I’m a fan of all types of movies, but I certainly have favorites. Comedies, for example, I’m not generally a big fan of. Action adventures are generally hit or miss for me. Suspense thrillers are amazing, but relatively uncommon. Heist movies are almost always great fun. Horror movies, as faithful readers can tell, are often some of my favorites.
Which of course brings us to found footage. I list found footage as separate from horror even though the former is technically a sub-genre of the latter. I’ve explained in another article why it is we like horror even though it scares us. One of the beautiful aspects of the genre is that it is deep and rich. There are lots of different kinds of horror. Cerebral, body horror, suspense, slasher, torture porn. Even, of course, found footage.
Now found footage has a bit of a storied history. The most well known example of the genre is the Paranormal Activity franchise. Which, for those who haven’t kept up to date, has a whopping six movies in it.
The premise of found footage movies is straightforward. Normal movies are shot so that the audience is a passive observer. You’re just a weird, floating, teleporting eye. You’re completely disconnected from the film.
Found footage eschews that entirely. A plot point of every found footage movie is that the character or characters involved are actually filming what they’re doing, as if with a home camera. The film, then, isn’t supposed to be a normal movie. It’s supposed to be just the film that was shot by the characters.
It’s effective and ineffective in equal capacity. Being in first person can be very dramatic. Monsters are more frightening since they feel like they’re attacking you directly. Your field of view is incredibly limited, which heightens tension and suspense. The audience feels involved and invested in what’s going on because they feel like they’re actually there.
It’s not perfect though. The style invariably spends a good deal of time setting up the explanation of the footage. They give an arbitrary reason everything is being filmed. Usually one of the characters shooting a documentary. It gets tired, but it’s a necessary step in service to the plot requirements of the genre. The ending of such movies is also fairly consistent: everyone dies. They have to. It’s called found footage. The footage has to be found, which means it has to be lost at some point.
An advantage of the genre is that it doesn’t require expensive cameras and equipment. Movies can get made that otherwise wouldn’t be possible due to budget constraints. Plus, there’s something novel and fun about the whole concept. In a world where a lot of movies fall into the same old ruts, found footage does something new.
Which finally (finally) brings us to Blair Witch. The original Blair Witch Project was not the first low-budget found footage movie, but it was the first well known one. The movie centered around a team of three college students making a documentary about a local legend called the Blair Witch. They gather news from townsfolk and then head into woods. They are summarily haunted and spooked for the duration of a movie before being killed.
Now, seventeen years later, the younger brother of one of the documentarians is heading back into the woods to try and find his sister. He is aided by several friends, one of whom is filming a documentary for a college class. Naturally.
An opening scene shows a woman running through a dilapidated house, recording her movements with a handheld camera, before the footage cuts out. This tape, found in the forest recently by a conspiracy theorist, is the impetus for the film.
We are then slowly introduced to the characters. They’re mostly interesting enough and quite likable for the most part. One of them fills the role of “inexplicably dickish” but the rest of them feel fairly believable. The group gathers their gear, including a variety of special cameras (one of which is mounted on a drone) and head out to meet the conspiracy theorist. The theorist and his girlfriend insist on joining them in their hunt, and the group ventures into the woods.
I was not a big fan of the first Blair Witch Project. The pacing was atrocious and very little of actual excitement happen. Relatively small things would happen and the characters would react as if they were monumental. There were a few brief scares, but it relied too much on gimmicks and forced fear.
Blair Witch doesn’t completely escape the sins of the proverbial father. In the first movie the characters woke up one morning to find their tents surrounded by voodoo dolls suspended from trees. In the sequel the same thing happens. There are a lot of small but strange events. The film crew reacts dramatically and start fighting amongst themselves.
It’s not as exciting as the filmmakers likely hoped, and it leaves you a little worried. Horror movies have evolved in the last twenty years. The kind of cerebral horror films that frighten you purely with suspense and tension are harder to pull off. The audience can’t just be told things are scary. They have to be shown something scary. They have to be scared.
Which is why when I hit the halfway point of Blair Witch, I could not have been happier.
The action ratchets up (literally) overnight. The handful of young campers are not left unscathed. Fights break out, people are attacked, things go bump in the night, and, most importantly, people die.
I’ll admit the deaths are hit or miss. Some are shocking and grip you like a vice. Some are lackluster. Others are perfectly acceptable but perhaps a little underwhelming.
The ones that are good, though, are really good. There’s some pretty startling stuff. It’s less a matter of something being gruesome and full of gore. Instead, the death’s just catch you completely off guard. Even when the movie tells you they’re about to happen. Which is exactly how it should be.
Before going into spoilers, I want to cap it with the climax. The finale of this film is marvelous, and perhaps the best example of a haunted house I’ve ever seen in a movie. It has some great moments, and some genuinely interesting implications.
SPOILER ALERT: I’ll be talking about critical plot details from here on out. For those of you that don’t want anything spoiled, stop here.
Needless to say, the Blair Witch comes back.
This time around we actually get a look at her. The urban legend is explored deeper in the movie. Back when the small town was a colony, there was a woman accused of witchcraft. She was wracked before being left to die of exposure.
Clearly she survived. The wracking stretched her limbs, turning her into a tall, gaunt monster with disturbing proportions. She’s only revealed a few times, as the legend says she kills people who look at her directly. It’s why standing in a corner facing away is such a big element of the film and its prequel. Its the only way to stay safe from her.
This is all really cool. Blair Witch managed to develop the backstory and incorporate it in a far more interesting fashion than I would’ve expected. The previously mentioned climax utilizes these details. The last two survivors are standing in a corner trying to stay safe from the witch. One of them hallucinates and turns around. The second he does he’s gone. The witch snaps him up and it’s just lights out.
It’s not the only sudden and brutal death in the film. One of the girls starts freaking out when she realizes some of her (brightly dyed) hair is in a voodoo doll. Another girl fights with her and tries to grab the doll. It breaks in half, and the matching girl snaps in half and collapses to the ground. The death is visceral and it hits you out of nowhere.
Lots of other small elements make their way into the film. The final haunted house is right next to a recognizable tree from the beginning of the film. This means the haunted house isn’t always there.
What’s more, the cycle of day and night is disrupted. The characters find themselves getting lost in the woods and confused as the days grow shorter. Eventually the sun stops rising altogether. The group separates into smaller groups twice. The film follows one group both times, and when the second group reappears we learn far more time has passed for them.
This time jump comes up again at the end of the film. While watching the last female character we see a carbon copy of the clip from the beginning of the film. This reveals that the clip was not the sister from the first movie. Instead, it was a clip of this movie that somehow went back in time.
The distortion is never addressed and it can be easy to miss. It’s a subtle thing, and the implications of it are both staggering and interesting. It more than any other component had me coming back to think about the movie. It’s the reason this article is dang long.
Blair Witch is not a perfect film. Frankly it’s not even close. It has some noticeable flaws, and for a lot of people these flaws will be too great. But I would argue that the pros outweigh the cons. There is fun and fear to be had in this movie. Don’t watch it expecting a masterpiece of horror. Watch it expecting a cathartic and frightening couple of hours that will leave you with some interesting thoughts and some fun conversations with your friends.