Revisiting The Blair Witch Project

Let’s talk about found footage horror for a moment. It’s a subgenre that has enjoyed a considerable heyday over the past two decades or so. Launched somewhat by the cult favorite Cannibal Holocaust, and more so by the release of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, found footage went on to see thousands of releases throughout the 2000s and 2010s. It became the popcorn flick of the horror genre – the role previously filled by slashers in the 80s and 90s. Given a quick examination of finances, it’s no wonder why found footage horror became notable. The Blair Witch Project was made for $60,000 and returned a comparatively incredible $1.5 million in its opening weekend (Not to mention its $140 million lifetime gross, according to Box Office Mojo). In its opening weekend, The Blair Witch Project returned about 2,500% of its budget. It’s easy to understand why found footage horror gained the attention of the Hollywood money machine, and why for a good minute there, it had such a hell of a run. The Blair Witch Project remake was released recently, marking a milestone for the genre, and so I’d like to take a moment to return to this ever divisive film for a new critical look.

I first saw The Blair Witch Project when it came out on VHS. I was 11 years old. It inspired me, as it did many others, to grab my dad’s camera and make a parody film, beginning a hobby that I would pursue for the next decade. I found the movie laughable at that age. What could possibly be scary about a bunch of idiots screwing themselves over in the forest? I cringed at the entire middle act of the film, which was essentially a half hour long screaming match. The impression colored my idea of the found footage genre in the ensuing decade and beyond. Upon further review, I will admit that my critical faculties at age 11 might not have been as sharp as I thought. Actually, I feel prepared to say of the many found footage films I’ve seen, The Blair Witch Project is probably the most artfully done.

The film, by necessity, is probably the most conservative horror film I’ve ever seen in terms of actual screen time it dedicates to its monster. With virtually no budget, it’s easy to see why this is the case. The witch (or what-have-you) is left 100% to the viewer’s imagination, which is a stark contrast to many of the found footage films The Blair Witch Project inspired. Leaving the monster to the audience’s imagination is a hallmark of many beloved classic horror films, and allows the viewer to appreciate the film’s use of atmosphere, which requires much more subtlety of a film crew.

The Blair Witch Project is actually a very patient depiction of seeping panic, and how it can cause a group of perfectly decent people to behave monstrously. Although the woods are (maybe) stalked by some unseen evil, what ultimately undoes our protagonists is distrust and betrayal. Mike kicks the group’s only guidance into a creek because it is “useless,” an expression of frustration at Heather’s inability to navigate. As tensions set in, they all begin to subscribe to the idea of Heather’s – and then each other’s – incompetence. Sure, the arguing and bickering gets tiresome and the camera work becomes nauseating as they get more agitated, but it’s a pretty realistic, convincing depiction of a frightening idea: just below the surface of each and every one of us, there is a panicked half-wit waiting to emerge when enough goes wrong.

The film even deals relatively well with a fundamental problem all found footage movies must tackle, and it’s something that has always bothered me about the found footage premise: why, when faced with life threatening scenarios, do people continue to film, rather than devote the whole of their energy to survival? The Blair Witch Project is rife with conflict over the continued filming throughout. One of the film’s major conflicts is, paradoxically, the film’s very existence in the first place. The fact that Heather keeps the cameras rolling at times of stress is a major factor in the fallout and ultimate death of the our protagonists. Heather’s dedication to her craft serves to satisfy the question that often goes entirely unanswered in found footage, and even elevates the film to a level of postmodern irony. What, after all, is more horrific? The fact that these terrible things happened to a bunch of students, or the irony that in trying to share their experience with the world, these same students caused those terrible things to happen to them?

The Blair Witch Project, for all the mainstream attention it garnered, is a surprisingly deep work of fiction. Is it perfect? Of course not. But set against the backdrop of the entire found footage movement, it sets itself aside as an experience and work of art.

Blair Witch: Movie Review


15 years after the initial trek into the woods of Burkittsville ended in witch-related deaths, disappearances and map-kicking, a new video surfaces that shows a figure that may sorta/kinda look like Heather Donahue, but only if you squint in the right light.  The tape is sent to Heather’s younger brother, James.  He has sought answers about her disappearance for years.  And so, armed with new information, James heads out into the woods of Burkittsville with a few friends and a lot of cameras.

Let’s get this out of the way early: the image of Heather in the newly surfaced video doesn’t really look much like Heather.  I know James was desperate for something to cling to, but he’s really grasping at straws.  I get it, James.  I get it.  Sisters are awesome.

I went into this movie with high expectations.  I tried to bring them down a little, but I couldn’t help myself.  I loved the original Blair Witch Project, and the surprise unveiling of this one at Comic Con really set a high excitement level.  I even closed my eyes every time a trailer came on so nothing would be ruined for me.  I took a half day off work the day it came out just so I could see it without having any of it ruined for me.  I was all in.

