This is the second part of a two part review of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.
YOU GONNA WRITE US A HAPPY ENDING, HEATHER?
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has a discernible five act structure. If you're unfamiliar with how a five act film is structured, here's a quick primer.
The first act introduces characters, defines their needs or desires, and establishes the overall conflict within the narrative.
The second act features rising tensions, complications and character implications, pushing the narrative forward while distancing the characters from the attainment of the desires.
The third act is effectively a mini-climax where the film reaches maximum tension.
The fourth act is devoted to falling action with an emphasis on character. It is usually at this point that all hope is lost then the final hurdle is jumped, and the character proceeds towards the finale of the film. This is usually the shortest, most concise act of the film.
The fifth act is the proper climax where arcs are fulfilled and characters desires are attained, usually by defeating or besting the antagonist.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT fits this structure well. It tells its story over the course of eight days. The events are largely repeated with very little variation until the climax of the third act. The events of those eight days are as follows:
Day One – We are introduced to Heather, the director, Mike, the sound engineer, and Josh, the cameraman. We become acquainted with the two different types of media used to film the documentary, the silent, black and white 16mm film stock and the typical camcorder. The characters discuss the nature of the documentary they are filming. We learn of the urban legends in the area, specifically about Rustin Parr, a recluse who murdered seven children in the 1940s, that the Blair Witch supposedly haunts a cabin in the woods, that two people hiking in the woods “disappeared off the face of the Earth” and that many people have sighted the Blair Witch over the years. We learn this through on the street interviews with locals. At night, the team bonds over drinks.
Day Two – Heather, Mike and Josh set off into the woods. They film at Coffin Rock, an outcropping near a stream where the bodies of five men were once found, their mutilated bodies marked with “strange writing”. They camp in the woods.
Day Three – In the morning, Josh mentions hearing sounds during the night. They appear to be lost but Heather, flexing her dominance, insists they're not lost. They head in the direction of a cemetery in the woods, but cannot manage to get their bearings using their map. Mike expresses displeasure at Heather's constant filming. The trio comes across piles of rocks, clearly man-made, in a clearing. There are seven distinct rock piles. When they head back to film the rock formations at night, Josh accidentally disturbs one of them. They are later woken up by strange noises in the night which sound like clapping rocks or the breaking of heavy tree limbs.
Day Four – Tension rises sharply. Mike and Josh need to return their equipment. Discussing the noises, Josh suggests that someone might be following them. They recognize that they are well and truly lost at this point, even though Heather won't admit it. This leads to Mike having the first breakdown of the group. At night, they hear the same noises, but again cannot pinpoint a source or a cause.
Day Five – They awake to find three rock piles outside their tent. As Heather compulsively films, Josh and Mike scream at her, wanting to leave. As they hike, Heather discovers that their map is missing. After crossing a difficult stream, Mike admits to kicking the map into the water, claiming it was useless. This leads to the first physical altercations. By now, the tension among the group is at its peak. Later, they come upon a clearing in the woods. Hanging from trees are dozens, if not hundreds, of stick figures made of twine and twigs. Once again, Heather will not stop taping though she finally admits that they are lost. At night, they are awoken by the sounds of children laughing and babies crying. Something violently shakes their tent and they flee into the night.
Day Six – They return at sun-up to discover their campsite destroyed. We see that Heather had taken one of the stick figures from the clearing. Josh's belongings are smeared with some kind of slime. Once again, Heather will not stop filming. Josh has a breakdown. Near sunset, they discover that they have been walking in circles the entire day. Josh confronts Heather, causing her to break. During the night, the group reconciles over talk of food. Nothing happens while they sleep.
Day Seven – Mike and Heather wake up to find Josh gone. They spend a little time looking for him before resuming hiking. There's relatively little small talk as they walk. At night, they hear Josh screaming in pain.
Day Eight – Heather finds a small bundle made of twigs outside their tent. It's held together by pieces of Josh's shirt. Inside the bundle is a bloody mess of teeth. Mike finally breaks. At night, Heather films a tearful apology. Upon hearing Josh's cries for help, Heather and Mike set off to find him. They stumble upon an old, rotted house in the woods.
Days One and Two comprise the entirety of the films first act. They are the only two days of the film structured in a way similar to most documentary films, with heavily edited interview footage, world building and leading moments (ie. Josh asking Heather whether she believe the stories she is hearing). Though we don't get to hear the strange sounds Josh reports in the morning, the mention sets up what will become the cyclical action of the film. They will hike and argue during the day. At night, we'll all get the spooks.
