Monday, August 06, 2018

I ❤ U The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project hits Shudder US today! To celebrate, I thought I'd jot down a Zombie Cupcake "take" on the movie, since I never actually have. After a recent re-watch I've been having some feels about this one!

For years I felt kind of embarrassed admitting I loved this film, but not any more. Watching it through recently, and then again with the thoroughly entertaining and informative commentary track, it clarified that this is definitely one of my favourite horror films for a few reasons. Over the years I confess feeling a tinge of embarrassment whenever I've been asked to name the scariest film I've ever seen... because honestly, nothing has ever come close to terrifying me as much as this did when I saw it in '99.

Yes, it's been something of a divisive movie ever since its release. The "slowness" of the story; the shaky-cam; the "why are they still filming" aspect and Heather being a "bitch"... Ugh, I don't agree but I get it. Like I said in my Blair Witch review though, whatever your opinion of The Blair Witch Project, you have to admit it was a milestone in horror history. 

Coming out of nowhere, successfully creating mystery around itself - the cast’s IMDB profiles had the actors labeled as "missing, presumed dead" for a full year! - and using the internet in a way that was unheard of at the time. This shit went viral before viral even existed.

"Missing" poster as marketing for the film.

Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the movie is a beautifully crafted piece of cinema where the more you learn about it, the more impressed you'll become. 

Compiled, as it claims to be, from the footage taken by Heather, Mike and Josh (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard) The Blair Witch Project was mostly shot over six days as the actors camped and hiked in the woods, working off of personal "this is your motivation" prompt notes left by the crew. What we see today is thanks to intelligent guidance, expert editing (the Sundance screening apparently showed a different cut) and immersed, improvised acting. The breaking-point exhaustion we see as the film advances was real, and by the final days the three were only given bare minimum food rations to increase their irritability and encourage more anxiety and conflict on film.

Heather (Heather Donahue)

Heather Donahue's casting is called the single best decision of the entire project, and is a powerful but often maligned force of a character in this film. I always had a fondness for her, but my appreciation of the depiction of her has only grown as I've gotten older. Heather is something of a control freak, and she knows what she wants and how she wants it (umm, I can relate). The word "project" is right there in the film's title, and it's her project. Much of the movie is taken from her point of view as she's the one that insists on keeping her camera rolling, even after things take a sinister turn.

Mike (Michael C. Williams)

We meet Heather as a pitch perfect self-righteous film maker, and we leave her running through that house screaming - the audio accompanying her footage coming from Mike's camera making it all fantastically disjointed and unreal - and finally, she's on the floor of the basement. Fade to black.

Much we take for granted in this movie was actually a decision made by the actors (or a happy accident) as they were left to their own devices. If, after reviewing the day's footage Myrick and Sánchez thought someone needed guiding in a slightly different direction, then that was done. But generally they took what the actors gave them, discarded what they thought didn't work (much more, much nastier bickering between the men and Heather found its way to the cutting room floor in an effort to make the audience more sympathetic towards them) and then they spun indie horror movie gold with the rest.

Josh (Joshua Leonard) who lost that sick tooth necklace in the woods :(

Did you know that some of the townspeople at the start were real townspeople from the area? The actors presented themselves in-character so they got natural reactions from the public. Some were plants, too; actors hired and given a story to tell. The stand-out, the lady with the little kid who says "no!" was a real person who made her tale up on the spot (and had to be tracked down to sign a release form!).

Many clever shot set-ups were accidental or actor-driven, rather than anything suggested by the directors. Heather's iconic confession was self-scripted, and the framing of this shot was by mistake. The Blair Witch Project is a wonderful combination of glorious group effort and luck.

As for my personal reaction, marketing and trivia aside, it still creeps me out to this day. When I first saw it I don't remember necessarily thinking it was real, but I did get completely sucked in by the found-footage approach - and remain to this day a fan of imaginative found-footage movies. Whether I was just unaccustomed to horror (or this kind of horror) on the big screen or whatever the reason may have been, I was in full foetal position in my seat with a pounding heart by the end of the movie. Definitely one of those moments you love/hate and spend years trying to recapture!

Even watching the collection of alternative endings (spoiler: none of them work as well as the one they chose) spooked me. There's just something about that final sequence; the hysterical screaming, the house, that basement... I still find it frightening.

It's so cool that Shudder is adding this to their catalogue. But don't forget that there are some great extras on the Blu-ray if you feel like owning it permanently. There are so many amazing little details given in the commentary (the "taco" code word if anyone needed to break character; the stick-man affectionately named Chewbacca) so if you are a fan, it's an excellent investment.

The sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 also hits Shudder today. I remember not being wholly convinced when I saw it, thinking it felt too much like a studio cash-in. Kind of excited to watch it again and see if that still stands.

What's your opinion on the original, or even that 2000 sequel? Lover, hater? Let me know!

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