The Blair Witch Project has spawned hundreds of knock-offs and sparked the “found footage” genre. Regretfully, this genre has been railed into the ground due to over-saturation in the market and a lack of creativity from filmmakers.
That isn’t to say that I don’t like any found footage films (Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity are both effective) or even has an issue with the format. In fact, I think they have potential to be an interesting mode of filmmaking. Like in prose when you choose second-person POV over third-person POV, these types of film open up a new world language for us to enjoy.
Making a choice as important as going in that peculiar direction for a film can add different textures and effects on your storytelling, but it has to be smart.
Even after seeing all the knockoffs first, The Blair Witch Project still felt fresh to me.
The Found Footage Movie Genre Begins
This film is not a perfect film by any stretch, but even without all the bells and whistles of later found footage movie selections, I thought Blair Witch still pulled off the potential for this sub-genre better than nearly all others in this category.
Blair Witch understands part of the appeal found footage is seeing a level of cinema stripped away and a new form of “realism” taking its place. I’ve always felt like the filmmakers of later found footage tried their best to make things look amateur but still shot it with the mindset of a traditional film. Movies like Cloverfield might have made with a heavy use of “shaky cam” but everything feels just a tad too polished and well framed.
The Blair Witch Project feels homemade. With the imperfect shots and a homemade feel, we sometimes miss some important context because none of the characters were recording. The justification for filming everything makes sense since they are a documentary crew who use the cameras as flashlights at night.
One of the most often overlooked things about this movie is the performances of our lead actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams, Going along with any filmmaker who works hard to make his or her found footage movie look homemade (but still accidentally makes well-polished films), actors in this genre almost always feel like they are trying to act too hard.
The Safdie Brothers once said something about “acting like yourself” being a difficult thing to pull off, namely in a film like this. Known for their work in casting many “non-actors” in their films, they are definitely on to something.
Having sat through a lot of film school movies that are striving for realism a lot of actors still come across as theatrical and uncomfortable with trying to act with a sense of casualness, creating clucky, often hard to watch, performances.
Here the actors can play natural and the directors of The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick, and Eduardo Sánchez said they looked for people that were good at improv. There is a back and forth banter between everyone that makes us feel like we are watching real people deal with a terrifying scenario. The actors were not informed about what was going to happen during the night time scenes to create as close to genuine reactions as possible.
The Horror of the Unknown
So much of this horror is in the unknown — what we don’t see. There isn’t a witch’s foot or anything flying at the screen. The amazing thing about Blair Witch is how much restrained it is. And sure that might lead to some being disappointed by its abrupt ending (which answers almost nothing).
But, I contend that abrupt ending and lack of closure bring us only further into the reality of the film. The characters are deprived of answers because this isn’t made like a traditional narrative. If we buy into the idea of this being “found footage” (which judging by the marketing campaign, people did) then would the characters really attain some great narrative revelation?
The lack of closure makes this horror film all the more haunting. We have to wonder what is really out there in in the woods? Plus the ambiguous nature of the movie lends it better to re-watching and finding new clues to help piece together the legend of the Blair Witch.
However, the scariest parts of the film are arguably in the day as our cast of characters slowly descend into the realization that they are trapped and lost in the woods. The breakdown between the “actors” and the separation from the comforts of civilization is where I believe the true horror of this film lurks.
So yes, the tricks of this movie have been so often repeated that at first glance this movie feels almost tame and undercook. But I think when you really engage with this movie and think about its ideas, the choices here feel purposeful and successful.
I like the idea of the found footage genre but hardly ever the execution. I think The Blair Witch is an example of when it works best. It is a synthesis of the proper film aesthetics (related to its form), good acting, and restraint coming together to create something unique. Is it quite perfect? No, sometimes it repeats a beat one or two times too many but it works far better than most of the imitators that came in its wake.