Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 29, 2020)
Back in 1999, The Blair Witch Project emerged out of nowhere to become a massive hit. Shot for a measly $60,000, the movie turned into a cult sensation and earned more than $248 million worldwide – or roughly 4133 times its budget.
For better or (usually) for worse, Project launched the “found footage” format of movies. These films pretended to provide “raw material” shot by the participants, and Hollywood beat that trend into the ground quickly.
None of this should take away from Project’s groundbreaking success though. Love it or hate it, the movie remains a seminal work.
Young film students Heather (Heather Donahue), Mike (Michael E. Williams) and Josh (Joshua Leonard) set out to make a documentary about a local Maryland legend. They seek to explore the myth of the “Blair Witch”.
However, this production soon goes awry. The filmmakers find themselves lost in the woods, where a mix of creepy incidents lead them to fear for their lives.
I saw Project during its theatrical run, but I honestly derived almost no opinion of the film after that screening. Why? Because I could barely watch it.
The movie uses so much jerky camerawork that I quickly developed motion sickness. I stuck it out through the end of the film, but I only actually watched maybe 60% of the entire show. Sure, I listened to the whole thing, but since I didn't actually see much of it, I don't really feel that I truly experienced the movie during that screening.
Viewed on a smaller screen, the motion sickness became a non-issue. This allowed me to absorb the whole story and not worry that my lunch would leave my innards.
I think this put me in a different position than if I was able to fully watch the movie the first time. After massive praise out of the gates, Project quickly underwent a backlash in 1999, and all the hype became one of the main reasons for that.
Project rapidly gained a reputation as the “scariest movie ever”, so viewers went in with exceedingly high expectations. Given what a simple story Project offers, those hopes felt unrealistic. The movie’s probably best experienced with as little advance information as possible, and certainly without the expectation that it'll be some bone-chilling nightmare.
Obviously, I went into my additional viewings of Project with a fair amount of foreknowledge, but this was good in that I no longer had all the hype on my mind. I think I was in a better state of mind to really watch the movie.
So what do I now think? I find Project to feel much more spooky and creepy than scary, per se.
The whole thing seems more like a paranoid nightmare than a terrifying one. We're never really quite clear what's happening, so more of a sense of discomfort arises rather than true fear.
Probably the main reason Project works stems the very believable acting of our three leads. Of course, once you know something behind the making of the film, you know that a lot of their best work wasn't really acting.
The filmmakers played some serious mind games on these folks, so it wasn't too hard for them to muster up the requisite feelings of fear and desperation. Also, since each actor was essentially playing him/herself, that made it easier.
Nonetheless, no matter how much director-led manipulation went on behind the scenes, these three still knew they were making a movie, so the realism in their performances remains fairly amazing. Had any one of them seemed less than one hundred percent true to the situation, the movie would have failed.
Much of the credit for the success of Project obviously rests with the directors for creating such a clever piece of "performance art" filmmaking. It'd be one thing if Project scared you if you didn't know if it was real or fake, but the fact that the movie works even when you know it's fiction and understand the secrets of how much of it was done stands as testimony to the high quality of their efforts.
Actually, no matter how much I liked the acting and the creativity of the project, I was surprised that I found the film to be as effective as I thought it was on additional viewings. As I mentioned, Project is best seen by someone who knows nothing about it.
It truly would be much more effective if you had no prior information about the tale. As such, it should probably become dull upon subsequent viewings just because you know all its secrets.
However, that isn't the case for me, and I think - again - that the fact I had an idea what to expect made a difference. I knew better what the pacing would be like, so I didn't feel impatient like I did the first time.
I also recognized that it would focus more on the three main characters than anything else, so I knew not to wait for plot revelations that would never come.
That last point may be most significant for many viewers, because I'm sure that some folks have been frustrated by the lack of concrete resolution of Project. We never really know what's going on or what happens to our protagonists.
It's virtually all left to the imagination, and that can really bother some folks. While a second viewing doesn't make any of these areas more clear, it does afford you the opportunity to examine aspects of the film more closely and try to find clues.
Maybe those hints exist, maybe they don't. All I do know is that Project made for a surprisingly rich experience when I watched it again. It may not be a true horror classic, but it remains a solid little nightmare.