The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we consider 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
Background: Before “found footage” was its own annoying genre convention (see: Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, The Last Exorcism, and most recently Chronicle and ABC’s The River, which premieres tonight), it was a pretty decent, brand-new, and very cheap ticket-selling gimmick. The critically acclaimed The Blair Witch Project famously cost less than $1 million to make, and after finding distribution at Sundance, went on to make $248 million, spawning the found-footage craze we are still living through today. Back in 1999, the year it was released, the nation was in a bit of a Y2k techno-panic and not quite as reality-TV and Internet-savvy as it would soon become. The film was one of the first to publicize itself with a stealth Internet campaign, part of what made many, many people believe that The Blair Witch Project — a faux docu about a team of missing paranormal investigators — was actual found footage (i.e., that the movie was a real documentary), and that the “students” in it had the wherewithal to film their own murder by a ghost-witch and get the whole thing in wide distribution. No amount of news coverage (“The movie is fake! The cast is ALIVE!”) could convince some people that the girl they’d seen weeping into a hand-cam in those previews hadn’t been murdered. By a witch. Those were simpler, and scarier, times.
Nostalgia Demographic: Impressionable types who didn’t know how to Google in 1999, so mostly everyone. (Did you not see how much money this movie made?)
Nostalgia Fact-Check: I’m going to open this fact-check with an embarrassing confession. I went to the opening night midnight show, at the movie theater, with my older sister and a bunch of her cool friends. I was in high school, and I was very bitchin’. Did I have Nat Shermans in my bag? Probably. Here’s the uncool part: About 50 minutes into the movie, I had to go into the lobby, where I sat next to the water cooler and sipped from a paper cone with my head between my knees. We’d gotten there late and had to sit in the front row, and the overall effect was like being in a Gravitron full of sticks. Everybody else seemed unaffected, but, certain GIFs make me nauseated, so you can imagine what this was like for me.
When my sister’s cute friend came out to see if I was okay, I was trying not to dry-heave on the carpet. He didn’t seem to believe that I wasn’t scared, just motion sick, and coaxed me back into the theater for the last twenty minutes. I was seriously afraid I was going to barf, but it was okay, because he was like, “Shh, I’m here,” and again: older and cute. I saw the end of the film.
Just to do a quick recap of the plot of this thing: A lone title card that starts the film tells us that we’re watching footage recovered a year after the disappearances of three student filmmakers who were lost in the woods around Burkittsville, Maryland, in 1994. I had forgotten that one of the reasons people didn’t believe the movie was a hoax (it isn’t really even one of those, by definition) was because the actors’ names were the same as the characters. The action, such as it is, revolves around Heather, Mike, and JOSHHHHHHHHHH (sorry), an investigative team who are making a documentary about the “Blair Witch,” a local ghost who may have been responsible for a ritual murder and a World War II–era serial killer of children. There’s also a scary mist that menaces the good people of Burkittsville, who persist in living there despite all the haunting, serial child killing, and ritual murder. To their credit, they do look pretty grizzled. The team of teens (I don’t know, they look older than I am now) decides for some reason that it’s a great idea to sleep in the haunted woods at night. The use of unknown and amateur actors may have been key to the whole “is it real or isn’t it?” ruse, but it doesn’t make for the most convincing drama. Also not making an appearance: steady cam. Thank goodness for the Dramamine I had for this second viewing.
There are the usual horror-movie chestnuts in this film — an old fisherman does the “I’d turn back if I were you!” routine, and the kids disturb a grave. (Don’t do that, if you ever find yourself in footage.) The woods mist/witch/ghosts are not happy, and menace the student filmmakers for a long, terrifying night of lens cap lighting. Seriously, it’s all lit with flashlights and cameras, and the result is like watching gonzo porn from inside a burlap sack. Which is pretty scary, I guess.
But some less conventional chestnuts come into play as well, all originating from the film’s cheap budget. Firstly, the effects: The ghost likes to manifest itself as the kind of craft you might make at sleep-away camp. It looks like some kind of Algonquin friendship doll. And then there’s all the improv. The cast looks like it was randomly selected from a line of people buying burritos at a Widespread Panic show, and their acting skills don’t do much to shatter the visual. (The cast wasn’t so convinced of their skills either: Heather Donahue, who played Heather, has just recently been in the news for writing a book about her career as a marijuana farmer.) At one point, the poor kids can’t make it back to base, because Mike (the not-bearded one) has … kicked their map … into a creek. This plot point, like many of them, was clearly ad-libbed and feels like a liiitttle bit of a stretch. I mean, have you ever kicked a small map? I don’t think it’s something that necessarily punts very easily.
Since the time of its release, one of the major explanations for why Blair Witch so successfully scared people was that it subscribed to the “less is more” theory of horror: not to show you all of the blood and guts and death, but to let you imagine it happening. This is a technique championed by many a film critic (in praising Hitchcock’s oeuvre or films like The Others) and that has been adopted by scary movies trying to do things on the cheap (Cloverfield, for one, which at least didn’t make its little-seen monster out of lanyard and beads). This method often gets praised for “ratcheting up the tension,” and “not spelling everything out,” but in the wake of much better financed, better acted, better special-effected found-footage films, much of Blair Witch’s “leaving it to the imagination” just … looks like shoddy filmmaking. After the character who was the camera guy dies, the movie becomes bad POV of leaves and breathy panting/crying foley. Mike eats a leaf, which is a highlight. It’s like watching boring home video of your cousin’s fast-pitch game but without the fun of somebody maybe taking a ball to the johnson.
The real litmus test: Was I scared this time around? Well, I live alone and I’m a puss, so I freak out whenever I unexpectedly catch my own reflection in my Brita. But no, I was not scared by a second viewing of The Blair Witch Project. The only thing that gave me any kind of “pang” was that penultimate up-the-nose payoff scene, the one used so memorably in the trailer, when Heather apologizes to all of their parents for being dumb student filmmakers who futzed with the witch ghosts of the mid-Atlantic. And only because I was reminded, here, of the nearly endless parade of dumbass spoofs the scene inspired.
And this, really, is why Blair Witch is still important, even if it is not all that scary and often very irritating. Without consulting my Pauline Kael, I’m going to say that this movie is second only to The Matrix in the sheer number of awful parodies and less awful knockoffs it was responsible for. We’re talking landfills worth of The Hair Frizz Project and the Cheese Whiz Project DVDs. It wasn’t even just porn! Seriously, there was, like, a blaxploitation one and a Country Bears one and a Pauly Shore one. Your dad probably made one. (He did. Ask him. It’s probably pretty good.) Movies that spawn this many imitators often end up looking bad in retrospect: They didn’t do what they did best — all the copycats that came after fine-tuned the formula — they did it first, which doesn’t mean much when most audiences are … no longer watching them first. It’s not like Blair Witch is most teenagers’ introduction to found-footage or horror films, and compared to new, slicker movies, Blair Witch doesn’t hold up. But, hey, better to be an influential, not all that frightening artifact than an uninfluential one.