I walked out of the theater thinking, “Yeah, that was a good movie,” but I didn’t love it like I hoped I would.  Part of that is on me.  It’s rare to exceed such high expectations.  It can happen (hello, Mad Max: Fury Road), but it’s rare for me.  I let the hype get away from me.

There were entirely too many unnecessary jump scares, and most of them were of the same variety.  Namely, the old, “there was no one next to me NOW THERE IS SOMEONE NEXT TO ME LOUD NOISES,” trick.  That’s fine once or twice, but they used it a lot in this movie, which is ridiculous when you realize it’s a movie about a group of people trapped in the woods by a time-bending witch.  Being lost in the woods is an inherently scary scenario; being stalked by a witch only makes that scenario more terrifying.  There’s no need to rely on jump scares to frighten the audience, and yet that’s exactly what Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett did.  A well-executed jump scare is one thing, but a lot of these just felt lazy, and that bothered me.

Let me get one more negative-that’s-not-really-a-negative out of the way before moving on.
The first Blair Witch came at a perfect time.  It was the infancy of the internet and, though there were found footage movies before it, The Blair Witch Project captured the attention of a ton of people and had large groups asking if the events on the screen actually happened.  I’ll admit to being drawn into that story, and I was sufficiently freaked out by the film for a long time afterwards.  (It didn’t help that I went camping a few days after seeing it for the first time.)  In this day and age, there’s not really a way to recreate that.  I know that.  Wingard & Barrett didn’t even attempt to pull a trick like that.  Still, The Blair Witch Project hit me pretty hard in my pre-horror days, and I still carry that feeling with me.  I knew this wouldn’t do the same thing, but I had hopes that it would affect me in a somewhat similar way.  It didn’t, but that’s my own problem, not a failing of the movie.

(Fun found footage aside: Ruggero Deodato, the director of Cannibal Holocaust, was taken to court for charges of murder after that film was released.  The actors were forbidden from doing interviews after the movie was released to convince people that the footage was real.  Apparently it worked a little too well.)

I just said a bunch of kind of negative things, but I actually really enjoyed this movie.  So let’s get to that part.

The shaky cam was much less shaky in this movie than the original.  That’s a product of the updated technology.  Instead of the images coming to us via hand-held cameras while the operators stumbled through the forest, we got ear-piece cameras and cameras mounted to trees and a handful of somewhat useless drone shots.  We were guided through the woods in Burkittsville with a steadier hand.  Instead of feeling like I was being kicked around, it allowed this to feel more like a haunted house movie in the woods.  I was focusing more on the surroundings and less on blurry images of trees as they rushed past.  And, though those shots didn’t always pay off like I thought they would, it kept me on the edge of my seat.  I kept waiting for images to emerge from the darkness.  I stared into the bushes through black and white night vision looking for the slightest bit of movement.  There were a lot of shots in this movie that freaked me out without anything actually happening.

The main four characters were likable and relatable.  I didn’t agree with James’ reasons for going into the forest, but I could see why he was doing it.  If you can understand that, the motivations of everyone else made sense.  They were a close-knit group of friends who truly seemed to care for each other.  They also seemed like actual friends in the way they interacted with each other.  I laughed out loud several times at their conversations.
Even the two outsiders – Lane and Talia – were perfectly fine characters.  We get a feel for them in roughly 30 seconds and have plenty of reasons to be a little wary of them.  Despite some warning signs – a Confederate flag in Maryland is a red flag if I’ve ever seen one – the group allows them to tag along, mainly because James will do anything if it means finding out what happened to his sister.
There were reasons not to like them and to be distrustful of them – more Lane than Talia – but they loved each other and just wanted to go home once everything started going crazy.  It’s somewhat rare to have a cast like this without one of them being unbearably annoying.
I have some questions about Lane’s ability to grow a beard, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Like most found footage movies, we got a decent amount of slow build-up to the action.  Lots of footage of our characters trying out the cameras in fits-and-starts.  Lots of small snippets of conversations that were caught.  That’s to be expected in found footage and it didn’t bother me.  I’m in it for the payoff.  How does the movie do when things turn south?
That’s when this movie shines.  When things go south, they go south in a hurry.  We get some “separated from the group” slasher kills.  We get some Final Destination deaths.  We get plenty of “no no no no no,” moments.  We get some terrific new entries into the Blair Witch mythology.

By the time we finally get to the house from the end of The Blair Witch Project, my nerves were already on the verge of being shot.  I begged them not to go in, knowing that the witch wouldn’t give them another choice.  The house itself was a labyrinth of horror, featuring one scene that found me covering my mouth and shaking my head.  The last 15-20 minutes of the movie are spent in the house and it is pure madness.  When I wasn’t covering my mouth I was grinning like an idiot.

Blair Witch isn’t perfect, but the finale is superb.  If you haven’t seen it yet, lower your expectations a bit and prepare to have a good time.  I had a lot of fun with it.  The more I think about it, the more I just want to see it again.

Rating: 4/5