Retro-View: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The summer of 1999 was one of the greatest years of my life. I was living in Austin, Texas, writing for video games, surrounded by amazing people, even hanging with Tarantino at his QT 3 Fest. Furthermore, 1999 was also one of the best years for American cinema. Just a rundown: ELECTION; THREE KINGS; AMERICAN BEAUTY; THE IRON GIANT; THE SIXTH SENSE; FIGHT CLUB; EYES WIDE SHUT; MAGNOLIA; THE PHANTOM MENACE (I know, but come on, it was a new STAR WARS movie!); THE MATRIX; THE STRAIGHT STORY; etc. and the icing on the film cake for me that eternal July was the much anticipated release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. I had been on top of this film since the first time I read a brief rave in geekspeak on Ain’t It Cool News:

“As for movies coming up at SUNDANCE the one to see it “THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT”!!! The most creepy fuckin mockumentary made… ever.”

The title alone sold and scared me. I jumped on the famous website the minute it went viral and made it an hourly pilgrimage to freak myself out in the daylit offices of Ion Storm. I think the trailer for TBWP is arguably the greatest in film history, if only because it lays out subject and theme in mere seconds and with frightening effectiveness. The logline is high concept to the core minus any Hollywood sfx trappings. There was some lame controversy over manufactured over-hyping of the film, but there was no way to self-create what became a groundbreaking web publicity campaign; after all, I sent that link to every human I thought might care. Magnify me by thousands and witness the birth of a cyber DNA code. Recall those quaint days of the late, late 20th century when the web was an unknown method of getting the indie word out, the concept too visionary for Hollywood’s rustic publicity system.

blair2Better yet, the Blair Witch site was a interactive buffet of creepy verisimilitude. Its images of rusty film cans, dirty DAT tapes and unsettling sound fx gave me goose bumps in the florescent glare of my office or on a sunny stroll around Austin. Was I a victim of manipulation? As an uber-cynic about marketing methodology, the film just looked supercool and gave me a fun scary vibe unfelt since the 70’s. And those that did believe this was based on fact reveal how easy it was to fool some foolish people. But that was part of the movie’s powerful urban legend meme. I understood exactly the sensibility of what writer/directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick were going for, a post-modern version of the 1972 scarementary, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, bred with mystic episodes of IN SEARCH OF… The special they put together for the Sci-fi Channel, THE CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH was pretty damn good too, utilizing footage intended to be in the original straight-forward documentary version. Woods. Witches. Videotape. I couldn’t wait to see this thing.

Mojo's CafejpgFriday July 16. The film opens in limited release. My diary reads short and sweet: Today Blair Witch Project. Another afternoon of sleazy Austin heat and iced coffee at the late great Mojo’s Daily Grind. Buy tickets early at the Dobie theater for the evening show. Up and down the UT college hub of Guadalupe, MISSING posters flap on poles and walls. The fresh bills show the faces of three documentary filmmakers who vanished in 1994. Later that night, 10:30 pm, standing in line at the Dobie Theater with a sold-out crowd and a group of friends. A person behind me says, “I never heard about these kids disappearing.” I smile; this is like the ultimate William Castle promotion. I scan the faces of those exiting the previous show. They were silent or murmuring, but most looked taken or shaken.

The Dobie is an Austin institution (RIP) with one of the worst designed theaters ever. Imagine sitting in a triangular room with a small screen at a ninety degree angle. Either you get a good spot in the middle or you’re screwed at another angle. So Mary, Andi, Manny, Bethany, and I hogged the middle good spot. Loaded with soda and sweets, I slid into the chair and waited. There was nowhere else to be on that Friday night. It was the perfect audience in the theater confines as the film worked us over in the collective dark. Escaping the jarring ambient score at the end, we streamed out quietly, processing the raw images.

Later that night, sequestered in my treehouse apartment, my girlfriend out of town, I lay in bed taunted by the film’s images and sounds. Then I heard actual footsteps crunching leaves outside the window. Although I lived above a garage, somebody…or something…was actually standing below my window at three in the morning. My fear was almost sated by the sound of the intruder urinating against the building. Except…there was no sound of fading footfalls. Waiting. Silence. Waiting. I lay frozen in the dark for what seemed like an hour listening for those crunchy footfalls to vanish. They didn’t and I fell into a restless slumber that would continue through the year whenever scenes would surface in my eager masochistic imagination. So I saw it twice. A cultural phenom blooms in the warm movie summer of ‘99.

