Friday, October 1, 2010

31 Days Of Horror: Day 1: The Blair Witch Project

I had a tough time picking an opener for the third 31 Days Of Horror. Ideally I like to start things out with a personal favorite. Not simply a classic of the genre, but a film that embodies what horror means to me. Originally I was going to open with I Walked With A Zombie, but then was given the opportunity to screen it, meaning that I’ll instead be writing it up on the 30th. Then, I was going to move on to write up the original Halloween, but as JD’s John Carpenter Blogothon is going to make the first week of 31 Days Of Horror plenty Carpentercentric enough as it is.

But then I thought about it and realized that the key word in it was personal. It’s the key word for a lot of horror, just witness Andre Dumas’s genius “Willies” experiment. I knew just what film I had to cover.

Now that the hype and backlash cycle have finally worn down, it seems most people can agree that the The Blair Witch Project, is a pretty fucking scary film. But it becomes even scarier when I recognize the fact that I lived through the dynamic that powers the film several times.

The world of independent film is a world based on favors. So every so often you find yourself and a few friends of friends banded together for a day of shooting, the reasons for which you agreed to this becoming increasingly unclear as the day goes on. Things begin often earlier in the morning then your accustomed to; with a sense of friendly bonhomie. Things end, more often then not, twelve hours later, with you more or less wishing everyone you’ve spent the day with would just go ahead and die already. A day of missed shots, cramped cars, heavy equipment, shoddy directions, difficult personalities, cheap food, caffeine, and cigarettes, will put a strain on even the healthiest of relationships, let alone virtual strangers. And for the most part film crews don’t have to deal with a psychotic something in the woods that’s distorting reality, making them walk in circles, and periodically killing/ and or fucking with them mercilessly. And the way that the central cast devolves from good natured, even elated fucking about, to complete and utter contempt and hatred, is one I can’t help but watch with a shiver of recognition.

It goes without saying, that said psychotic witch in The Blair Witch is the thing that makes The Blair Witch a horror film and not say, a comedy of manners ala In The Soup. But that in it’s way almost exactly the point, remove the witch and it could be. All horror films, all good ones anyway, base themselves in the fears and anxieties of day to day life. It’s maybe not so specific as The Blair Witch, but it’s not hard to see how fears of suffocation from all points of the triangle in the nuclear family feed into The Shining. Or how the literalizing of class warfare powers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. Or the shifting in social mores gives The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby their kick.

My point is, that great horror movies don’t work because of Tits, gore, and a liberal helping of beer. As great as all of those things are...

No great horror movies work for the same reason all great cinema works. Because we see something of ourselves projected on the screen.

The cast of The Blair Witch Project make it very easy to do that. Vulnerable and paniced, they look and act like people who have been trapped out in the spooky ass woods for a several more days then they would like to be. It’s helpful that that was what they actually were.

But it would be a mistake to write off The Blair Witch Project, as just an improv act, the way the film’s first detractor’s did. Now that the “found footage” aesthetic has kicked off in earnest ten years later, it’s a lot easier to see just how much method there is behind Myrick and Sanchez’s madness. The movie is relentlessly paced, scouted, and designed. Scenes as relentlessly effective as the final trip inside the house, and the stumbling upon of the wooden figures, and makeshift cemetery don’t happen by accident. They happen because the filmmakers understood how to create a situation, and then maximize it with the tools they had. Something like Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and even moreso with a later film like The Last Exorcism, clearly approaches things from the technique first. It’s an approach that says, “I can chop my budget and shooting schedule in half making this movie this way. What’s a clever way for me to get away with that.” (One thing that The Blair Witch Project does that those other films don't is solve that eternal "Why don't they drop the camera?" question, by making it a matter of psychology rather then "Well if we didn't then we wouldn't have a movie?)

Meanwhile something like The Blair Witch Project, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, not found footage technically sure but definitely the genus’s spiritual father, seem like to borrow the phrase, “Snuff Films shot in hell.” The style is derived from the content, not the other way around.

And unlike so many of the found footage "documentaries" this seems like it could actually be one. From simple things, like the way that the urban legend, has splintered The Blair Witch into seemingly three different entities (The crying child trying to cover her mother’s mouth as she attempts to relay her share of the mythos to the camera a perfect touch) to the way it grabs at that primal animal fear of being alone in the woods with no way out.

Blair Witch isn’t a movie that does all the work for you. It requires a fertile, and willing, imagination to strike sparks off of. More then that, it requires what all great horror requires of their viewers. A tremendous sense of empathy. Perhaps no horror film since Hitchcock so nakedly demands us to put ourselves in the place of the protagonists.

We horror fans are often accused of being desensitized. I think just the opposite is true. It wouldn’t scare us. If we couldn’t feel it.


Zombie Mom said...

I love this film, even through all the grief I get for it. I watch a lot of horror films but this is one of the few that actually creeped me out.
Great review!

Andre said...

Well said! I am a firm, firm believer in the power of the Blair Witch project. To this day thinking about the description one of the fishermen (I think) give of the Blair Witch sends shivers down my spine--when she opens her robe to reveal she's covered in hair. It's frickin nuts how scary that is to me. And then it's complimented by that illustration of her...egads.

Anonymous said...

You know, I haven't seen this in years. You mad me want to pop it back in the DVD player and give it a spin tonight.

Great write-up!

Andrew Green said...

I totally agree....
The Blair Witch Project was brilliant. The backlash against it has always puzzled me. This one was one of the greats. I saw it 9 times in the theater when it was released.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ ZM: Aw many thanks. I always find what does and doesn't hit ones pressure points so interesting. This one hammers mine.

@ Andre: Yeah, that's an image that stuck around in the ole noggin on this end as well. That actually came from crazy trailer lady, not the fishermen.

He tells the story about the vapor rising from the water, and going off into the woods. Which freaks me out just as much. I mean, what the hell could you do? Bolt or try to pretend you didn't notice, either way you know it's there.

@ PoT: Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it.

@ Andrew: In all fairness, I do understand the backlash just a little bit. If only because it's one thing to keep things offstage for the majority of the film. It's another EVER show what's "hiding behind the door."

Aside from The Haunting I can't even think of another film that does that.

Jordan Ruimy said...

I think this film has gotten too much bad cred the best decade. It is an amazing accomplishemtn and so what if it started a whole trend of horror, hand held cheapies.

Will Errickson said...

BWP freaked me out in the theater and, even worse, it freaked me out for the next couple nights running. It's as simple and primitive and effective as a campfire tale or a nightmare. I doubt that I'll ever watch it again.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Jordan: Yeah I think the backlash is just starting to level off a bit. Which is gratifying.

@ Will Erickson: Same here. Saw the film in New Hampshire. Which given that eighty percent of that state is woods, it was ideal.

J.D. said...

I am definitely of the less is more school and that's what BLAIR WITCH does so well. Because, what we can imagine is so much more powerful and scary than what can be shown and the best horror films play on that notion.

Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah, Stephen King wrote a fantastic essay about that in Danse Macarbe. If you show an audience a ten foot bug, they're just happy it wasn't a hundred foot bug.