Days Three and Four make up the second act. It's here when the characters really start to grate on one another. Heather's constant filming quickly becomes the cause of strife within the group, designating her as the films antagonist throughout this act. However, by the time Day Four wraps up, the main antagonist of the film becomes clear. It isn't Heather. It isn't even really the Witch. It's the woods.
Days Five, Six and the early events of Seven comprise the third act, the crucial act where the film reaches its peak tension. The events surrounding the group become physical. Rock piles show up outside their tent (up until this point, it's been nothing more than sounds in the distance), something terrible shakes their tent and Josh goes missing. The escalation of events from sounds in the dark to physical activity happens at the same time the group comes to blows over the map and Heather's constant filming, almost as if the escalation of their dissolution causes the escalation of activity.
The early moments of Day Seven and most of Day Eight make up the fourth act. Here, the characters are at their lowest. Hopelessly lost, starving and one member down, this is where the film slows to a crawl to show the sheer physical and emotional toll this experience has had on the characters. It's also the shortest act yet, lasting only half as long as the previous day.
The final act begins with Heather's tearful apology, essentially a suicide note no one would ever read, and ends with Mike and Heather finally rushing off to save Josh, only to meet their lonely fates in the basement of an abandoned house in the woods. It is the ultimate climax of the film, but one without closure.
As I said, the structure here is discernible but incidental and that is largely because THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT doesn't ever feel like a traditional film. Grandiose dramatic push isn't the goal, immersion is.The concept comes back into play. What we're watching is the found footage of a group of scared, lost college aged filmmakers. Their behavior is a constant see-saw of anger and hopelessness, peppered with a few moments of genuine empathy. Their days bleed together, just hiking and arguing, before the inevitable nighttime assault. While it might fit into a common structure, nothing else about the film feels common. Characters say the same things over and over, the same arguments happen over and over, their trek through the woods leads them back to where they began the day before. If we were weighing the sheer dramatic importance of the material contained within THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, we would barely have anything to lay on the scale.
There's a common idea in screenwriting that every scene needs to have a beginning, middle and end, no matter how small the scene in question is. If the dialogue or action isn't answering a question (what does X want? What does X need to do to get it? What do we learn about X in this scene?), it is useless to the narrative and should be excised. In terms of sheer screenwriting economy, you cut the pure character moments and keep that which drives the narrative forward. A quiet moment is a moment wasted.
But there's precious little past the first act in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT that serves the purpose of pushing the action forward. The fact that the group hikes all day only to end up back where they started is little more than a cruel joke. They begin and end each day the same as before. They are reduced to reactive characters by their environment, a forest they simply cannot leave. By the time Josh goes missing, all of their behaviors stop being meaningful and become simply routine. We know how the story ends. By the time the fourth act ends, they do too.
STICKS AND STONES
By any classical definition, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is far from dramatic. Despite all the screaming, it is a strikingly quiet film and that has a lot to do with the sound design. Simply put, there isn't any. Aside from normalizing sound levels and reducing the background noise as the film goes on, all sound captured is diegetic. There is no score playing during the scary moments, no low humming bass like in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY to clue us in on the supernatural events about to take place and no noticeable dubbing.
Because of the found footage angle, most filmmakers approach their films as designed products put together by editors. Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD is a great example, a found footage film edited, scored and narrated by one of the characters within the film. This allows Romero the typical Hollywood indulgences of creepy scores, jump edits and audience manipulation. THE LAST BROADCAST is a mixture of produced material and found footage, a mockumentary style employed by shows like In Search Of.... What this handling of the footage does is make us aware of a creative presence behind the camera. They feel directed.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT doesn't feel directed, even if its obviously edited. The actors set up their shots, not Sanchez and Myrick. While they were given scenic locations to use on several days, most of the time the actors ended up filming whatever they needed to without any consideration of cinematic appeal. The framing of Heather's famous apology scene was a total accident. There are times when characters speak most of their dialogue off screen. In a “normal” film, this would be suicide, but here, the lack of directorial control just adds to the authenticity of it all. They're not making a film for public consumption. They're simply filming because there's nothing else to do.
The closest the film comes to feeling like a traditional film is when Josh fires up the 16mm camera for carefully composed shots. This happens only during the first half of the film. At that point, they still have hope of escaping the woods. They take their time at night, filming the sticks and the stones. but from that point on, the 16mm camera is used primarily as a light source. All attempts to carefully capture the events on 16mm are gone after Day 5.
