The Blair Witch Project marks a touchstone in film horror, one best remembered for shattering the mold of what to expect from the genre.
No blood. No monsters. Just our own imagination tweaked by the single cam format, a sub-genre leveraged years later by Quarantine, Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity.
Those films wouldn’t exist unless Blair Witch proved the format could draw audiences in.
Made on the uber-cheap by a pair of unknown filmmakers, Blair Witch was nothing less than a sensation when it hit theaters 11 years ago. It was the ultimate word of mouth hit without recognizable stars, just a savvy Internet campaign that hinted that what you were about to see actually happened. Everything coalesced into a bracingly original experience, something impossible to recapture today.
That makes the just-released Blu-ray release a chance to appreciate a groundbreaking film, but not a moment to jump out of our seats all over again. The scares simply aren’t the same as they once were. That leaves a curious film, one that still commands our attention but cannot help but disappoint when compared to timeless shockers like The Omen and The Exorcist.
What emerges is a precursor to our reality television age, when everyone is armed with a video camera and few thoughts remain private.
The story remains a model of simplicity. Three young filmmakers head into the woods of rural Maryland to explore the myth of the Blair Witch. Locals say the creature has haunted the area for decades, a hairy half-man, half-beast who slaughters children and adults alike.
The filmmakers quickly get lost despite the map wrangling of their unofficial leader, Heather (Heather Donahue). They’re forced to camp out several nights straight, and each time they go to bed they hear odd noises and wake to find their camp site changed in small but peculiar ways.
Is someone pulling a prank on them, or is the Blair Witch prepping for the kill?
Much of the film’s dialogue feels unforced and raw, which helps the illusion that these three no-name actors might really be the real deal – filmmakers who died pursuing their art. That’s hooey, of course, but it was part of what made the film special during its theatrical run.
The script doesn’t give us much insight into the characters, a flaw that grew worse over time. They bicker about directions and how Heather refuses to put her camera down, but the arguments rarely reflect on the characters. It pushes the story forward, but when their lives are imperiled, it doesn’t make it easier to root for a possible rescue.
Only Mike (Michael C. Williams) is given a semblance of a character arc, growing from a passive soul to someone who takes measures to keep the trio sane.
The cam format allows for some confessional moments, and it’s hard not to think about those reality show rants when Heather turns the camera on herself to apologize for getting her friends in such a mess.
The extras include four alternate endings, each offering little in the way of new shocks, plus the antiquated short about the “true story” behind the “Witch.” What’s missing is an extensive “making of” feature, or even one showing the film’s legacy from the perspective of film historians.
The Blair Witch Project can’t scare us silly any longer, but the film still matters to horror fans all the same.