Summer Shocks 1999: The Blair Witch Project

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Our series comes to an end

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

It’s a horror story as old as The Brothers Grimm: kids lost in the woods preyed on by a witch. In our cynical age, that sort of tale shouldn’t hold much currency. Not in a world where truly grim tales unfold daily in news headlines. As a culture, we’re a jaded bunch; and modern horror movies have, by necessity, reflected that.

Since Psycho (1960), a movie that slashed through expectations of how far a horror movie could go, horror has always been about going farther – as seen in Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Friday the 13th (1980), among others. It’s not all about splatter but once you’ve seen a big-ass splinter driven deep into a woman’s eye, as in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), how can you ever go back to being scared by less?

In the summer of 1999, though, The Blair Witch Project proved it could be done by returning to our oldest, most primal fears – our terror of the dark and of the unknown. It proved that even in an Age of Atrocities, a cackle or a cry in the night could be terrifying.

Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, The Blair Witch Project documented the disastrous attempt of three college students to search for the mythical Blair Witch in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland. Heather Donohue, Joshua Leonard, and Mike Williams are the students, all playing roles that share their namesakes.

The unconventional, unscripted, soon-to-become-the-stuff-of-legend method behind the making of Blair Witch involved Myrick and Sánchez sending their three actors into the woods armed with equipment and supplies and general instructions as to what the film’s outline was and what their character’s motivations were. At night, the actors were terrorized in their tents by Myrick and Sánchez and by day, the trio would each find new instructions left specific to each actor as to what they needed to do next in order to move the story forward.

Initially Myrick and Sánchez only intended this footage to be incorporated into a more straight-forward, In Search Of-style documentary about their invented legend of The Blair Witch (the material filmed for this was utilized in the Curse of the Blair Witch special that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel just prior to Blair Witch‘s release) but as they worked in editing down the hours of material, they discovered that the journey of Heather, Josh, and Mike was compelling enough to be its own feature. With Blair Witch‘s premiere at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and a purchase by indie-friendly Artisan Entertainment (who had recently distributed Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 debut, Pi), horror history was born.

In his non-fiction overview of the horror genre, “Danse Macabre,” Stephen King wrote: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” Most horror films – even plenty of classic ones – only go so far in their efforts to truly terrify. It’s very rare that a horror movie will not succumb to a baser method of getting to their audience (think of the projectile vomiting in The Exorcist or the chest-burster in Alien). The Blair Witch Project, however, is an exception to that. That is such a rare occurrence – maybe a completely isolated one, at least in modern times – that Myrick and Sánchez deserve to still be taking their bows for this movie.

Blair Witch is so pure in regards to creating terror; it’s no wonder that not everyone embraced it. We’re used to horror movies being much coarser contraptions, full of hand-on-the-shoulder jump scares, splatter FX and bombastic scores cueing us to hide our eyes or leap out of our seats (usually at a false scare, a horror staple entirely absent from Blair Witch). Horror movies are supposed to do all this so we can go along with a ride that we’re already comfortable with and scream at all the expected “gotcha” moments and then laugh at our collective gullibility. Blair Witch, however, doesn’t go for any of that.

Ostensibly, Blair Witch is as crude as they come: the camera constantly shakes and the characters bicker, argue and curse. Beneath that, though, is a very refined essay on Fear Itself. In its improvised nature, much of what occurs in Blair Witch is pure happenstance but as assembled by Myrick and Sánchez, the many hours of footage that they had to work with were shaped into as artful a horror film as anyone has ever made. It’s not about the cinematography or the dialogue; it’s about putting all the pieces together just right.

Just as it’s aerodynamically impossible for bees to be able to fly but yet they do, The Blair Witch Project is a movie that shouldn’t work, but it does. When I first read about Blair Witch shortly after its Sundance premiere, I was skeptical towards it. It just didn’t sound like a movie to me. I couldn’t imagine how the thin premise and the shaky-cam approach could sustain a feature length film, never mind a good one. I found out how it was possible once I saw the movie for myself. The movie scared me, not because I was ever under the impression that it actually happened but because it was scary. The found footage conceit never felt gimmicky, the acting was natural and convincing, and the conclusion stopped the narrative at the perfect pitch of terror, giving no release or relief.

