The golden age of horror: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Chris: You can see it in Mike’s eyes the morning after. They fully register that something weird happened outside the group’s tent that night. Not so with Heather, who we’ve come to realize is Ahab and this documentary her white whale. She’s driven to make her movie more than anything else and is upset she got nothing on film. For his part, Josh seems bemused. Smirking, he reminds everyone about what happened in Deliverance. Mike is different though. His eyes are wide and dancing. The disturbance the night before freaked him out. He can’t understand why the others aren’t more scared.

It’s a key moment for The Blair Witch Project, as much a turning point in the movie as the unexplained noises the night before. We begin to realize that this film won’t pull punches or wink at the audience. This is a different sort of horror movie. It is a film about very real, mounting fear.

After the jump, literally scared to death

Rob: I wasn’t sure how well Blair Witch would hold up after 15 years, especially since I’ve turned up my nose at pretty much every found footage movie released in its wake. But revisiting it now, it sure seems like a classic case of the original being the best. Three characters, two cameras, and a simple goal as they set off into the woods. After a shaky first half hour (you can’t get me through those awkward interviews with the locals fast enough) the movie really grabs hold right around that scene you describe, Chris. From then on, I am putty in its hands. Terrified putty.

Chris: Terrified Putty–worst ’70s kid’s toy ever.

Rob: What struck me most watching it this time was how frightfully effective the witch’s methodology felt. By day, she leaves the group alone so that conflict and dread can slowly settle in. By night, she does the bare minimum required to nudge them towards their inevitable breaking point, usually just with sounds in the forest. She’s just so patient and merciless, I kept thinking of natural predators like boa constrictors or venus flytraps. There’s something so elegant and strangely plausible about how she lures them in. It seems more natural than supernatural.

Chris: OK, that just gave me the willies. Thanks, Rob. I think we should talk about found footage for just a second. This movie lays out a key element of what the genre needs in order to work: simple storytelling. A found footage movie can’t go for numerous plot turns. Exposition is the enemy. The weakest parts of this film, as you note, are the background bits with the townsfolk and (even worse) the two fishermen. It just seems difficult to work in a ton of exposition into found footage dialogue and not have it sound forced and create a situation where the audience comes out of the moment by seeing the plot levers pulled. The best found footage movies are very linear. They’re snowballs rolling down a hill, gathering momentum as they go.

Rob: I completely agree, and I think that’s where so many found footage movies stumble. They get too ambitious not only with characters and plot but technology. Too many silly iphones or security cams filming the action, it becomes absurd. Blair Witch not only keeps it simple but it incorporates the cameras and the documentary brilliantly into its characters’ descent into madness. I’m thinking mainly about Josh’s “THAT’S YOUR MOTIVATION!” rant. Seeing it this time, that scene took on a distinct tone of rape. Josh thrusts the camera into Heather’s face over and over again while she repeatedly weeps, “Please, stop.” Rape is a familiar story beat in horror (especially zombie films) where it signals the complete breakdown in the moral fabric of humanity. This scene accomplishes the same thing brilliantly, by perverting the cameras and documentary project they set out to create.

I’m curious if any movies or shows came to mind as you watched, Chris. Certainly True Detective felt like it owed a heavy debt to Blair Witch with its pagan symbols and iconography.

Chris: I can’t help but think of the Pine Barrens episode of the Sopranos whenever I watch this. It was almost a straight up tribute. I love how it puts Paulie and Christopher out in the cold, forbidding woods and the guy gets away and then Tony tells them over the phone that their failed execution victim is an unstoppable killer at home in the frozen wilderness. How about you? Any others films before or after this movie that brought Blair Witch to mind?

Rob: I was reminded of two different Kubrick movies as I watched. One was Full Metal Jacket when the sniper shoots Eightball then uses his screams to lure more victims, just as the witch uses Josh’s screams against Mike and Heather. It’s so much scarier, this idea that she needs to trick them so they will come to her house willingly. The other, of course, is The Shining for how the long hallways and locked rooms of the Overlook Hotel act as an externalization of Jack’s haunted mind. We spend most of that film rattling around the old hotel then at the climax we emerge into the “wilderness” hedge maze where Jack gets lost forever. Blair Witch is almost the direct inverse with our characters spending most of the film lost in the wilderness only to climax in the dilapidated cabin of their fractured psyches. This is deeply primal stuff, and the found footage conceit is the perfect storytelling device to enhance the you-are-there effectiveness of the terror.

