Night #5: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

So where was I?

Oh right, I was watching stuff and writing about it. I got the watching done, but not so the writing. Those who follow me on Twitter know I’m working on some other things so updates to this might be a bit sporadic. Anyway, without further ado, let’s go to the woods and get crazy!

I remember when The Blair Witch Project first came out. I was working in the Odeon Cinema at the time (I would be sacked shortly thereafter – the only job I was ever sacked from) and the two screen cinema had this on one screen and Disney’s Tarzan on the other. It was a weird time in my life where I understood nothing and thought that this was a bad movie, whereas on the other hand the guy was swinging through the trees while being accompanied by Phil Collins. You can see my dilemma.

So I went through life, ignorant of how much I would come to like The Blair Witch Project. I’ve done plenty of foolish things in my life, that was one of them.

I don’t think I need to go into the story anymore, it’s a movie we’ve all seen. But alright. Three students enter the woods, they don’t come out. Police find their tapes and that’s what we’re watching right now. It’s the simplest idea, and one that’s been aped a thousand times over. I guess where this differs is that you know right from the start that they’re not making it out. One of the things that found-footage movies tend to do is just start, then they’ll abruptly end when someone happens to whoever is left holding the camera (That also happens here – spoilers) but from the offset you’re struck with a sense of dread. These smiling faces you see at the start won’t be coming back.

Much was made at the time and since then, of the the ‘stupid’ decisions the characters make. There’s been some defence of Well of course they act like that, the witch is making them! That’s all bullshit dear reader, and it undermines the idea that these are frustrated and angry people. Saying a witch did it robs them of character, and removes their actions from the context in which they acted. Don’t forget that the often maligned throwing-the-map-away moment comes after they’ve done a complete circle and it’s clear – to us at least – that the characters are fucked. Yes, throwing the map away is a stupid thing to do, but it’s also a very human thing to do.

But one of the things that Scream taught us (And that movie is a masterpiece for many reasons) is that just because you can shout at a screen and think you know how you’ll act, doesn’t mean you’d know how to act if you ever found yourself in that situation.

It’s amazing how nothing is shown in this movie, and how effective it is for it. The sequence in which two of the characters sprint from their tent and see something in the woods is still a legitimately scary moment. There’s nothing there, we never see anything, but it feels like we do. Now all I can think is how much worse that scene would’ve been if we stopped to get ‘The money shot’ and saw the witch, or whatever it is, standing there.

What BWP does extremely well is ratchet up the tension. It’s a movie that builds and builds into a crescendo of chaos before coming to an abrupt end. Sort of like sex. The final moments are still effective, and chilling. And best of all is that it’s set up through one line of dialogue from the start. So much so that a lot of people miss what actually happens. One thing that’s clear now is that it’s an incredibly well structured movie and one that introduces an idea right at the start – seemingly as a throwaway moment – that it pays off right in the final frames.

With not a drop of blood but a lot of bad language, BWP managed to go on to become the most successful independent film ever made. Who knew that a bunch of sticks could be so effective?

I’ve still never revisited Tarzan though. I’m too scared.

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