The Blair Witch Project is a hard movie to review these days, based solely on its own merits, for a couple reasons. The first being that when it was released in 1999, it had the potency of feeling like a completely new kind of horror film, with its “found footage” aesthetic. Which would be repeated in countless other films, though only Paranormal Activity ten years later would manage to repeat the zeitgeist-y success of Blair Witch. Also, it’s hard to even judge that aesthetic when it’s one that has continued to permeate our day-to-day lives, considering we’re so used to watching shaky, substandard quality video recorded through people’s phones. So for those reasons alone, it makes The Blair Witch Project a film that’s easy to appreciate rather than flat-out enjoy.
The Blair Witch Project begins with some text stating that this is a documentary in which three film students went out in the woods to investigate some of the ancient rituals and murders in this particular region of Maryland. The three film students Heather (Heather Donahue), Mike (Michael C. Williams), and Josh (Joshua Leonard), first interview some of the locals, before heading out into the woods. Shortly thereafter they seem to find themselves lost, while becoming increasingly irritated with each other.
Things take a turn for the worse when random creepy occurrences keep cropping up, the creepiest being when they encounter this shrine filled with these twig sculptures that look like something out of the occult. Things then get worse when Josh disappears one night, while it seems like the hopes of Heather and Mike finding him become increasingly bleak. Throughout all of this, the trio at the center of the film seem to be consistently freaked out or distressed by what’s going on in the woods, though we the audience never really get to see much of anything terribly paranormal.
For this reason, you could easily make the case that there isn’t really anything scary about this movie. Because you never really see anything. Though I do have to wonder if that’s another way in which this movie has been influential, since it seems like there have been more than a few horror films from the past few years in which the protagonists seem to be afraid of some dark force that on the surface seems to be nothing at all. But I think if there is anything that makes the film scary, it’s the actor’s reactions to this foreboding nothingness, which nonetheless makes you feel like you’re actually dreading something.
I think there’s something about the fact that Scream and this film were the two big horror movies of the ’90s, because both of them have this kind of post-modern bent to them. Scream, of course, being that it was steeped in irony with its self-awareness of horror movie tropes. Meanwhile, this film was kind of the opposite, in that it aimed to give the viewer something a little more real and authentic, so much so that it lacked the polish of the franchise slasher flicks that had become the norm.
Still, a lot of people have made the complaint that this movie is dull. And they wouldn’t be completely wrong. There is a bit too much aimlessly walking around in the woods while the characters yell at each other, while the shaky handheld camera work (done by the actors themselves) does start to wear on the viewer after a while. Which is another reason why this film would look a lot different if it was made today, considering twentysomethings are so used to shooting perfectly-framed video on their phone. But none of that was as prominent when The Blair Witch Project came out, and for better or for worse, neither was the idea of combining horror with the scariest thing of all – reality.