Chris: We should probably talk about the ending, because it doesn’t work for a lot of folks. I can see the point and I’m a bit torn on it. When I first watched the film, I was a bit disappointed. I guess I had it in my mind that the movie was building up to some sort of money shot of whatever evil presence was inflicting itself on the students. When we got Mike in the corner and then Heather’s camera going down and then snow, I won’t lie about feeling a bit let down. In retrospect, I think it was the way to go, though. It fits with the rest of the film.

Rob: I too felt let down by the ending initially. The discovery of the cabin in the woods feels just right and the frantic, screaming rush through the hallways is terrifying and exhilarating. The final discovery of Mike staring into the corner is chilling in its simplicity. It calls to mind naughty children in their dunce caps. They’ve misbehaved and mustn’t watch what’s about to happen. And neither must we so we get that harsh cut to black.

The thing is, once I had a chance to let the ending settle, it seemed perfect. Sure, we don’t get a satisfying end-beat for our story, but the movie more than makes up for it by having the complete courage of its convictions. The final cut to black honors this new found footage conceit over a traditional narrative payoff. After all, those are easy. Forever changing the language and landscape of cinema is a lot harder.

Chris:We got really lucky to have Mike Williams (who plays “Mike Williams” in The Blair Witch Project) agree to answer some questions for us to give us a little insider info on this movie, which I think both Rob and I would agree holds up well and is still quite scary.


QT3: In a found footage horror movie, the actors really have to walk a tightrope between being understated and natural so the audience buys into the device…but also being expressive enough at the right times to really convey the fear. How’d you and the rest of the cast do that here? Did you all ever give one another notes during the days of shooting?

Mike Williams: There was no such thing as a “found footage horror movie” at least that I knew of when we made BWP. The way we approached the acting was that we wanted to be as authentic as possible. Any “being expressive to convey fear” would have come off pretty badly and no one would have believed it. The idea was to really live within those circumstances that we were given and to behave as truthfully as possible in the imagined circumstances. The good news here was that the directors and producers really had us in the woods the entire time and had us moving all day and eating less and less food. In other words, they gave us the perfect playground to be able to believe what we had to believe; that we were lost and being hunted. We would break “scenario” by using a code word that each of us had to repeat so we all knew that we were breaking character. We would do this if we had notes for each other or if something felt really phony (which it did a lot of the time!) and then we had a code word to get back in it. We tried to stay in character 100 percent of the time and that was the only way that we were able to believe what was happening. If we kept breaking and discussing we would have been forced to “act” more than we needed to.

QT3: On a related note, are there places where you used the stress of the shoot to heighten the performances? It seems you were living something very close to what you were shooting. And all that conflict sure feels authentic. Were there any aspects of real life woven into your performance?

MW: I don’t know if we ever tried to “heighten” the performances but we absolutely used the grueling schedule and authentic nature of the “set” to continue living in this altered reality. In my conscious mind of course I knew that the directors were standing outside of our tent with a boom box playing the sounds of a laughing baby (for instance) but I had to block that out. Most of the “setups” were immediately identifiable as the filmmakers playing gags on us but we needed to block that out and put it out of our minds. If I heard a noise in the woods I had to believe that this noise was unknown. The further along in the week we got, the easier this was to accomplish. We became more adept at living in the moment and placing fear and exhaustion on everything we did. I will say this; it was an amazing journey for a young actor to take.

QT3: We’ve heard that there were some alternate endings shot after Artisan acquired the film. Did any of them work for you–even if just partially? Where did you come down on the debate over how to end this thing?

MW: Artisan made some ridiculous endings of the film! One had me levitating in the corner and another in the corner bloody and strapped to a giant stickman crucifix! Talk about Hollywood campy. In the end Artisan made the right decision and stuck with the original ending. I’m glad they did!

QT3: What do you think of other found footage movies that have come out in recent years?

MW: I missed one: just took my son and his friends to see Earth to Echo and this is my favorite found footage film because it reminded me of being a kid with my friends and seeing The Goonies. I was chuckling to myself over the found footage stuff only because I thought, “Hey, I have a small part in this genre of film making.” It’s always been pretty thrilling and humbling to me to have been part of cinematic history.

QT3: Looking back at the Blair Witch phenomenon after more than 15 years, what was the low point and the high point of the whole experience for you?

MW: BWP was a life changing experience. It taught me so much but the thing that sticks with me is that anything is possible. I never thought such a small experimental film could become such an enormous phenomenon. I also never thought that once an actor had a hit they could have so much trouble getting a second chance or sustaining a career. I had a lot of famous actors tell me that I was “all set” and that just wasn’t the case for any of us. Like I said; anything is possible! You should always take the good with the bad in life and I can honestly say that there was far more good than bad with the BWP.

(The Blair Witch Project is currently available to stream via Netflix or Amazon Prime among other on demand video sources.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)