Friday, October 19, 2012
Recalling the Original 'Found Footage' Horror Pioneer
"In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found." Those are the opening words of the independent Horror cult hit of 1999 The Blair Witch Project. A horror film is probably the easiest type of film to make, and the hardest to make right. This one belongs to the latter!
For all the horror films I've seen (and on occasion enjoyed) only a few live in my nightmares, and those are the ones I respect. The Exorcist, with its suggestions of the babbling, malignant chaos slithering under the surface of human personality, comes to me sometimes when I'm trying to sleep. Day of the Dead, and to a different degree, Dawn of the Dead invades a disproportionate number of my nightmares, with the stink and rot encroaching, approaching, and unstoppable.
Those films were joined by The Blair Witch Project, an experience - not just a film - of ever -tightening, suffocating dread and terror. The film shot primarily on video, with some black and white 16mm footage, is ostensibly the footage that was recovered a year after the disappearance of the three student filmmakers, director Heather Donahue, her cinematographer Josh, and her sound guy Mike.
They are heading into the woods to explore the myth of the so-called Blair Witch, whose legend has been linked to several horrible killings and other sorts of weirdness. Soon enough, the three find themselves lost in the woods, with personality conflicts mounting, and with ever-stranger terrors coming to visit them late at night. The tension that builds is almost unbearable, as we, like they, come to dread the approaching nightfall and what it may bring.
The fear these fine young actors display is very authentic, helped along no doubt by the improvisational guerrilla style of the shoot (directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez basically sent the actors out in the woods with minimal instructions, few provisions, and then came around at night to set up scares for them).
If I have anything negative to say about the film, it might be that the three seem at times a little too intrepid. There wouldn't be a way in hell you could have gotten me out of my tent after that first night. But that's a small complaint in comparison to what you usually get in the genre, and besides, when a film's this good, I'll forgive a lot more than that.
When I say "now", I'm going to talk a little about the film's progression to its ending, and the ending itself. I'll be very general, so you should be safe to read it, but if you STILL haven't seen the movie, and you're a viewer like me who doesn't want the slightest hint of a clue, you might want to stop reading NOW.
The dilemma for the filmmakers with the way this picture is structured is that there are only so many ways it can end. Eventually, the cameras have to stop rolling. Does that mean provide some sort of big bang for the end, which would almost certainly be a disappointment considering the buildup, or else handle it more honestly, in which case it would sort of peter out?
But this problem is solved ingeniously, with a final shot that's a brilliantly subtle shocker - so subtle, actually, that most of the post-movie conversation I heard was people explaining the last shot to their friends and dates. The Blair Witch Project was a reminder that there are still some great things going on in American cinema. It's indeed scary as hell. Kerry Douglas Dye