Showtalk: The Blair Witch Project

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Since it popped up on Netflix, and I hadn’t seen the film since it was in the theater, I thought we should talk about The Blair Witch Project.

When I saw it in the theater, way back in 1999, there were only two of us in the theater. Now, with a movie that’s actually scary, that would have meant turning around quite a few times to make sure the world is okay. But I didn’t get that vibe from The Blair Witch Project.

To be fair, though, I thought that revisiting it might be a good idea. I’m sure my tastes have changed across all of those years, and maybe I would see it in a better light. The movie did help launch a lot of the current batch of found footage films, and as an internet sensation it really did help jumpstart viral marketing. So yeah, maybe I’ll like it more this time.

Nope. But here are my reasons.

Spoilers? Sure there are, but it’s a fifteen year old movie. Go check it out first, if you need to.

 

The Script? Plot?

As far as I could I could tell, there really wasn’t a script. I think there was a loose idea that they’d do some interviews at the beginning, especially the one that gave away how it was going to end. Then they’d start walking through the woods, film some b-roll and a few narrations, walk some more, maybe stop for the night and talk about things, then walk some more, then find some rocks that were piled up, then walk some more, then seemingly get lost, then walk some more, then talk about walking some more, then walking some more…

If you made it through that paragraph without skipping to here, huzzah! That really is how the first half of the movie feels. They are just wandering, arguing, and yelling. Even the minor things that could have been creepy, like the wooden and string figures hanging in the trees, were drowned out by the fat lot of nothing happening.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a slow burn. Just check out my True Detective article, about the slow burn done right. In True Detective, the slow burn gets under your skin, with the tension rising all through the show.

The script came down to having a handful of interesting scenes, wrapped up in a wandering paper bag of boring people being lost. Which meant that the effective scenes, those that really were pretty well done, didn’t have nearly the effect they could have.

Plenty of folks over the years have commented that the script mostly amounts to the actors screaming at the top of their lungs, and otherwise having some pretty boring commentary between themselves. I don’t think it’s that they are bad actors, it’s just that they have nothing at all to work with. Other than, of course, “JOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH! JOSH! JOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHH!

 

The Visuals

Shaky-cam doesn’t usually have the visuals, since the idea is that these are non-professionals filming the movie. I don’t mind giving a pass to these kinds of flicks, simply because the HD smoothness and high-levels of cinematography wouldn’t be present.

But that’s the trick, too. There are plenty of found footage films that still feel like they are being filmed by a novice with a cheap camera, but look great. I’m thinking [REC] definitely fits here. It’s a wild ride, but [REC]‘s cinematography balances the nice shots with the idea of a handheld camera very well. Sure, there are the shaky parts. But it manages to still keep people in the frame well, and offer striking visuals.

Not so with Blair Witch. Even portrayed as student filmmakers, they would be really awful. There are plenty of shots of the camera jammed into someone’s face, even up their nose practically. We get lots of shots of the ground, which makes sense if they are running. But half the time, when something is going on and we can hear it, we’re still looking at the ground. I understand they might want some suspense, but that’s a bit much to overcome.

 

 The Other Annoyances

“JOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH! JOSH! JOOOOOOOOOOOOOSSSSSSSSSSSSH!”

Moving on.

One of the things that I’m cognizant of, when watching a “found footage” film, is whether or not they break the rules. The idea is that you have one camera, maybe a second one even, and we’re just checking out raw footage. 

Partway into The Blair Witch Project, the “director”, Heather, is reading from a book and narrating into the camera. When the camera is on her, that makes sense, whoever found the footage is just showing us. However, we then switch to the other camera for a short montage of nature scenes, that she’s narrating over.

Which means, unbeknownst to us, they have a laptop with Final Cut on it with them.

It pulled me right out of the scene. This footage was supposed to have been just “found”, and yet here we are with edited footage and narration. True, whoever found it could have edited it. But then it wouldn’t just be footage. 

The other rule you usually run into with these kinds of films is that they need a reason to keep carrying the camera. Lighting is certainly a valid reason, and even night vision (in other films, of course). 

The reason given in The Blair Witch Project is that for Heather it’s “all she has left”. That doesn’t explain why they take forever filming certain things when they don’t need to. It doesn’t explain why she couldn’t put the camera down to see whatever goo is in Josh’s old shirt tatters. Or why Mike then has to also be filming during the climactic scene at the end, instead of just using the cameras as flashlights.

The only reason we’re still filming is that the audience sees what they see. To be fair, that makes sense. For what little plot there is, we need to be able to follow along. But there are so many found footage movies that do that in a much better way. [REC], Cloverfield, even Grave Encounters all have reasons to have something pop up on camera, and they do very well in making that work with the situation. Not just because of the situation, which can pull you right out of the picture.

 

Are there any good parts?

I think there are a handful of effective scenes in the picture. They are softened so much by the slow parts that they don’t work as well, but in a better movie I think they would work.

The_blair_witch_project_05-19I think the choice to have the noises outside of the tent be very low, including the screams in the distance, was a good choice. I think they could have brought the volume up just a notch, but the idea is sound. Especially for tension (that was, unfortunately, soon lost), I think that was a good idea.

I think the scene with the baby sounds, and the shaking of the tent, worked well. It could be anything out there shaking it, and the noises just made it all weird. But they didn’t follow through enough with it.

I also think that the final scenes in the house were fantastic. If this was a short film of these two people going into this weird house looking for their friend, it would be one of the greatest shorts ever. The house is effectively creepy, with the tiny handprints and wreckage. We’re led the wrong way first, then into the cellar for our final reckoning.

Mike standing in the corner, despite being given away at the beginning of the film, is still so strange and creepy that it’s highly effective. Sure, I could do without Heather’s high-pitched screaming throughout the house, especially when it is drowning out the other odd sounds that we really should be hearing. But the entire scene is very effective, and in many ways set the stage for other, similar reveals in later movies.

 

So, how was the revisit?

I’m still not a big fan of the movie. A couple of effective scenes are nice, but it doesn’t make up for so many unguided, wandering, and frankly boring scenes. Those scenes lost so much tension, that it rendered the truly interesting scenes mute.

The other thing that rendered them mute? “JOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH! JOSH! JOOOOOOOOOOOOOSSSSSSSSSSSSH!” 

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