CAMPY FEARS OR FEAR OF CAMPING?
dread brought about by the characters’ increasing disorientation, desperation and exhaustion. In what has now become a hopelessly overused trope, these feelings are reflected by the wobbly, aimless camerawork, which includes an increasing amount of forestfloor footage as things go south.
The film is often boring, as many haters suggest, but in a truly agonizing way, as its defenders will point out. The anxiety of the unknown actors feels authentic, maybe because the filmmakers subjected them to a perverse kind of Method-acting sadism. The directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, got Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard (also the characters’ names) to wander around Maryland’s Seneca Creek State Park for days without much food or sleep, with no clear idea of what they were supposed to be doing. The directors, meanwhile, lurked in the dark at night, occasionally menacing the cast with sudden inexplicable noises.
Heather, Mike and Josh basically filmed themselves falling apart. The characters are trapped in the woods, slowly sinking under forces they cannot see or predict. So are the actors.
“We’re making a documentary,” Heather insists, as a way of maintaining control. “Not about us getting lost,” Mike retorts. “We’re making a documentary about a witch.” Yeah, sorry, Mike, you are totally making a documentary about getting lost, physically and psychologically. By the time the trio has walked in circles for 15 hours straight, malevolent supernatural forces feel almost beside the point.
By conventional standards, the scares are skimpy. Wheresthejump. com, a website singularly devoted to listing all the jump-scares in recent horror films, lists no jump-scares for The Blair Witch Project, for an overall “jump-scare score” of zero. The Honest Trailer for The Blair Witch Project describes it as “a film that combines the pulse-pounding excitement of backpacking in Maryland with the breathtaking suspense of amateur film production logistics,” while Everything Wrong with The Blair Witch Project, another video short, jokes about its complete banality: “Nobody will be seated during the ‘gang goes to get groceries’ scene.”
Many horror fans who come to the movie years after its release don’t find it scary, partly because it has since spawned so many imitators — mostly bad — and hatched so many clichés. Back in 1999, however, that shakycam, found-footage approach felt raw and real and new.
Also new and innovative was the movie’s viral Internet campaign, which claimed to be searching for three student filmmakers, “missing and presumed dead,” again at a time when no one really knew what a viral campaign was. Many viewers went in to the movie — and even came out at the end — unsure about whether or not the events depicted had really happened.
That’s the thing about The Blair Witch Project, 17 years on and with a new instalment coming out: Heather’s “scary flashlight face” — you know the scene I mean — may have become a bit of a comic cliché, but for me it still conjures up a down-deep sense of primal fear.