The footage captured on the camcorder is haphazardly filmed, mostly because the camcorder is only there to capture incidental moments, not footage for the documentary. I feel like there was far more footage filmed with the 16mm camera than what is actually in the film, but it wasn't used by Sanchez and Myrick for one obvious reason. The camcorder is a staple of the household (or it was anyway back in 1999). The home video quality of the footage just creates one more link between the viewer and the material. The juxtaposition of the 16mm footage and the camcorder footage is an interesting idea. It offers up and then promptly removes the safeguard, that time honored chant of protection from cinematic terrors, “just repeat… it's only a movie”.
There's a damn good reason why so much effort is spent on filming those sticks and stones too and that's because the iconic stick men, the piles of rocks, the house in the woods… these are all designed elements. In a film predominantly filled with naturalistic elements like trees, streams, leaves and rain, the sudden appearance of things not normally found in nature, simple baubles like stick figures made of twigs and twine, take on a sinister appearance. These are not things created through the accidental blowing of the wind. They are created with teleological intent.
It's a testament to how smart the construction of the film is and how subtly it works under your skin. The sudden appearance of a pile of rocks in this film hits like the shower curtain being pulled back in PSYCHO. It's a rare feat, scaring people using stick figures and rocks, but it's a well worn psychological freak-out, like a voice whispering in an empty room. Those rocks are not supposed to be there. Their arrangement is clearly designed, carefully and with intent by someone or something.
WE'RE HERE NOW, HUNGRY… COLD… AND HUNTED
Now that the new BLAIR WITCH film has shat all over the mythology of the first film, it's going to be difficult for people to watch THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT without any new developments leaking in. I earlier compared THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT with HALLOWEEN. Both were low cost films that made millions. Both are simplistic, minimalistic films that succeed through style rather than through pure narrative momentum. But there's something else these films have in common now.
Watching the first HALLOWEEN film and looking at it for what it is can be difficult. We ascribe motivations to Michael Myers that simply do not exist within the film. The Shape in HALLOWEEN is not Laurie Strode's brother. He isn't the weapon of some secret cult. He's just a maniac, freshly escaped from a mental institution, fixated on a singular moment in his life. When Laurie drops that key off at the Myers' house, he doesn't recognize her as his sister, because in Carpenter's film, she isn't. She's just a girl and Myers, hellbent on filling the psychotic need to relive the memory of his first murder, strikes out again.
That is HALLOWEEN. That is all it is. But decades of sequels has mutated Carpenter's original film into something much more convoluted and weak. The plot developments in BLAIR WITCH have answered questions that were never meant to be answered. Whether or not those answers hurt or help the franchise is up for debate, but let's not pretend that the plot developments of BLAIR WITCH were ever intended to happen by the original creators.
Part of the appeal of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is the mystery of it all. While we can't deny the supernatural implications of the events in the film, there is still the possibility that the whole thing was set up by an all-too human antagonist, maybe even a group of them. How difficult would it be to arrange a few boom boxes in the distance, playing creepy noises at night? That's exactly what the filmmakers did. Is it really too much of a stretch to think that Josh didn't simply disappear, but was taken from the campsite while the others were asleep? There surely has to be a connection between the twig and twine stick figures, and the twig and twine gate outside Mary Brown's house, right?
It's an interesting angle to contemplate while watching the film, but there's too many inexplicable events going on for that angle to hold its shape. But that raises an even more interesting question: what exactly is assaulting these characters?
Only once during the film does a character actually see something. As the group runs from their tent, Heather briefly looks to her left, screaming “what the fuck is that?!” She clearly sees something, but even though she has her camera pointing in the direction of that mysterious something, we never see it. There is no edit from the 16mm camera in Josh's hands to the camcorder in Heather's. If there really was something to be seen, wouldn't the editors have shown it to us? Wouldn't that have been part of the film? Instead, we see nothing. There is no edit. So what exactly was chasing them through the woods that night?
BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2, the failed, much maligned original sequel to this film, took the mythology of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to a considerably different place. In the world of that film, the original was just a movie, though the urban legends were very much reality. Joe Berlinger's film comments more on mass hysteria and mass delusion, the kind which lit the fires of the witch-hunts of the early modern period. That film is as open ended as this film, with no clear evidence or conclusion that what befalls the characters is the actual outcome of witchcraft.
