Retro Review: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Ahh, The Blair Witch Project. Today was the Scholar’s birthday, and as such I got to pick a movie for us to watch, and it was this one. Huzzah. (There was also wine, so consider yourself warned.)

I can’t think of a more polarizing horror film–honestly, I’m hard-pressed to think of a more divisive American film in any genre. Love or hate, all or nothing. It scared you, or it made you puke.

I happen to think BWP is a brilliant movie, and I feel that way independently of its status as a “groundbreaking” film in the found-footage subgenre. The three characters–that’s all there are, aside from a few extras at the beginning–are sympathetic and totally believable. The events are conceptually terrifying, if not “scary” in the way cinemagoers have come to expect from horror films. It is a good movie.

If you don’t know the story (such as it is) by now, here it is in a nutshell: three student filmmakers decide to shoot a documentary dealing with a local legend in rural Maryland, near the town of Burkittsville. They meet up, interview some locals, and head into the woods to uncover the key locations in the story of the Blair Witch. Their hike goes sour, with each night bringing increasingly spooky events, until one of them disappears. The remaining filmmakers wind up in an abandoned house where their documentary comes to an abrupt and iconic end.

You can see why the Scholar is so into this: folklore, supernatural stuff, and Maryland (my home state)? What’s not to like? (Actually the whole thing is eerily similar to the real legend of Moll Dyer, a witch who supposedly haunts the woods not far from my own alma mater.) The bare-bones storyline is almost incidental: all you need to know is that there’s a witch, and the ridiculous-seeming legend the students set out to document turns out, of course, to be true.

This is interesting to me on a number of levels. First, as a film,  BWP is compact, tightly orchestrated, and truly innovative. The actors improvised most of their acting, and the effect is a famously claustrophobic, anxious mess–exactly the way I, as an undergraduate, would probably have acted in this situation. More importantly, to me, is the central role of a local legend, and the ultimate discovery that the legend is not just a silly story, but is literally true, and deadly. I’ve talked before about how folklorists generally approach the legend genre. BWP (and most horror films) take the “told-as-true” formula to its logical conclusion: it is not only a story told as true. It is true, horribly, terrifyingly true. And that is so freaking cool.

But there’s a whole extra dimension to the Blair Witch experience which, depending on your age and nerdiness-factor, you may have missed. If, like me, you were a total dork in the late 90s (in 1999 I was 17, working a crappy job at a pet store, and spending most of my time playing video games and listening to Metallica), you may have happened to see the promotional mockumentary, Curse of the Blair Witchwhich ran briefly on the SciFi Channel when the film was in theaters. This short film was what really made the Blair Witch Project for me; without it, I may have developed a totally different opinion of the film.

The premise of CotBW was quite simple: it was a Discovery or History Channel-style documentary about the “real” events of the Blair Witch Project. The theatrical release was framed as the recovered footage of the student filmmakers; CotBW was framed as a conventional documentary about the legend itself. And holy god, it was terrifying. It featured “woodcuts” depicting the titular witch, Elly Kedwards, that stand out in my mind to this day as among the creepiest of the “ancient-scribblings-depicting-scary-stuff” horror film tropes. It fleshed out the story of the witch–practically nonexistent in the theatrical release–and featured “real” film footage of the trial of Rustin Par, the child-killer from the 1940s whose MO influenced the end of the feature film. I’m not embarrassed  to admit that 17-year-old me bought it hook, line and sinker, somehow missing the little disclaimer saying it was all fictional, and really believing, for a time, that this stuff really happened (as many people did). That made it all the more fun.

Now that the found-footage/mockumentary subgenre is utterly played-out, it can be hard to revisit early entries in the genre. I know this. But BWP deserves its status, and is still good. It’s not like other “groundbreakers,” first of its kind and therefore deserving of respect, but not actually that great on closer inspection: this is a film that showcases the very human anxieties that would inevitably surface in the face of very inhuman threats. But do yourself a favor and watch Curse of the Blair Witch first. Knowing a little more, in this case, is a good thing, and will heighten the experience of the film.