As the film went to make an incredible 50 million dollars in its opening week (soon to be the biggest grossing indie of all time) Blair Witch Fever swept the nation. I scanned ebay, bemused by the autographed photos of Heather Donahue going for up to 100 dollars. The best online moment was when the cinematographer Neal Fredericks auctioned off the actual 16 mm camera (broken) used in the film for a hefty 15 grand. If I had the cash I might have bought it too. I thought it was a hoot when TIME and NEWSWEEK had competing TBWP covers. And for Halloween, I threw on a plaid shirt, cap, hung a stickman on my backpack, and videotaped everybody at Harry Knowles’ fun backyard bash.

Why did I love to be frightened by this film? Internet volumes have been written on TBWP, and there are over 1,000,000 links to Blair Witch ephemera. There’s an opinion surplus on the film. Mine is simple: scary and genius. It was exactly what I hoped for and a little more. While some were motion sickened by the dueling wood-cams, the visuals never seemed more kinetic than an episode of COPS. Yet the story’s deliberate and sinister pacing, from the casual humorous intros of the trio until their situation spirals into supernatural terror, is built on mental, not visceral horror, a throwback to a genre age where fear was suggested rather than seen as in Robert Wise’s masterful THE HAUNTING (1964). More importantly, I had not been this scared by a movie since the first HALLOWEEN in 1978. Older and somewhat more secure, I reveled in the Blair Witch’s relentless surveillance of these realistic characters and their document of doom. You feel the atmospheric desperation caught on video and celluloid as the trio lose their way, then their minds.

Let me count the ways I love this film: the town interviews with a little girl visibly freaked by her mother talking about the Blair Witch; Heather’s apt, portentious narration over their footage; the lingering shot of Josh’s car as they enter the woods for the first and last time; the sound of giggling children in the night around their tent; the discovery of the famous stick men in the forest; the repeated hysterical shouts for Josh as they seek him out; Mike William’s chilling, “Holy shit, it’s a house” when they approach the tense climax. The last minutes in the not-so-abandoned home are perfect and truly disturbing, topped with what French writer David Calvo labels that “unholy final shot.” As Heather rushes towards the basement, recording her screams and fate, she’s finally trapped inside her own movie, unable to escape what Josh called her “filtered reality.” Which for me, thematically elevates THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to the echelons of Film Art.

blair_witch_lThe performances are excellent and deserve more praise than they’re given. I say without shame that Heather Donahue deserved a Best Actress nomination for her intense portrait of a filmmaker trying to save her soul and sanity via her never-ending documentary. Although some couldn’t stand her smug bossiness, she was the pitch-perfect (bitch-perfect?) student director and I knew her type from film school. She’s certainly one of the strongest female presences in any recent American film and her iconic video apology is esthetic lightning in a bottle. I would have also nominated Michael Williams for Best Supporting Actor. He’s a perfectly realized character, humble and charming, but filled with confused rage as the trio find themselves pulled deeper into the woods and their doom. The scene when Williams blindly stomps around shouting for help feels like such an authentic response I get chills. I also dig Joshua Leonard for nailing the uptight camera-dude with apropos slacker gusto. He remains an ominous presence even after his disappearance, leading to the film’s one visceral shock: Heather’s discovery of Josh’s tattered threads hiding a bloody secret. You’d be hard pressed to find characters with this much growth in the typical genre movie. It’s truly unfair they were over-identified with their roles; they’re all terrific actors.

Yet there are those who don’t like the film at all. Some claim the camera work is nausea-inducing, the characters shrill and unlikable. Worse for some, you don’t even see the witch — of course, you don’t see much of anything. Which is what those who love it, love about TBWP. Along with THE HAUNTING, THE INNOCENTS and REPULSION, this is one of the most primal, psychological genre films ever made. The terror comes from things felt, yet unseen or overheard. The industrial creak of the subliminal soundtrack (by Tony Cora) is perhaps the movie’s most creepy effect. Either you appreciate the subtlety of the approach or you don’t.

Obviously I do and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is easily my favorite horror film of the past 20 years, landing within my top list: HALLOWEEN; NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD; ALIEN; THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE; and THE EXORCIST. I can’t debate subjective terror, but one can’t deny the filmmakers their heart and innovation. Certainly, the movie became one of the most parodied in history. And it can be seen as the media template for the 21st century onslaught of awful reality shows. As for an epilogue, Newsweek ran a sobering 2004 follow-up story implying that the cast and creators did not follow through on their promise (as if they didn’t already prove themselves), with the death of Neal Fredericks in a plane crash being the genuine tragedy.

