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As part of The Frida’s year-long Party Like It’s 1999 celebration, we are following up our screening of eXistenZ with Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s masterpiece, The Blair Witch Project, a film that revolutionized the found footage genre and spawned one of the most popular franchises of all time.
I admire how restrained Blair Witch is. It doesn’t shy away from making the witch ambiguous; instead, it leaves you with more questions than answers. In a time when horror movies substantially over-explain what’s happening, it was so refreshing to see Blair Witch hold back. It doesn’t even bother to explain if the witch existed before the events of the 1940s. No one knows where she came from. If the movie had tried to say the witch was a victim of American witch trials, it would have lost its integrity to me. Sadly, we lose this in the 2016 sequel, where it is confirmed that the witch was wrongfully accused of being a witch, which sort of falls hollow since any nuance is lost as she has become a vengeful killer. I prefer the original, where we’re left wondering if the witch was ever human, and the film lets the audience’s imagination do the work for them, which is scarier than anything a film can accomplish. The film effectively blurs the line between humanity and the supernatural with the witch. When she’s described, she sounds closer to an animal or a demon; you can’t help but draw comparisons to the devil. The witch becomes a personification of the woods.
Blair Witch is not just a horror movie but a human drama about despair, because the film never explicitly shows anything conclusively supernatural. Admittedly I didn’t find myself scared because I knew the ending through cultural osmosis; I was on the edge of my seat because I was invested in the conflict and dynamics between the actors. Their performances feel so natural. Yes, the characters get lost and the circumstances surrounding their situation is mysterious, but the filmmakers are careful to never overindulge in cliches, opting instead for suspense. You are watching these people lose their minds as the woods play tricks on them. The tension is not due to fear of the witch but fear of dying and regret because of their own mistakes and inexperience. Any proof of a ghost would have cheapened the movie, making it as lazy as a Conjuring series flick. There is an undeniable irony in the fact that the camera is always on and yet we never see the witch. But ultimately this is scarier than showing her. Is there anything more haunting than Heather’s voice as she cries out “What the fuck is that?” as we are left wondering what she’s looking at?
Blair Witch deals with the question of why the camera stays on. Hindsight being 20/20, there is something brilliantly meta about the fact that Blair Witch is a fictional movie trying to convince you it’s a documentary, from the perspective of a person who is obsessed with recording everything, with making a movie. In Heather’s own words, she can’t stop because it’s all she has left. As a person who has watched a lot of found footage horror movies, part of the verisimilitude is the justification for why the characters keep filming, and I found that Blair Witch is one of the most compelling examples of this technique. Instead of taking you out of the moment, the use of the camera actually enhances the narrative.
In a way, Blair Witch reminds me of Jordan Peele’s Nope and the idea that looking away from something takes away its power. This concept was more heavily introduced in the 2016 film, but nonetheless I think that Blair Witch uses this as yet another example of how the characters’ own hubris is their downfall. Their insistence on filming is a reflection of their skepticism and disrespect, which ultimately leads to them getting killed. There is no satisfaction, we don’t get any resolution, their stubbornness doesn’t even show us the witch. I think it isn’t a coincidence that the film has the victims face the wall when the other is killed – it is the only time we see them look away, as we are forced to watch.
The Blair Witch Project screens starting Friday, January 19th.
Friday, Jan 19th – 10pm
Saturday, Jan 20th – 10pm
Sunday, Jan 21st – 8pm