(Part 7 Of An Ongoing Series)
It’s very hard to get lost in America these days. It’s even harder to stay lost. So, we have that on our side…
Heather Donahue (Heather Donahue)
In the introduction to A Treasury Of American Horror Stories, the editors cite the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke Colony settlers as evidence that “American history began with a touch of horror, a red thread stitching through its colorful fabric.” Fitting, then, that The Blair Witch Project, pound-for-pound one of the most powerful American horror movies ever, extracts so much of its power from the idea of getting lost in the wilderness, and not knowing just what the hell is out there.
We all know that Heather, Mike, and Joshua are doomed the minute they set out for those haunted Maryland woodlands. Naturally, they don’t know that- not at first. Only after Mike admits he deliberately kicked their map into a creek do the characters’ previously-subdued fears and tensions come snarling out of their cages. (I almost get the feeling he’s not rebelling against Heather’s incompetence as much as he’s subconsciously realizing they’re helpless to escape the Blair Witch.) It’s one of the movie’s most unsettling moments, especially since it’s one of the few scenes where the witch isn’t the monster. Once we hear the sick desperation in Mike’s laugh (around 1:40 in the video below), we know for a bloody fact that these poor kids have crossed the Rubicon.
Of course, there are so many other extraordinary scares in this movie. If you’ve paid attention to pop culture since 1999, no doubt you’ve seen those scares referenced and parodied beyond death. The rocks, the stick figures, Heather’s final monologue (“I’m scared to close my eyes…I’m scared to open them“). Watching The Blair Witch Project in 2012, however, I was kind of amazed at how well it holds up. Despite how familiar it all is, it still creeps me the crap out.
A big part of that has to do with how authentic it feels. The premise is so brilliantly simple, and the actors are so uncannily natural- from the stars down to the local townsfolk they interview- that I almost can’t believe it’s fake. The number of “found footage” horror films has mushroomed since 1999, but few of those films suspend disbelief as effortlessly as The Blair Witch Project. (A bit of serendipity helps, too. I love when, around 1:51 below, the scared child tries to stop her mom from talking. I’d bet big money that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were high-fiving each other after they got that shot.)
The Blair Witch Project is so much more than a mere timeless, ingenious horror flick, which is what makes it so 1999. It was one end of a spectrum that exploded what movies could do. Over on the end with all the big Hollywood blockbuster money we had The Matrix, Fight Club, and Three Kings. Meanwhile, The Blair Witch Project redefined how much could be done with (relatively) nothing. Freshman film-school brats like me debated the movie’s scariness a lot in the fall of 1999. Yet even the ones who proclaimed it was shit compared to Cannibal Holocaust must have, deep deep down, wished they thought of The Blair Witch Project first.