Blair Witch Project, The (3)For better or worse, TBWP altered the cultural landscape, along with its production and marketing methods. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick were rewarded with a legacy to be proud of. I would advise any fan or filmmaker to check out their site woodsmovie.com which goes into exhaustive detail about the making of TBWP. The actors and directors expertly did their jobs with this brilliant cinematic distillation of every campfire ghost story ever told. The summer of ’99 is gone but THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is part of film history. And on the nine year anniversary of its release, I pop in the DVD to relive the Texas heat and fear of that Friday night when I shivered before the last American horror movie classic of the 20th century…nostalgically scared shitless all over again.

Advertisements

24 Responses to “Retro-View: The Blair Witch Project (1999)”

  1. Mmmmmmm….

    Well, aren’t we a busy little bee? Didn’t see this up a few hours ago, Christian.

    Superior writing can keep me awake. So I decided to indulge myself. If I can keep it together, I intend to watch BATMAN BEGINS before the morning’s out. But it depends what else comes up.

    It’s odd how you and I are on the same page about so many things and then wildly diverge on at least half a dozen others. But it’s interesting. At the very least.

    Must confess I’ve never seen TBWP. What was I doing in the summer of 99? Can’t recall.

    Can’t remember his name either. But I digress…

    99 was an excellent year for film. I liked NOTTING HILL and THE END OF THE AFFAIR. The latter hit me pretty hard. It’s the Catholic thing. If you’ve seen it you’ll understand. If you haven’t it doesn’t matter. I found it really powerful. But then NEIL JORDAN always hits me where I live.

    Best movie memory I have from that year was seeing THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY on my birthday. I had been fiercely melancholy for weeks and the current boy knew it was living on borrowed time. Frankly, I would rather have spent the evening with a girlfriend or by myself.

    Turned out to be a work of art and the best thing I had seen all year. Might have been perfect if I hadn’t had to be subjected to Ms. Paltrow or Ms. Blanchett, but that’s life. Fortunately, neither of them was in it enough to spoil the exquisite beauty of this fabulous gem.

    It was also my introduction to JUDE LAW. Some things just happen for a reason, I guess. Some irony. I’m watching him in a theatre downtown on my birthday. Turns out it was his birthday as well. Too bad he wasn’t there.

    I ended up heading for the hills just after New Years. I had all ready put nearly five months in and it hadn’t been working for at least half of it.

    Mr. Law could have been a contributing factor. But I really couldn’t blame him.

    Sometimes you just have to get the hell out of Dodge. There really is no other solution.

    But it was a great movie for a celebration. I ended up seeing four times. So it made quite the impression.

    I guess 99 was fine. Not particularly dandy. But I’ve had worse.

    I imagine it all depends on your perspective.

    I tend to get philosophical in the morning. It’s just because I’m tired – and I need ice cream…

  2. It’s nice to see someone praise TBWP for once rather than ripping it to the ground as a serendipitously successful marketing experiment. I, too, was scared pissless when I saw it, by myself, in a surprisingly empty theater. And I remember going to the website, looking at all the photos and video interviews, and wondering, “This can’t be real, can it?” My common sense eventually won out, but it was a testament to the film’s marketing that there was little to no information on the internet as to whether or not this was fake or real (that will never happen again).

    I haven’t watched the film since ’99, as I’m afraid it will not hold up, but your post seems to indicate that it does.

    Love reading these personal reflections on cinema, Christian.

  3. I’m not proud to admit I completely missed the boat on Blair Witch. 99 was a dark year for me moviewise and I just didn’t get around to it until long after it had been beaten into the ground by hype. By then, it was good but no longer transcendently scary like it was for those of you who saw it early.

    However, this isn’t about me, it’s about you and the Witch. Great friggin’ post. I think I dig your personal experience bits the most. You have a great way of looking back without sounding pathetic or stunted. It helps that your tastes are different than mine so I get to be a different kind of movie fan vicariously through you. I also like your lack of cynicism and the pure movie-joy that comes out.

  4. christian Says:

    Yes Miranda, I had to write all night as I was too scared to go to bed…this film still freaks me out. Still haven’t seen NOTTING HILL…

    Evan, thanks. I don’t have any snark towards TBWP. I understand why some may not like it, but the whole showmanship of the site was so cool I don’t know how people couldn’t at least respect what was happening…

    Craig, thanks. I think it was important to see the film in the heat of its opening. I woulda been sick of the publicity too if I hadn’t seen it. But I just got a kick out of the whole thing.

