The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Starring Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard

As a horror movie, The Blair Witch Project is pretty disappointing. There are a couple moments here and there which are nervy, but on the whole it’s hard to credit the picture as a truly frightening one. The Blair Witch Project is a rarity among horror movies because I think you had to be there to think that it was genuinely frightening, to really not know what happened to the three people depicted on film, to believe in the viral marketing campaign on a virgin Internet where gullibility was a virtue. More than two decades later, knowing perfectly well where the strings on the puppets are and knowing that the three leads are wandering around safe from the influence of witchcraft, the engine of our fear stalls out. The plot, after all, is basically just this for most of the film’s runtime. If there’s an argument to be made for Blair Witch as an exceptional movie based on the text itself and not based on its influence or its marketing or its profits (which remain staggering), it’s in the film’s perspective on filmmaking.

Heather (Donahue) is the leader of the film crew. The film about the supernatural happenings outside of Burkittsville, Maryland, is her film, and aside from her auteurist sensibilities, she’s also the one who Mike (Williams) and Josh (Leonard) look to as the leader. She’s the one who is supposed to have scouted out the area. There’s some dialogue in there about how she’s used to long hikes and roughing it in the great outdoors. She has the map, and the camera too. The movie is always going to be most remembered for its seasick camera swinging, a gesture towards utter realism which was the centerpiece of a Best Picture winner within a decade, and then next for its weird semi-human branches which eerily prove that something wrong is happening outside of Burkittsville. Yet what impresses me most in the actual creation of the movie is the chemistry between the actors. If it seemed like these people were reciting lines for a minute, the surprisingly intricate edifice of The Blair Witch Project would collapse irreparably. These really do seem like early twenty-somethings who have pretensions of making a creepy indie doc and coming home like nothing’s happened. There’s a presumptuousness in the first five to ten minutes which rapidly evinces the cluelessness of the film crew, especially in Heather. If the subject is so interesting to Heather specifically, then why is she so blasé about mocking the denizens of Burkittsville? If the Blair Witch is so fascinating that this indie doc will catapult her, then why does she think that she’s immune to whatever might happen in the hills? 1999 is frequently given as one of the great movie years because its films so keenly put their eyes on the fallibility of consumerism and lambasted bourgeois decadence. Heather, clearly from some privileged background, is a far greater poke in the late ’90s capitalist eye than anything David Fincher, Sam Mendes, or Mike Judge cooked up for that year.

Most importantly, the proof of Heather’s leadership is found in the the complaints which are endlessly directed at her. In the first half of the film, Mike is the one who gripes most consistently; in the second half, Josh, who had anointed himself a kind of peacekeeper, loses his patience in one fell swoop. In both halves, the plupart of the blame is aimed somewhere between her eyes. We see her less often than we see the guys, mostly because we understand that she’s filming the majority of the time. Over and over again, one of them will say something to the effect of, Stop shooting, Heather, can we just go, let’s get out of here, put the camera down. Heather very rarely puts down the camera, and even when she does, it never happens after just one scolding. It’s in one of those rare times that we do watch someone else film Heather that we hear the disembodied voice, this time belonging to Josh:

Josh: It’s not the same on film, is it. I mean, you know it’s real, but it’s like looking through the lens gives you some protection from what’s on the other side.

The Blair Witch Project may not be all that frightening, but more than any horror film which is simply playing off of tropes or audience expectations, it is thoughtful about what makes a horror film satisfying or powerful. Living through the events of The Blair Witch Project, believing that someone was hunting you and being totally unable to find a path to escape, is the seed of madness. Mike takes the mantle of villainy away from Heather for a little while when it turns out that he lied not just about taking the map from Heather, but that he kicked it downriver. The map was useless! he cries over and over again, and as loathsome a decision as it is to make solo, it’s hard not to sympathize with him a little bit. The map was useless. If it had been so helpful, wouldn’t they have made it back to the car already? On the other hand…what kind of sane person who is lost purposefully gets rid of a tool that would help him get unlost? Or take the manic fear that overcomes Heather and Mike once Josh is taken from them, culminating in that grisly scene where they find teeth and what looks suspiciously like part of someone’s tongue. Losing a member of the party, knowing that his slimed belongings made him the first target of whatever invidious person put crosshairs on the whole group, is terrifying for Heather and Mike. It’s what leads to that most famous sequence of the film, where Heather puts the camera right up to her face and whispers an apology for her arrogance directed not just as Josh’s parents, but at Mike’s and hers as well. None of these three are particularly sympathetic individuals, and as we blame the person in charge when an organization goes down, we may well blame Heather for her stubborn insistence that she knew where she was going all along and was never lost. (Doing so means that we also have to forgive Mike’s fit of pique by some degrees.) Yet in that shadowy, despairing moment, Heather speaks the plea that we so often wish we would hear from the most arrogant characters in slasher movies. Forgive me for thinking my girlfriend would recover from her newfound zombiehood, forgive me for looking in the dark shed at midnight, forgive me for thinking I could avoid a supernatural force: forgive me the decisions I made which led me to this ignominious ending. If we were Heather or Mike or Josh, we would have cracked too, and whined, and kvetched, and blamed. It is only being able to look through the lens, as Heather does, which lets us get up from our seats in the movie theater or our well-worn spot on the couch.

People are meant to break under this level of stress, and the breakage documented in The Blair Witch Project would, if we were any member of that crew, be devastating enough to ruin a life even if it weren’t ended at the end of the picture. Jean-Luc Godard said that cinema was truth twenty-four times a second; Roger Ebert said that film was like a machine that created empathy. A film like The Blair Witch Project explodes those platitudes. If we were empathetic to Heather, Mike, and Josh, we would be catatonic. The Blair Witch Project is a minor deception within its own text and a moderate one within the context of its marketing and word-of-mouth. We have to be deceived in order to live with ourselves, because believing that these were real events happening to real people, no matter how momentarily odious they were, would be crippling. If horror has the power to be transgressive (oh, that word), then it’s in the power it has to explode the tendentious simper suggesting cinema is an empathy machine. The Blair Witch Project is a film about the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing what one ought not to have seen. It’s about taking some mild pleasure in watching people face the day of wrath for the sins they’ve committed. It’s about being able to put our feelings and concerns for the benighted and beleaguered away once the credits roll, about being able to casually walk into a dark room without thinking about Heather’s camera falling and then staying steady in her own final dark resting place Empathy is beautiful, real, a basis for better society. The Blair Witch Project is just craftsmanship.

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