In any other film, you could argue that what happens is just the product of group hysteria, but in this film we hear the noises. We see the sticks and stones. This is happening. The why is almost an afterthought. Whether it's man made or supernatural, these people are being pursued. They're being hunted. Whatever actually caused it might be unknown, but the fact remains that these three filmmakers met their maker in the woods of Burkittsville.
In fact, you could argue that the woods are the real antagonist in this film, that they act as a kind of Bermuda Triangle, a bizarre place that incites and captures madness and terror. The woods are not haunted by the Blair Witch. They contain her, just as they contain all the spirits of the children lost in the town, the same spirits that giggled outside the tent that night right before rapping their tiny hands against it in unison. Mike wasn't made to stand in that basement corner by the Witch, but by the spirit of Rustin Parr. BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 sidestepped all of that. It wasn't the woods that made the characters go crazy, it was the suggestion, the powerful belief in supernatural madness. In BLAIR WITCH, this is all explained by turning Elly Kedward into a god-like entity capable of warping time and space. There's an elegance in thinking of the woods as little more than a gigantic haunted house, a dwelling place for multiple evil spirits, all of whom take their turn at driving our characters insane.
This is the beauty of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. No matter how many times you watch it or how closely you observe it, the truth will always lurk right outside the frame. It succeeds through the power of suggestion, rather than going the easy route of discovery and closure. We never see the monster because there isn't a monster. Not really. There's only what we imagine lurking beyond the frame. We have to fill in the blanks because the film refuses to do it for us. The answer to the mystery is elusive. It's PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. It's Jack the Ripper. It's the name dancing on the tip of your tongue.
IT'S LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE
That's precisely what THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was. This was 1999. This was right in the middle of the teenage slasher boom where every mildly popular heartthrob suddenly found themselves in a SCREAM knock-off. This was the time of irony and quirk. This was the time of cheap scares and quick cash grabs. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT could not have been made in the Hollywood system. It had to be an indie. There's no other way this movie could have been made.
Studio productions are market research driven creations. They're fad machines driven by an exploitation mentality, mass produced products whose sole purpose is to soak up cash. There are no jump scares in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. There are no false climaxes, no special effects, no creepy soundtracks, no boogeymen to keep getting up after being put down, no glamour model actors, no alien-looking monstrosity moving through the trees, no ironic twist endings... All the telltale signs of Hollywood horror films in the late 90s are missing from this film. What we have instead is quiet and suggestion, character and conviction. The choice of lo-fi camera equipment and unknown actors signaled that this was not going to be just another horror film. This was something different.
The choice of found footage has kept this film from aging. Like any other documentary (fake or otherwise), the film feels fresh. The lack of effects means the film cannot look dated, even if the technology used to make it certainly is. You would think that the years and years of shoddy imitators, and tired "me too" horror films that came in its wake would have dented the reputation of this film. But they haven't. Because the type of tale this film tells and the manner in which it tells it... that doesn't age. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is classic horror literature. It's weird fiction. It's the creepy stories we still tell around campfires.
There's something undeniably classy about the grubby look of the thing. There's a uniqueness to just how much of a group effort this film was with actors creating alongside directors. Nothing else felt quite like this movie back in 1999 and honestly, there's nothing out there today that feels like it either. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has become pop culture now. 17 years after its release, it has become as familiar as HALLOWEEN or PSYCHO, but just like those films, it still has an undeniable power to it, even if it isn't as effective to us now as it was the first time we saw it.
These days, when I watch THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, I am largely unmoved by its scares, but I have never once looked at this film and felt anything less than admiration for just how well it pulled this whole thing off. My appreciation has shifted. I wish I could still feel that hopelessness and terror, that feeling of pure dread, that exhausting finality when the credits began to roll, but that is all lost to time now. I do however remember how it made me feel as I watched it all those years ago. I don't think I can ever forget that night. Moreover, I remember how I felt after watching the film, sitting home alone in a quiet house, feeling that childlike horror as I thought about what might be lurking right out of my own frame of vision.
For a brief time back in 1999, millions and millions of people remembered what it felt like to be a child once again, trapped in the suffocating darkness, terrified of things that go bump in the night. For me, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT remains one of the most unique, perfectly executed and memorable horror films, even if modern advancements and cultural shift in horror has delegated it to relic status. But there is much we can still learn from it. We most certainly have yet to surpass it.