  5. I’m jealous actually. It wasn’t so much that I was sick of hearing about it, but the surprise factor was long gone.

    I’ll never forget though one night listening to Art Bell many many months after the film came out and he was interviewing the filmmakers and pretty quickly it was clear he still had no idea the film was fictional. Further proof he is the most gullible man on the planet.

  6. christian Says:

    Ahh, I would in fact listen to Art Bell during that summer and was awed by him and his callers detailed knowledge of which aliens were blues or greys. The show was kinda scary in a Blair Witchy way…

  7. I’ve said this before Christian and I’ll say it again-I go through alot of movie internet crap both pro, amateur and in-between, and you have few peers in this realm. What Craig said about working personal stuff in without sounding stunted is true. Good work-I also look forward to these lightening-pretense-free posts from you.

    And I agree about BLAIR WITCH-everyone is, of course, ashamed to admit how scared they were in 1999, but I, like you, saw the picture in a college town in the first weekend-it was packed. And its one of the few pictures in which everyone sat through-stunned-the entire end credits. Films try to catch the naturalistic fly on the wall brilliance of TCM every year but this is the only picture to truly do it (and I say that as a fan of Rob Zombie, but he’s a different kinda game) since the first CHAINSAW (even Hooper himself has failed since, at least in recapturing that particular electricity).

    I would also probably agree that this is the best horror film of the last twenty years-though a recent horror picture really unnerved me-the French film INSIDE. I havn’t seen BWP since seeing it twice that summer either, I feel like those two times were enough-that was a pure campfire experience that I don’t care to dilute.

  8. Coming from you that means a lot, Chuck. As for TBWP, the Austin audience was stunned, silent after. None of my friends wanted to even hang out and talk about it. Everybody wanted to get the hell home. I was like, “Hey, i don’t want to go home until dawn.”

    I think the film holds up great if you can get past its cultural moment. And it really is about something: loss of control.

    THE DEVIL’S REJECTS was the last horror film that effected me, tho I’d argue it’s a horror film directed by Sam Peckinpah. I should check out INSIDE tho I’m sure it will freak me out.

  9. I love THE DEVIL’S REJECTS too-and I thought HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES was underrated-yes, it has that TCM thing about it, but it also had a certain modern-splatter-ADD-stylishness to it that worked, and some of the killings are really unnerving. And I’ll even say this- portions of Zombie’s HALLOWEEN were effective, though the entire package was a bit on the absurd side. Rob Zombie is a promising filmmaker-my big question is, particularly raised by his take on HALLOWEEN, can he do anything outside of the hyper-stylized white trash milieu?

  10. christian Says:

    Since his next film is about a wrestler battling a motorcycle gang…I do think he has a lot of promise. I’ve been to his house where I had the treat of him introducing me to Tobe Hooper and we talked horror movies for the next hour. Zombie is a real fan.

  11. Sorry to say that I’m one of the people who wasn’t that impressed with TBWP. Maybe it was over-hyped by the time I saw it but it just didn’t do it for me. I do agree however that it changed the cultural landscape in terms of how movies (in fact everything) is marketed and, perhaps more importantly, it proved that you didn’t need $100million and an A-list star to have a hit.

  12. An absolutely wonderful, bracingly honest and personal recollection, Christian. Which makes me all the sadder and more pained that I have to say, like Russell (as I scrolled down the page I began to wonder if I would be alone), I was left unmoved by The Blair Witch Project, both when I saw it in theatres and then when I checked it out on Halloween evening in 2003, four years away from all of the hype.

    But, this is one of the more richly detailed examinations of how a film “put the whammy on you” (geek alert–X-Files phrase used) and I loved reading it, and it made me want to check it out again in the near future to see if it sneaks up on me in the third round.

    Really, though: just fabulous.

    (Loosely related, I watched Pumpkinhead last night again in honor of Stan Winston. Lance Henriksen rules! A cool, bizarre, gnarly, atmospheric little movie, that.)

  13. Russell, I feel ya, but it’s so subjective.

    And you’re right, it’s real import to me was showing that a no budget film could rock the film world. But if you read the director journals, you’ll see they knew what they had.

    Alexander, thanks much. I find the backstory on the film as fascinating as the film.

    And PUMPKINHEAD was a cool creature — in fact, when I was the store artist at Tower Video and designed a poster for the film, I won a Pumpkinhead water cooler which I still have somewhere…Thanks Stan!

  14. Aussie Boy Says:

    Let’s take a look at that list again:

    ELECTION; THREE KINGS; AMERICAN BEAUTY; THE IRON GIANT; THE SIXTH SENSE; FIGHT CLUB; EYES WIDE SHUT; MAGNOLIA; THE PHANTOM MENACE; THE MATRIX; THE STRAIGHT STORY, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.

