FEATURE: Shocktober - The Blair Witch Project

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here

I apologise to any readers I may make a bit depressed with the following statement, but I was only 9 when The Blair Witch Project came out and, not surprisingly, missed it in the cinemas. I do remember the constant speculation about it through and the fuss that it caused when it finally hit the big screen. There was the constant debate over whether it was real or not and the reports of people passing out or vomiting in the cinema. I was also not-so-reliably informed by one of my friends at school that it was 'the scariest film [he'd] ever seen'. I was a bit too in awe to call bullshit at the time, but he also told me Scream was awesome, so maybe he did know a thing or two.

The influence that the film and its marketing have had over the horror genre in the 21st century is enormous from the influx of found footage into just about everything to bringing viral marketing into vogue. The ambiguity cultivated by the film's found footage nature, the disclaimer that the students who filmed the footage were never found again and the carefully constructed mythos about the Blair Witch is masterfully done and had the desired effect. A large amount of chat around the film was about whether it was real or not and that ambiguity feeds well into the technicalities of the film itself.

Having now finally seen it some 15 years later, I can't help but feel you had to be there to get the full benefit of the film's effect. Before I explain that, let me talk about what I liked about the film because there is a fair bit. 

Despite the obviously loose filming style and the improvisational dialogue, the film is tightly constructed from the beginning, utilising an internal mythology for maximum effect. Perhaps my favourite bit of the film was the interviews that took place with the local residents of Burkittsville about their personal experiences and memories of everything to do with the Blair Witch. The creepiest of these stories is that of serial child killer Rustin Parr which goes on to further implications later on in the narrative. There's something about a place's local history that fascinates me; residents have their own version of these tales and they spring up all over the place like a little personal mythology. 

When places have a history to them, they either become more wholesome and welcoming, or they become exactly the opposite. Following the tales of the Blair Witch heard through the local legends, the woodland setting of the film becomes that little bit more threatening. Coupled with the moments in which the cast begin finding stick sculptures and stone cairns about the place, those scenes in which the legends are established make for quite the sinister atmosphere. That the cast then get increasingly lost and more fraught with each other feels like an organic reaction to the woods themselves; they are a place designed to send you round the twist.

I was surprised to learn that Heather Donahue earned a Razzie for her performance as watching it, the three performances struck me as entirely natural, developing certain faults and tics as the film goes on. Donahue perhaps has the toughest job too as the capricious yet insecure director who becomes ever more flustered as things deteriorate. Even the now infamous nostril shot loses none of its power through familiarity; it's all a very believable breakdown in the face of something unseen and incomprehensible.

In that respect, the technical side of the film is brilliant too, a masterclass in found footage before it became an overused technique that can sometimes feel misunderstood by its users. Here, it's at maximum effect, disorientating you with fast moving images, shots of a sleeping bag coupled with spooky noises from outside or the wobbly manic nature of someone running. It's bold in places too, relying on just sound to convey the horror of the cast's situation. I mentioned in my review of American Mary yesterday that the easiest way to scare me is to prompt me and then let my imagination take over; leaving things unexplained or never seeing them on screen is exactly the way to get to me. At times here, it really worked particularly in the film's stellar ending.

And so I return to my claim that this is a film where you had to be there at the time. Watching it on a laptop screen will never feel as immersive as seeing this film in the cinema back in 1999 when speculation was at its highest. The darkness of the cinema coupled with the darkness of the film itself, particularly in the scenes that only rely on sound with blurred or no images, will have ramped up the scares and the tension far more than the front room of a student house. I didn't have any doubt that I was watching a fictional series of events, unlike some of the film's original audiences and that certainty stopped any discomfort from wondering about the fate of the cast.

I still think The Blair Witch Project is a superlative example of the genre, a deceptively well-crafted and original piece of work that deserved all the hype. Unfortunately, I know already that the film's outcome won't stay with me nor will the scares return to haunt me at an unexpected moment. Had I seen this fifteen years ago in the cinema and in the midst of the furore that surrounded it, I'm fairly confident in saying it would have terrified me.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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