The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Untitled-1As with most horror movies, a lot of the scares take place at night. The Blair Witch Project, a low budget independent production, is the only one that truly means it. The nights in Blair Witch are like characters on their own. They creep up on us, shroud us in complete darkness, and then play on our senses. They do not shock or tease, they frighten. We see nothing — except the light from torches shining on trees and grass — but our ears are peeled, waiting to pick up the slightest sound. Voices, cackles, twigs snapping, water rushing. What we don’t see can very well be scarier than what we do see. The Blair Witch Project exploits this notion and takes it to the extreme.

It doesn’t help that it takes place in the woods, where silence is the norm, so any sound, loud or soft, is not welcomed. We are all familiar with animal sounds. Hoots, tweets, howls. So when something that is not an animal makes a sound in the middle of the woods, in the dead of night, something is not right. This is what our trio of characters — Heather, Mike, and Josh — soon finds out.

They are students, out to hunt down the myth of the Blair Witch, a ghostly entity said to inhabit the forests of Burkittsville, Maryland. Their documentary — which we are told in the beginning was found a year after the three of them went missing — begins with them gearing up. They shop for food and supplies, and then go around interviewing the residents of the town. Some of them have interesting stories to tell, others don’t. One guy in particular says something that turns out to be more important than we think, but by the time his words prove truthful, we have completely forgotten about them.

All this information is what fuels the trio’s imagination — and ours. It’s like walking into a minefield minutes after watching a guy’s leg being blown off. They drive up — or down, I’m not sure — to the forest and park their car beside the road. They grab all their camping gear and march into the trees, all excited and gung-ho. They encounter Coffin Rock, an execution ground, and film a little vignette. Heather is very happy. They continue to move deeper into the woods, with Heather leading the way. The next morning, they find three piles of stones encircling their tent. Josh and Mike think it’s a coincidence. Heather is smarter.

The genius of Blair Witch is in its pacing. During the day, nothing of any sort of terror happens, but the dynamics of the trio gives us hints as to what is going on. Heather convinces the boys that she knows where they are and where they’re going. Mike doesn’t trust her, but he doesn’t quarrel. Gradually, she loses her way, and they end up spending more nights in the forest than they had originally planned. With each night, more bizarre things occur. They hear voices and weird sounds. They panic. And then the cycle repeats itself: Getting more lost by day, getting more terrified by night. Before long, their exciting excursion has become a nightmare, and their once harmonious coexistence is marred by fights. This is wonderful stuff, because now, there isn’t only tension when the sun goes down, there is tension in broad daylight as well.

This tension is heightened when Josh disappears. It freaks the hell out of Mike and Heather, who begin a search and rescue operation that undoubtedly leads them deeper and deeper into uncharted territory. It is never explained, but my opinion is that this territory is not normal. It moves and shifts, and plays mind games with whoever has trespassed. They go round in circles even though they’ve been walking straight all day. And then, on the night Josh vanishes, a big house appears out of nowhere, just a few metres from where they set up camp. I’m assuming they would have seen the house while pitching their tent, so the fact they didn’t leads me to believe that the house materialises. This subtlety is brilliant.

What happens in the house I will not say. But it is brilliant too.

Blair Witch is unlike many other horror movies in that its characters are not stupid. They are actually quite intelligent. They know when to be scared, and they know not to go looking for trouble. They know when to give up and go home. They are even smart enough to know that the night time is when the scariest things happen. Maybe the kids from all the slasher flicks could take a few lessons from them. This quality the three share makes it more traumatizing for us when bad things do happen to them. Unlike the kids, they don’t deserve it. And it makes us wonder, “What if the same thing were to happen to us?”.

I will say again that I’m not a fan of horror movies, but Blair Witch is very smart, and I like it. Being the pioneer of the shaky “found footage” style, it uses archival footage and POV shots to bring us right into the action. We cannot escape. The worst part is, we have no idea what we cannot escape from. We see nothing, nothing at all. There are no ghosts, no zombies, no spirits. There’s not even a witch. Nothing. It’s what is happening off screen that affects us the most. The thing we cannot see but we know is there.

I’m assuming the filmmakers made the movie very cheaply. They should be overjoyed then that its impact is completely priceless.

Best Moment | Should I go for the expected and say the last scene is the best? I think I should.

Worst Moment | Nope. There isn’t one.

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