Monday, March 4, 2013

Review: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Yeah, yeah, it's fake, nothing happens...

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

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The Blair Witch Project gets a lot of heat nowadays, mainly from people who haven't seen it. Billed at the time as the actual lost footage of three student filmmakers in Maryland, audiences went into the film in 1999 having been hyped up by one of the first major viral marketing campaigns for a film, relying chiefly on the film's official website and a Sci-Fi Channel mockumentary entitled Curse of the Blair Witch. Having watched the film, I feel that either visiting that website or watching that mockumentary, and preferably both, is absolutely vital in order to get much of anything out of the film, as they provide the backstory that the filmmakers were expecting audiences to know about when they first saw the film. (The mockumentary is conveniently included on the DVD/Blu-Ray, so there's little excuse not to watch it.) Only then will you know what the Blair Witch's tricks are all about.

That's right, The Blair Witch Project does not stand on its own two feet as a film, and in fact, that's what the filmmakers were going for. Instead, it is probably more like a film adaptation of a "creepypasta", an urban legend born on the internet and spread through message boards, chat rooms, and blogs. Before watching, ask yourself this: would you get much out of a Slender Man movie, or a TV show about the adventures of the SCP Foundation, if you didn't know what those were beforehand? The same thing is true here. In 1999, everybody knew the story of the Blair Witch, about what had happened on Coffin Rock, about Rustin Parr's child sacrifices, and that was what the filmmakers were counting on. It is necessary to get up to speed on the backstory in order to get the full Blair Witch experience.

...or at least, as full as can be done now that it's been close to thirteen years since the cat was let out of the bag and the film was revealed as a work of fiction. This is perhaps the biggest problem that so many people had with The Blair Witch Project then and now, the fact that it was marketed as the genuine "lost footage" of a group of student filmmakers who went missing in 1994. I don't really see the issue. I've grown up with found-footage horror movies as a major component of my moviegoing experience, I've seen a whole slew of movies purporting to be "based on a true story" that were largely full of crap, and I understand that reality shows are heavily manipulated in the editing room. Even if this was genuine, the editors would surely have cobbled together only the choicest bits of footage in order to tell the story they wanted to.

And even knowing that it's fake, it still felt genuine enough for me to buy into it. This film was heavily improvised, with nearly every line unscripted and the actors unaware of what would happen during the shoot beyond a 35-page outline of the mythology that they had been given at the start of production. Even if the mythology was fake, the events on screen felt very real. The slow ratcheting of the tension between the three main characters as they fought each other over their predicament felt like what I'd imagine would happen to three friends lost in the woods. The footsteps in the dark, the rattling of the tent, the piles of stones, the maze of wicker men? I knew it wasn't real, but I was still scared. Armed with the film's mythology by its viral marketing campaign, and with it, knowledge of what those moments represented, they scared me more with suggestion than many movies do with all the gory set-pieces and mirror scares in the world.

That said, the film's improv nature meant that, despite the film running at just 81 minutes, the long stretches of it between the scares tended to drag. I was invested in the fights between the three main characters the first few times, as it reflected the growing desperation that they were finding themselves in, but as time wore on, I got progressively angrier at them for their continued arguments in the face of a very real threat. This was alleviated a great deal when the worst of the three was removed from the picture and the fights largely stopped, but until then, despite the solid performances, it was starting to wear on me. This is the flip side of an unscripted, improv/reality-show-style movie -- it's harder to cut away from the more banal moments.

Score: 4 out of 5

Yeah, it's fake. But so is every other scary movie, and this film's improv style helped me buy into it being real anyway. It's like a good reality show meets a good urban legend; so long as you go in knowing the film's fictional mythology from its viral marketing (not that hard to catch up on), you'll find yourself in for a thrilling ghost story.

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