Monday, 2 May 2016

Film Review: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Fig. 1: The Blair Witch Project poster.
The film that marks the beginning of the found footage genre, The Blair Witch Project (1999) captivates its audience with slowly intensifying build-up, and skilled acting that made early audiences question if the footage was real or fake. Written, directed and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the film follows three student filmmakers as they hike into the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland, to film a documentary about a local legend known as the Blair Witch. 

A handheld camera is carried around shakily by unskilled hands, often focusing on nothing at all, being used more to capture sound than image in many places; "The first few minutes are disorienting, deliberately shot with all the shakiness of raw footage from some backpacker's video diary. The actors, using their real names, swiftly establish soon-to-fray relationships" (Thomas, 2000)The characters seem real from the beginning, with their scruffy clothes and playful conversations that don't seem at all forced. They joke, argue and even break into song in a way that feels natural, and their fear and annoyance at each other match that of the audience. When Josh and Mike are angry with Heather for pretending they're not lost, the audience is angry with her too, and when Mike reveals he's disposed of the map, the audience experience the same resentment towards him. 

Fig. 2: Heather Donahue.
The character Heather, to whom the project belongs, has the most interesting role, as she is usually the holder of the smaller camera, and the subject of the larger one. When the group use the larger camera to film, Heather has clearly rehearsed her words beforehand, and has been placed in an area with good lighting and a dramatic background. It is the change in Heather behind either camera that makes her seem more real. The professional camera shows Heather the actress, who speaks calmly on a subject with a slight smile, while the handheld camera shows the real Heather, who swears, smokes, and demands control of her project by taking full responsibility of the map. Heather is almost constantly using the handheld camera, documenting everything the group does, even when Josh and Mike insist she puts the camera away during more serious situations. Josh even says to her "I see why you like this video camera so much... It's not quite reality. It's like a totally filtered reality. It's like you can pretend everything's not quite the way it is." (The Blair Witch Project, 1999) This explains why both Heather and Mike carry the cameras around at the end of the film, it's as though seeing everything through them is less scary.

The build up of fear is well executed and slow. There are no sudden jump scares to keep the audience on their toes, instead they wonder where the first jump scare will be, or when they will see the mysterious entity following the group through the woods. As the characters become more scared and stressed, so does the audience, and viewing everything through the camera makes the audience feel immersed in the events, like a silent fourth character. It is not obvious anything bad is going to happen at first; after the groups' first night in the woods, Josh casually remarks that he thinks he could hear cackling in the distance during the night, and even on the next night, when the group can hear noises all around the tent, they comment on how weird it is, but do not seem too frightened by it. 

Fig. 3: The stick figures.
When they awake to find their tent surrounded by piles of rocks, similar to those they found the day before, the group realizes they are truly not alone, but seem to believe there is other people in the woods "messing" with them, rather than anything more sinister. The first time they seem truly scared of what it might be is when they stumble upon dozens of stick figures made of twigs. The figures represent human forms, and there are so many of them the characters are still discovering more as they leave. It is some time after this that Mike says he doesn't want to find the people he believes are following them, when Heather asks what makes him think it's people, he says "Well, even if it isn't, I'm not going to play with that, either!(The Blair Witch Project, 1999). This marks the point the group truly begin to believe in what may be the Blair Witch. "It's what you don't see in The Blair Witch Project that pumps your adrenalin and, in the best Hitchcock tradition, keeps you hanging on." (Travers, 1999).

The film's ending is incredibly unnerving. Josh is missing, but Heather and Mike believe they can hear him screaming. It's worth noting at this point that Heather has reason to believe Josh is dead, as a bundle of twigs containing Josh's shirt, teeth and hair was left outside the tent. Mike has no knowledge of this, and so believes Josh must be alive and trapped. They come across a house, made more odd by the fact that they had been travelling in circles all throughout the day and have not previously seen it. Mike immediately runs in, believing he can hear Josh upstairs. He is carrying the larger camera, and shots quickly switch between the larger camera and Heather's, making the event more chaotic. 

As they ascend the stairs, there are dozens of children's hand prints along the walls. Upon reaching the attic, they find no sign of Josh, before Mike quickly runs downstairs believing he could hear Josh again. Mike goes to the basement and suddenly drops his camera.  This has great dramatic effect, slowing the chaos suddenly as the audience can only see from Heather's point of view, as she slowly makes her way down to the basement. She screams continuously, turning to see Mike stood in the corner of the basement, facing the wall. The camera is knocked from her hands, her screams turn to silence and there is a few more seconds of footage before the film ends. 

Fig. 4: The last shot of Mike.
What makes this scene terrifying goes back to the beginning of the film, when Heather, Mike and Josh go to the town of Burkittsville to interview the residents on what they know about the legend of the Blair Witch. During an interview, a man mentions that a man living in the woods murdered seven children in his house; "what he did is he took err... the kids down to the basement by twos and he made one face into the corner... and then he would kill the other one. Then when he was done with that he'd grab the other one and kill that one too... Said in court that he couldn't take the eyes on him. He could feel the eyes watching him, that's why he made one face into the corner.(The Blair Witch Project, 1999). By this point, the story of the murderer seems irrelevant, as the group has been focusing on the Blair Witch. The ending comes as a sudden hard hitting reminder of the story from the beginning, a story that was real to the residents of Burkittsville, while the Blair Witch was a myth. It is interesting that it is the true story the group chose to ignore, and instead chase something that even they seem to not really believe in themselves.

"At a time when digital techniques can show us almost anything, "The Blair Witch Project" is a reminder that what really scares us is the stuff we can't see. The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark. Any kid can tell you that." (Ebert, 1999).


Figure 1: The Blair Witch Project poster. (1999) [poster] At: (Accessed on: 03.05.2016)

Figure 2: Heather Donahue. (1999) From: The Blair Witch Project. Directed by: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez [Film still] United States: Haxan Films. At: (Accessed on: 03.05.2016)

Figure 3: The stick figures. (1999) From: The Blair Witch Project. Directed by: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez [Film still] United States: Haxan Films. At: (Accessed on: 03.05.2016)

Figure 4: The last shot of Mike. (1999) From: The Blair Witch Project. Directed by: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez [Film still] United States: Haxan Films. At: (Accessed on: 03.05.2016)


Ebert, R. (1999) 'The Blair Witch Project' In: 16.07.1999 [online] At: (Accessed on: 02.05.2016)

Thomas, W. (2000) 'The Blair Witch Project Review' In: Empire 01.01.2000 [online] At: (Accessed on: 02.05.2016)

Travers, P. (1999) 'The Blair Witch Project' In: Rolling Stone 30.07.1999 [online] At: (Accessed on: 02.05.2016)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) Directed by: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez [DVD] United States: Haxan Films.

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