Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Dir. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard, Patricia DeCou

Lightning only strikes once. And with The Blair Witch Project it struck so ferociously and so brightly that it could never again be recaptured. The film is the perfect storm of suspense, improvisation and guerrilla marketing. 

The film tells the story of three student film-makers, Heather (Donahue), Mike (Williams) and Josh (Leonard). For a college project they have decided to make a documentary about a local legend: the Blair Witch. They head to the nearest town and interview the locals about the legend. They then hike into the woods to find some of the sites associated with the myth. They get lost on the way out. And a series of unexplained phenomena starts to follow them, slowly terrorising them. Maybe the stories about the Blair Watch are true…? 

Firstly, the film really works on the suspense. It does not have monsters looming out of the mist. Everything is subtly done. We are first presented with a variety of legends about the Blair Witch. These are left to percolate in the viewer’s mind. We then see the sites of some of these horrific attacks – ‘Coffin Rock’ and a cemetery with seven small rock cairns. And then things start to escalate. Night-time rustles in the bushes. More stone cairns, outside the tents. Strange stick figures hanging from trees. Children’s voices. Something shaking the tent. Something seen of-camera. Goo over Josh’s gear. A disappearance. A blood-soaked bundle of twigs and clothing containing a tooth. Screams in the night. And finally a climax at a ruined house in the middle of the woods, its walls marked with runes and the imprints of children’s hands, and then a scene down in the basement that tied in to those earlier stories. Frankly, never before have a few small stones and twigs been so frightening. And all the while we have the three film-makers’ growing hysteria and terror. What we see might not seem that scary to us, but it clearly scares the shit out of them, and fear is so contagious. We get sucked in to their increasing desperation. Blair Witch holds true to the inadvertent lesson learnt from Jaws – the longer the monster remains unseen, the scarier it becomes. And in this case, the monster is never seen.  

Sticks and stones may break your bones...

The reason the reactions of the characters seem so genuine, is because they were. They were hired to improvise. They were given general guidelines on what to do and how to behave and directions to take them from scene to scene. But their reactions are their own. When their tent is attacked in the middle of the night it genuinely did come as a surprise to them, and their screams and the flight is honest (as is Heather’s reaction to something she sees but the camera doesn’t). When they walk all day and find themselves back at a log over a stream they had passed first thing that morning their anger and dismay is real. They did not know how the film was going to end, and they did not know that the original stories about the Blair Witch were all made up. Those people they interviewed at the start of the film were all plants. 

What turned it from a clever piece of film-making into a phenomenon was the marketing. It was made on  shoestring budget (apparently the cameras used were either returned for a refund or sold on ebay after shooting was completed). Once picked up by a studio the framing device could be publicised. The meta-story is that the events depicted really happened in October 1994, and that Heather, Mike and Josh were never seen again. Their cameras were discovered a year after their disappearance and that what is seen is a true record of their week in the Black Hills. The DVD even contains a 45 minute documentary, The Curse of the Blair Witch, which supposedly is a documentary about their disappearance and creates some sort of back-story for the witch. It includes snippets of the film, interviews with friends and family, references to historic documents and clips from a 1970s documentary. All were faked. It blurs the line between fiction and reality. It is a mockumentary, and as such clearly influenced a hole host of 21st century media, from Paranormal Activity to The Office. The internet was cleverly harnessed to spread the story and stoke up interest. Basically, it is the first example of a phenomenon ‘going viral’. 

I remember watching it sometime in 1999 or 2000. Fittingly it was watched on a computer monitor in a friend’s room at university. Coming back to it twelve years later the film still felt fresh. Even though I knew the story, and knew how it would end I still got goosebumps as the end drew near (and this on a sunny summer evening). If anything, the second watch was more rewarding – I paid attention more to the legends at the beginning and could then tie them in to events that happened in story. I wouldn’t say that I was scared, but I was certainly thrilled by it. The Blair Witch Project is a masterpiece of what can be done on $25,000 if the idea, the execution and the marketing is right. Michael Bay should take note… 

What have I learnt about Maryland?
The film focuses on Maryland's colonial history. In isolated settlements back in the 18th century witchcraft could be believed in and feared by the residents (the Curse of the Blair Witch documentary argues that this might have arisen because Elly Kedward was a Catholic is a predominantly Protestant town). And local myths and legends can be taken seriously even today if there is enough colour or evidence behind them. Where one might not give credence to these stories in the middle of a city or in the suburbs, travel out to the small towns in the wooded hills and they become much more plausible. 

Can we go there?
Burkittsville really exists. It is in southern Frederick County, near the border with Virginia. It was never called ‘Blair’ however, and the locals are apparently sick and tired of their link to this film. The ‘Welcome to Burkittsville’ sign was stolen so many times they now have a completely different sign welcoming visitors. The cemetery was really in Burkittsville; it doesn’t have a preponderance of children’s graves from the 1940s however.

The land around Burkittsville is hilly, but there are no ‘Black Hills’, ‘Tappy Creek’ or ‘Coffin Rock’. In fact, as the film shows, the filmmakers trek across some pretty flat terrain. This was Seneca State Park, near Gaithersburg, just north of Washington D.C. The abandoned house that Heather and Mike discover at the film’s climax was in Patapsco Valley State Park near Ellicott City, just west of Baltimore. It was called the Griggs House in real life, but it has now been torn down. 

There are a plethora of minor locations seen in the opening sections of the film. Mike’s house is in Wheaton, Maryland. They then stock up on supplies at Staub’s Country Inn in Beallsville (now HarBro Protection Solutions). They interview the waitress at the Silver Rail Diner (now Mommer's Diner) in Brunswick, and are told about the child murders outside Adamstown Village Market (now Stup’s Market) in Adamstown. The motel they spend their first night at is the Hillside Motel in Knoxville. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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