It’s always weird to write about a film that I can so clearly remember seeing during my childhood. The Blair Witch Project came out when I was an elementary school student. It was the perfect storm of media buzz, schoolyard rumors (oh my god, you saw an R-Rated Horror Movie???), and the macho-posturing of telling everyone that “yeah I watched it, and it wasn’t even that scary.” Never mind the fact that I didn’t see the movie in theaters, but rather in nine or ten parts scattered throughout early-2000s YouTube. Somehow I doubt that’s how the filmmakers intended it to be seen.
But now that the film is finally old enough to drink (at least in the US), I gave it a Halloween night rewatch with a couple of friends for the first time since I was a kid. I have to admit that I was struck by just how much of the film I managed to remember through the years. Knowing the kind of kid I was (let’s be nice and just call my young self “generally inattentive”), it’s quite a feat that a borderline art-house horror film could have made that sort of imprint on my mind. Of course, it is worth noting that, at the time, it was the scariest thing I had ever seen in my life. But time changes us all, and even though the film I watched the other night was the same one as all of those years ago, I can’t help but feel that it changed right alongside me, although perhaps I was the one who changed around it.
To be blunt, the film has not aged particularly well, but not through any fault of its own. Were it to come out today, it would likely be lauded for its entirely stripped-down approach to horror filmmaking and then promptly bomb at the box office. Its complete indifference to modern horror film motifs seems quite admirable until you realize that Blair Witch actually predated most of them, which were still in their fledgling, post-Scream, states. Here’s a few examples of horror tropes that Blair Witch completely ignores, just to name a few: no music cues, no jump scares, no “the gang fights back” sequences, barely any expository dialogue, no monster, no explicit death scenes. Now obviously, Blair Witch is not the first horror picture to eschew these themes, but just try to imagine a Hollywood horror film produced in 2020 that ignored all of the above. It’s impossible, right, and that’s because it wouldn’t even get made. This is made even more ironic because every one of those mass-produced and uninspired horror pictures of the past decade, which have made very liberal use of the tropes mentioned above, owes a major debt to Blair Witch for its role in bringing horror into the mainstream.
I should, in all fairness, mention that while it’s easy to assign these stripped-down qualities of
to the impeccable taste of a handful of talented artists, it is in large part a result of their limited budget. I don’t particularly feel the need to dive into the details of the film’s production since that has been written about ad nauseam but is undoubtedly worth diving into if you’re so inclined. This is just to say that the film’s bare-bones quality is to its benefit as a horror film. If you need any evidence to back that statement up, then look no further than Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, made for $15 million (compared to the original’s $60,000, according to IMDB).
But back to my actual take on the film. In all honesty, it’s pretty dull. There, I said it. And this is coming from a guy who tends to find stripped-down storytelling to be far more engaging than high-budget action, but Blair Witch seems to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis in that respect. Where most (quality) low-budget horror films utilize character development to engage a viewer, being unable to afford the visual spectacle, Blair Witch instead still makes an effort to go as big as it can on the graphic horror, much to the detriment of delivering any meaningful scares. The result is that if you’re not afraid of the main characters discovering piles of rocks or voodoo idols made out of sticks, then there’s not much that’s going to alarm you.
Of course, this now raises the question of whether or not I have been corrupted by modern horror film sensibilities. It’s rather depressing to think that a film could, in fact, be retroactively spoiled by the movies which it had such a vital influence on. The underlying truth about Blair Witch is that it is entirely and devotedly un-pandering. It never wants you for an instant to like the characters, the shaky camera movements, or even the film. It only wants you to be scared. And yet this simple and, dare I say, admirable goal has only been undermined by a twenty-year-long redefinition of what moviegoers find to be scary. In many ways, Blair Witch was its own undoing; it just took some time for the state of horror to catch up.
And now, here I am on the other side of it all. Horribly desensitized to a film shot from the perspective of a sobbing narrator (thanks, Cloverfield), completely unstirred by now well established low-budget scares (thanks, Paranormal Activity), and wholly uninterested by lacking and one-dimensional characterization (thanks, my liberal arts degree).
None of this is to say that a horror film should be judged entirely by how scary it is. I genuinely believe that all movies should be judged solely on their aesthetic value in a perfect world, but the fact remains that when I sat down to watch The Blair Witch Project on Halloween night, I was hoping for more than a couple of piles of rocks. Blair Witch, I think, will remain an essential film for whosoever wishes to better understand the history and art of horror films as a whole. But sadly, unless you’re an academic or a 10-year old trying to prove that he’s not a chicken, it’s probably not the best use of a Saturday night.