The Blair Witch Project Retrospective: The Blair Witch Project

I watched The Blair Witch Project thirteen years ago, and I have simply never gotten over it.

If you’ve read any of my writing, you probably already know that – I am a one-woman Blair Witch Project stan brigade at any time, ready to pull out my balloons and candyfloss and tell you why it’s the perfect horror movie. I love it. I love found footage because of it, I love horror because of it.

But I’ve really wanted to get to the bottom of why I love this film so much. Yes, of course, part of it is because it’s a well-acted, well-made, restrained, and very scary horror movie; but there are plenty of films that fall under that umbrella I don’t feel the need to watch twice a year. What is it about this particular movie that has made it such an iconic part of the modern horror pantheon? What is it that was so compelling, what particular blends of twigs and leaves did they twist together in the woods to make it so, so good?

And I’ve wanted to do a deep-dive into the entire Blair Witch series for a while now – with Halloween coming up, that’s exactly what I’m going to do over the next few weeks. I’m going to cover all the films, the games, and, if I’m able to get my hands on them, the book series spin-off, too (by the way – if anyone knows where to get my hands on some not-insanely-expensive versions of the books, please let me know!). I want to look back at the quality of these films, for sure, but also what it is that ties them all together – what parts of The Blair Witch Project came to define other stories under that banner in future. When you boil it down, what is the essential ingredient in this cauldron?

And that’s how I justified yet another rewatch of the original The Blair Witch Project earlier this month. I don’t need to go into why I think it’s so good or so important again, but, if you’re somehow coming to this series not having seen the original, treat yourself and do it now. It really is just the pinnacle of found footage horror (the only one that comes close, in my opinion, is the incredible Lake Mungo), and, whether you’re normally a fan of those genres or not, it’s worth seeing just to admire the quality of the storytelling and filmmaking.

But I tried to pick out a few elements I think are really important to how well the film works, and see which ones turn up in future iterations of the series. The first, and for me the most effective, is Burkittsville Woods, where the meat of the story takes place. Burkittsville (I will mispell this at some point during these articles, bear with me)’s forest is a very underrated horror setting, to my mind because of how odd and otherwordly it feels. What starts out in this film as just apparent frustration at getting lost in the woods soon starts to hint at some sort of malevolent force keeping the trio in there to torment them, with day and night running into each other in a deliberately disorientating way and endless repetition of what look like the same places over and over made to hurt your head a bit. I think this could easily be explained in-world as our main characters getting more lost and distressed and starting to see things in a different light, but with the other supernatural events in the movie, it makes sense to me that Burkittsville Woods exist as their own sort of pocket dimension, where the normal rules that apply to things don’t really matter.

Second, of course, is folklore. Not just people interested in it, as Heather is at the start of the movie when she decides to make her documentary about the Blair Witch, Werner Herzog-ging around a small Maryland town to talk over her interviewees with leading questions. But people who become a part of it. The legend of the Blair Witch is one that seems to perpetuate itself, people who come looking drawn into the myth to become the next part of it. The movie opens with a few locals telling varying stories of what happened in the woods over the centuries, and it seems like Heather and her crew are part of a long history of terrible things turning into more texture for the local folklore.

And, finally, the element of meta-textual storytelling really makes The Blair Witch Project what it is. It’s not just using found footage as a cheap, reasonably effective way of making a horror movie; it’s a commentary on how the person behind the camera, proverbially or literally, feels a safety from what they’re telling their story about. Heather defends herself by using the camera to put distance between herself and the reality of her situation; when that fails, her iconic, teary, snotty final monologue is one of the first times she willingly puts herself on camera outside the carefully-regulated presentation of her documentary, by far the film’s most emotional moment, almost invasively intimate. Yes, the documentary is a good premise to get those cameras out to the woods in the first place, but The Blair Witch Project does delve a bit deeper into what it means to be behind the camera and how the characters use that.

So, that’s what I think makes The Blair Witch Project is such an endlessly fascinating film to me, but I’m sure you have your own ideas – what makes The Blair Witch Project so good to you? What are the essential elements that make it stand out? I would love to hear about it in the comments below! I’m going to be looking for these features in future entries into the franchise, starting with Book of Shadows (shudder), as well as reviewing and generally chatting about the other parts of the world of Blair Witch, over the next few weeks, so come check back in soon for part two!

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By Lou MacGregor

(header image via The Guardian)

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