A look at the film that started it all once I gather up some sticks and stones…
I hate camping, always have. Almost every camping trip I’ve engaged in has ended in unmitigated disaster, and if life has taught us anything it’s that we should just give up if we fail enough. It’s no fun. It usually rains, it’s not comfortable, and you either have to go to the toilet outside or trek a mile for some communal toilets. So of course I can’t help but feel a sense of smug satisfaction for any film where campers get their comeuppance. That’s what you get for being too cheap to hire a Caravan.
But I hated The Blair Witch Project, or at least I did on release.
I was working in the Odean Cinema when the film was released (The briefest of brief jobs) and I was usually stuck in a two screen building where my only options were the Disney animated Tarzan, or this. Despite my hate for Phil Collins I usually chose to sit in on Tarzan, and the songs still haunt me to this day. I couldn’t stand The Blair Witch Project, I thought it wasn’t scary, that it was populated with three of the most annoying characters this side of any reality TV show you care to mention, and that anyone who was scared by the film was a simpleton who had accidently been released from some kind of day care program in a comical admin error.
So imagine my surprise when I not only willingly watched it again, but enjoyed it too.
I noted in an earlier review that The Blair Witch Project was somewhat of a cultural force that took some years to really catch on. It also harnassed the internet in a way the later films didn’t. It mainly took the form of a simple website, telling the brief story of missing students and featured excerpts of Police reports and (staged) photographs of a Police investigation into the disappearance. Looking back now it’s amusing to think that the cost for those pictures and the fake documentary that accompanied the release of the film probably cost a lot more than the film did to make, but I digress.
The story is familiar to just about everyone by now. Three students went to the Maryland woods to make a documentary on the mythical Blair Witch. They were never seen again, but their footage was found. Supposedly edited together into a coherent narrative, the film was said to be released with the appeal for any missing information about the three. Amusingly the conceit was maintained right up until release, and allegedly a fair bit after that as well. The initial showings of the film just cut straight to black, ignoring the end credits – a shrewd move which added to the allure for those early audiences.
What unsettles about the film is the atmosphere. You already know what happens at the end so you watch three people sink deeper into a bad situation and make all the wrong choices along the way. People tend to highlight Mike kicking the Map away as a dumb move, and it is, but it’s a move born entirely out of stress, frustration and more importantly fear. He doesn’t do it out of being mean spirited, or an asshole, he does it because he’s scared. Sure it’s a dumb move, but it comes from a very real place.
Fear is something which drives most of the film. It slowly envelopes the characters as they come to realise just how screwed they are. If you can get into that mindset with the characters then simple things like rocks outside the tent can unnerve you just as much as it unnerves the characters in the film. My favourite scare still remains the scene where they bolt into the pitch black woods. The shaking camera, piercing screams and “What the fuck was that?” element all contribute to a genuinely tense moment.
I even found Heather’s much parodied confession scene to be better than I remembered it being. It reads like a last testament, and takes on an air of sadness when it’s looked at like that. It’s a speech from someone who knows they’ll likely be dead in the morning, and they’re trying to hold it all together for the camera. It works, and it feels real.
Add to that the haunting final image of the film and you have something deeply unsettling for an October evening, and something which insures I’ll never touch a tent as long as I live.
Up Next: The Australians get in on this ‘Documentary’ racket.