thinking another viewing might help me shake the eerie sensation, I went to see the movie again. No dice. So I saw it for the third time in a week. I’d never done that before.

The stuff of nightmares?

Over the subsequent decade, I’ve watched The Blair Witch Project many times, and it still has not lost its power. The scene in which the kids’ tent is assaulted by the pounding of little phantom hands and that final encounter in the house still get my heart spazzing-out and my palms dripping as much as they did ten years ago. I also continue to be struck by the strength and commitment of the three actors. Sure, part of the reason they so convincingly portray a bunch of stressed-out, hungry, exhausted kids is because they actually were stressed-out, hungry, and exhausted. The two guys famously got on poorly with Heather. The woods were cold. They had no way of knowing whether or not the entire ordeal was just an immense waste of time. But there is also subtlety in these portrayals. Mike is the most amiable of the characters, although he can get pretty ugly when pushed too far. Josh ping-pongs between peace maker and obnoxious antagonist. Heather initially comes off as a pretentious drama geek seeking credibility as a documentary filmmaker (and she’s a pretty terrible one. Notice how she never shuts up while conducting interviews). However, she’s also the only one who is serious about her work and she feels genuinely guilty about masterminding the project that leads the trio to their doom. Her much-parodied “I’m sorry” monologue is completely authentic and as riveting a scene as you’re likely to see in any film. A good deal of the horror comes from watching these three normal kids disintegrate, but the real reason The Blair Witch Project is so terrifyingly effective is because it gives viewers (at least viewers with overactive imaginations) such a wide and blank canvas to paint with their own fears. Sanchez and Myrick knew, just as the great Val Lewton did, that whatever you conjure in your imagination is infinitely more frightening than some scaly monster or buckets of Karo syrup blood.

The Blair Witch… revealed!

So am I a dupe? An easily manipulated schmuck who allows himself to be frightened by a whole lot of nothing? Many will answer “yes”, but a horror movie has a job to do, and if it gets that job done, it’s a quality horror film. Just as a comedy’s job is to make me laugh, a horror movie’s job is to scare me, and no film scares me as consistently and profoundly as The Blair Witch Project does. It may not be the most sophisticated or the wittiest or the most aesthetically pleasing horror movie ever made, but for my ten bucks, it’s the scariest… ten years on and counting.

Click here to read Jeffrey Dinsmore’s response…
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