Most horror films create their scares by making us privy to information that the characters are not aware of. How many times have you heard audience members – or perhaps even yourself – impulsively tell a character in a movie “don’t go in there!” or “turn around!” or “he’s still alive!” because we know what the characters don’t. Thanks to its documentary approach, The Blair Witch Project is the rare horror film to have us experience everything at the same time the characters do. Every revelation, every turn of the story, is seen simultaneously by both the characters and ourselves. The only thing we know in advance that the characters don’t is that they’ll never make it out of the woods.

What’s scary about Blair Witch is how imperceptibly these kids go past the point of no return. We know they won’t make it out but even on repeated viewings we don’t know why. We don’t see that point where everything goes wrong for them because they never see it themselves. Until panic sets in later on, they seem to be making mostly reasonable choices. Just as a frog will instantly leap out of a pan of boiling water if dropped in it but be cooked alive if placed in a pan of water slowly brought to a boil, Heather, Josh, and Mike are fucked well before they even know that they’re fucked. By the time they really start to worry, any chance of getting back to Josh’s car is already long gone.

The Blair Witch Project didn’t pioneer the found-footage conceit but it did make it into a phenomenon. Eleven years later, we’re still seeing the children of Blair Witch on movie screens with the just-released The Last Exorcism, this fall’s Paranormal Activity 2 and next summer’s Super 8 from director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg. Blair Witch created a model that other filmmakers still want to follow. They might bring their own tweaks to the approach but at the end of the day, none of these faux-docs would exist without the success of Blair Witch.

To those who can’t stand the shaky-cam, faux-doc sub-genre, that might not seem like a cinematic legacy to be proud of. But not every slasher movie that came to be due to the success of Halloween was a classic, either. A movie shouldn’t be penalized for every movie that tries to ride on its coattails. Besides, Blair Witch has enough enemies as it is. Over ten years since its release, it remains a divisive film and will likely remain so for as long as movies are discussed.

Much of the animosity towards Blair Witch has to do with its characters – the headstrong Heather, in particular. Some regard Heather, Josh, and Mike as annoying and ineffectual but faced as they are with desolate chances of survival, hunted unto death in a manner that has no rhyme or reason, their frayed, frustrated reactions ring true and I doubt if the amateurish casts of most low budget horror films could’ve ever pulled off the same feat. Heather’s famous flashlight-lit confessional may have been the most roundly parodied aspect of Blair Witch but we live in a society that prefers glibness as a permanent buffer against naked emotions so it’s no wonder that moment was so heavily targeted – it goes against the culture of snark that we inhabit. Most horror movies skirt around the edges of fear, but Blair Witch gives it a close-up. For some, that’s just too close for comfort.

Whether you love or hate The Blair Witch Project; whether you think it’s one of the most significant horror films ever made or simply one of the most ingeniously hyped, when we remember the summer of 1999, we remember it as being the season of the Witch.

Other genre films released in the summer of ’90:

The Mummy (May 7th)

Lake Placid (July 16th)

The Haunting (July 23rd)

Deep Blue Sea (July 28th)

The Sixth Sense (August 6th)

The Astronaut’s Wife (August 27th)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1981:

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1982:

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1984:

Dreamscape (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1985:

Day of the Dead (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1986:

The Fly (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1987:

Predator

SUMMER OF 1988:

The Blob

SUMMER OF 1989:

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

SUMMER OF 1990:

Class of 1999

SUMMER OF 1991:

Body Parts

SUMMER OF 1992:

Single White Female

SUMMER OF 1993:

Jason Goes to Hell

SUMMER OF 1994:

The Crow

SUMMER OF 1995:

Tales from the Hood

SUMMER OF 1996:

The Craft

SUMMER OF 1997:

Mimic

SUMMER OF 1998:

Blade






Source: Jeff Allard