    You describe 1999 as “one of the best years for American cinema.” Really? And those are the cream of the crop?

    I see a few good films on that list, but no great ones (with the possible exception of Eyes Wide Shut).

    The ’90s, like the ’80s, was a disappointing, mediocre decade for American films. The rise of the independent market raised the game somewhat but failed to generate a class of filmmakers such as we saw emerge in the ’70s. Consider the heavy-hitters of the ’90s “arthouse” scene — Tarantino, PT Anderson, Soderberg, Russell — none of them holds a candle to Coppola or Altman or Scorsese in terms of the work of those masters in the ’70s. (Anderson, I should note, has finally, belatedly fulfilled his early promise with 2007’s There Will Be Blood.)

    If you want to talk about a great year for American cinema, pick a year — any year — from the first half of the 1970s. Some highlights:

    1971:
    McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, Klute, The Hospital, Straw Dogs

    1972:
    The Godfather, Deliverance, Cabaret, The King of Marvin Gardens, Fat City, Images, The Heartbreak Kid

    1973:
    The Long Goodbye, Mean Streets, The Exorcist, Serpico, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, American Graffiti, Badlands, The Last Detail

    1974:
    Chinatown, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, The Parallax View, California Split

    1975:
    One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest, Jaws, Nashville, Barry Lyndon, The Man Who Would Be King, Dog Day Afternoon, Shampoo

    1999
    You’ve got to be kidding. It’s not even close.

  15. christian Says:

    Well, you’re clearly been eating too much vegemite.

    I would put up ELECTION next to CALIFORNIA SPLIT or THREE KINGS next to MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, but it’s not fair to ask for a film in the 90’s to be as iconic as THE GODFATHER or JAWS or GRAFFITI. The 80’s and 90’s had GREAT films. DINER; BLUE VELVET; SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE; RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK; KING OF COMEDY; TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA; GOODFELLAS; THE ROAD WARRIOR; THE THING; DO THE RIGHT THING; MYSTERY TRAIN; SLACKER; DAZED & CONFUSED; RESERVOIR DOGS; PULP FICTION; RUSHMORE; SALVADOR; JFK; BEFORE SUNSET (& SUNRISE); EXCALIBUR; BOOGIE NIGHTS; OFFICE SPACE; THE PLAYER; ET; GRAND CANYON; SLING BLADE; SILENCE OF THE LAMBS; THE UNTOUCHABLES; FLIRTING WITH DISASTER; and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA! Just to list a few.

  16. Way behind on this one, but it’s a great trip back in time. TBWP is actually one of the examples I cite when I talk about avoiding all trailers and hype beforehand. Because I knew everything about it going in, it really didn’t shake me, at least not more than any other scary movie I’d seen. Now I had I NOT known that it was fake, well that would have been quite a mess.

    But if I wasn’t freaked out in the theater, I was a little disturbed a few hours later, staying overnight at a friends in a windowless basement with bare concrete walls…don’t think I slept.

    So some moments were chilling and the night was awful, but I feel like I missed out on the big fright because I knew about it beforehand, whereas you also knew but were able to enjoy it through the experiences of others.

    I haven’t seen it since, for no good reason. How was the sequel?

    Oh yeah, ’99 was an amazing year for all the reasons you mention.

  17. Thanks for stopping by Daniel. I do think TBWP is one of those films that is scarier as you sit contemplating. Like, what horrible thing happened to them at the end? That stuff freaks me out.

    The sequel I have not nor will see.

  18. As unmoved by The Blair Witch Project as I was, I gotta admit, Daniel, it would be probably be quite eerie to stay overnight in a windowless basement with bare concrete walls hours after seeing that film, especially if you (naturally) had the ending of it playing in your head.

    A former girlfriend said she couldn’t go camping ever again after seeing The Blair Witch Project, haha.

  19. Yeah, my camping days are over thanks to TBWP.

    Josh!

  20. […] Of” style show, “Mystic Occurences” detailing the Blair Witch legend. You can read my nostalgic Retro-View here and go to woodsmovie.com to see what’s still out there after all these […]

  21. mmmm…. esta historia es eskalofriant pro es muy rekomendable para ligar jeje

  22. christian Says:

    Si.

  23. MY grate grandma was a blar so i know abouther but my grandma has her books and thang so if u like to give her a call at 1800554 2009

  24. A “Blar”?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: