Shot in just eight days on a $60,000 budget, The Blair Witch Project is the epitome of indie filmmaking. But its budget is only partially why its success was so ground-breaking. With little resources, three actors, and a small crew, the resulting film became one of the most talked-about horrors ever… and probably one of the scariest. Famously so, the film was so effective in marketing and unconventional presentation that it led to audiences believing what they were witnessing was actually real. People bought into the true-story-suggesting advertising so much that actress Heather Donahue, whose name was used as her character’s one in the movie, was believed to be dead… to the extent her mother received sympathy cards.
The narrative follows three student filmmakers: Heather, Josh, and Mike. The trio venture into woods – infamous for their folklore – to make a documentary about a local legend named the Blair Witch (fun fact: the actors believed the town’s mythology was real and weren’t told that the people their characters were interviewing were actors). As they journey deeper into the dense trees, they begin to lose their bearings and start hearing things go bump in the night. What follows is a mysterious, frenzied panic and fight for survival; as well as a growing list of who the culprits of the disturbances might be.
The first time I watched Eduardo Sánchez and Kevin Foxe’s creative horror, I was swept away by how much of a descent into madness it is. The lore is chilling, and the threat which hangs over the characters’ heads is palpable, but what really settled it as great was the use of the location. The woods are unending, and the idea of getting lost in them is unsettling enough without any added supernatural elements. Half of the terror comes from the fact they can’t find their way out. The knowledge that something is watching and following them only adds to the hysteria and watching the trio lose their grip on their surroundings sends chills. Getting lost in the woods is a primal and childhood-rooted fear hard to shake. As they venture further, they begin to turn on each other and screw up. This makes the character dynamics important because they need to work together, but are getting progressively irritated and hopeless. The cast’s combativeness in their performances was helped along by manipulation from the directors, with moves like lessening their food supply on set as the days went on.
If there’s one indisputable fact about terror, it’s that fear of the unknown provokes it. The answer to why the film is so hair-raising is that it takes full advantage of human instincts. To feel secure, we need multiple things: knowledge of the ground underneath our feet, food and water, and a general sense of safety. These things are stripped from Heather, Josh, and Mike until they have little in the way of mental strength. They’re run down emotionally and physically, making whatever is lurking in the dark seep into their skin and bones so much faster, lessening their chances of escape.
“I’m scared to close my eyes. I’m scared to open them.”
A lot of horror fans today are let down by how many new films in the genre rely on large amounts of jump scares. With a lack of atmosphere and genuine creativity, movies, such as the sequel to the very one we are talking about here, are called cheap in the scare department. There’s not a single jump scare in this film’s entire runtime. It runs purely on its breath-hindering tenor and suggestions. Jump scares are not pointless or inherently bad, but the lack of them here is valuable and important in the tension building.
In this film, night-time brings about long hours of paranoia and fear. When the sun goes down, the group is forced to set up camp in a tent as the events that occur outside worsen. What starts as strange noises easily blamed on animals becomes an indisputable hunt, with cackles and breaking branches getting closer and closer. In the dead of night, their field of vision is terrifyingly small. They can only see as far as the light of the camera will let them. The use of the single handheld camera does wonders for the atmosphere because the perspective covers so little ground. There’s no chance of a warning, or surveilling what hides in the dark. We can only witness what the lens is pointed at, and in the jittery hands of its holders, that isn’t a lot. With the directors not even present during the shoot, the realism in what we are seeing and registering as hand-held documentation is filled with a genuine creep-factor. Even with the knowledge that it’s fictional, it’s still unnerving.
The isolation and vulnerability are what work most magnificently. Even when the characters are cooped up together in their tent, there’s no feeling of ease – no release. The fear-soaked souls are at a loss to the elements around them and are under attack from all sides. The sound design does an impressive job at creating a radial perimeter of noise. The frights come from all around them and give the impression the students are being closed in on from all directions – like prey waiting to be pounced on. The restraint of whatever is playing with them is a creepiness hard to shake. They could’ve done whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, but chose to wait and play the long game—insinuating some semblance of tactics, which is far more worrying than a mindless monstrosity.
With clues and symbols littered throughout the film, the mystery of the witch, or whatever it may be—I think I’m in the cult camp—is one of the film’s most prominent factors. With so little to hold onto, the paranoia and theorizing is part of the experience. Searching for answers and logical explanations is part of how we rationalize what we don’t understand, but everything shown in the film amplifies the trembling instead of providing answers. The waiting is draining, every ounce of the characters’ energy is used up in their adrenaline and alarm. The rustle of the leaves and crunching of the woodland floor penetrate and fill the airspace with total dread.
While having the beginnings of a forgettable C-movie, The Blair Witch Project ruffles feathers with its use of the unknown and understanding of the psychological deterioration that comes with trepidation—its success in doing so making it a cultural landmark. If anything can be learned here, it’s that originality takes the cake. And a less-is-more approach can be the way to the teeth-chattering thrills people buy tickets for. It went on to make over $248 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films ever made.
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Hello, I am a Scottish filmmaker who enjoys writing about movies and reading comics! You can follow me on Twitter @_trudiegraham or on Instagram @tru.die