Due to one of the biggest marketing campaigns in history, there was a tremendous amount of buzz around Blair Witch when it was finally released. Everyone was talking about the movie, and it was ambiguous whether the film was authentic ‘found’ footage, or a fictional movie. Many attended showings of Blair Witch fully believing what they were about to see was genuine, particularly in the early screenings.
Heather, Josh and Michael are three student filmmakers, and they have come together to film a documentary about an old local legend, The Blair Witch. Using rented equipment, they begin by travelling around the small town, questioning locals about the story. Some know very little, but others know a lot more about it. The filmmakers are told that an old witch lived in the woods, and murdered local children. Once finished in the town, the trio set off into the woods, with a tent and supplies, to look at where the killer supposedly roamed.
They find some mysterious small rock formations, and film plenty of footage. On their second night, they make a fire. During the night, they are terrorised by frightening noises, and are freaked out. They decide the next day to leave the woods, but in the middle of a non-descript forest, struggle to make sense of the map. Over the next couple of days, still lost, desperation sets in. Constant disturbances at night deprive them of sleep, discoveries of unusual symbols and formations haunt their day.
Hungry and terrified, infighting begins. As the band begin to lose their grip on their sanity, Josh becomes separated. Fearing they’ll never see their friend again, Heather and Michael discover a derelict old house. Is that Josh they can hear inside? Or the unspeakable evil of the Blair Witch?
In trying to track down a copy of Blair Witch, i was surprised at the reaction i got from people about the movie. No-one had a good word to say about it, and for a movie that made hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide, that baffled me. There are two ways to assess Blair Witch, so i’ll explore both routes.
The first is to look at it through the eyes of those who saw it at the time, in an atmosphere of ambiguity. The (often very poor) handheld camerawork does give the film a very convincing air of authenticity. The interviews with locals come across realistically, and are indistinguishable from those in real documentaries you’d find on obscure cable channels. The trek into the forest begins convincingly, and the young actors are enthusiastic and good natured. Many of the scenes, particularly during the night, are shot in a very organic way, with short cuts and fast movement. As the fear builds up over the days, the changing attitudes of the filmmakers and their fraying relationships are portrayed well.
As the movie progresses, however, and the disturbing phenomena become more pronounced and therefore farfetched, the boundaries of believability then close in. When their equipment is interfered with in the night, the fantasy element begins to come clear. Then when a present is left for Heather and Michael outside the tent after Josh vanishes, any semblance of realism disappears. As a result, the spooky conclusion, though eerie and well shot, is rendered moot. The illusion has already been shattered. A shame, because if the lead up had been toned down to believable levels, audiences would have left the theatre still unsure of whether they had witnessed a true story.
The other way to look at Blair Witch is as i look at it now, as simply a fictional movie. The legend is laid out quite well, and as they enter the woods it’s still holding your interest. The problems begin when it gets dark in the wood. The poor camera work, combined with a lack of light, make the movie difficult to follow. During the night disturbances, the poor sound quality makes it difficult to hear what the protagonists are reacting to. As the movie goes on, the lack of scripted dialogue and hands-on direction means the storyline meanders, with very little interesting progression. The dialogue becomes repetitive, and the whole experience is in danger of becoming tedious.
The storyline picks up somewhat when Josh disappears, and ironically the elements which disable your suspension of disbelief are the saving grace of the plot. With the possibility of a visceral finale, some momentum is generated. Unfortunately, the conclusion is nowhere near just reward for the patience required to reach it.
As an experiment, and a marketing phenomena, The Blair Witch succeeded in it’s goals at the time of release. Going into the movie with some level of faith in it’s authenticity would have made it a great watch. Re-watch value, however, is virtually nil. Difficult to watch for all the wrong reasons, it’s best left remembered as a one time great movie experience.
Come back tomorrow, as i look at movies that have taken a cue from The Blair Witch Project over the last ten years, and discuss how the phenomenon fundamentally changed Hollywood marketing techniques forever.