Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Blair Witch Project - 10 Years after the movie that scammed the world (what was written ten years ago is still true today).

I used to have a 'bit' I did with friends or at parties. I called it 'the making of the Blair Witch Project'. It basically involved the filmmakers screwing up every step of the way ("Oh no, the camera is completely out of focus!" "Oh no, the microphone was turned off!") but refusing to fix it because that would take time and money and, besides, "It doesn't matter, it's supposed to be like a documentary." The climax is when they screened the film to their own horror, realizing that it contained no actual frightening imagery. "Wait," cried a desperate director, "We'll tell the audience that they have to use their imagination! We'll make them do the work for us!"

To this day, I'm shocked at the numbers of respected critics who fell for this scheme (to say nothing of the countless idiots who thought the film was in fact a true story). I was quite relieved when just a week later, The Sixth Sense took its place atop the box office and stayed their for a good five weeks. A mere week after this sick joke of a phenomenon came a real horror film, one rooted in acting, character, suspense, emotion, and a compelling narrative. Anyway, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the wide-release of The Blair Witch Project, I'm reprinting my online rant of sorts that I published when I was just nineteen. Obviously my writing has improved in the last ten years, but I stand by every point I made ten long years ago.

Why The Blair Witch Project Fails...

Originally written on August 1st, 1999

No, BWP did not "suck ass" or "blow chunks" like most of those my age (19) that didn't care for the film claim. Alas, it certainly was a failure. I feel it necessary to give a fair, profanity-free run-down in the name of all those who didn't care for this film, but fear the flamings of those who accuse anyone who didn't like it of being a stupid, immature idiot. You are more than welcome to disagree, both of my assessment and my alleged intelligence. After all, while I choose Election as the best film of the year by a wide margin, I almost liked Wild, Wild West (which tells you how much I like Kevin Kline and how much I enjoy dramatic actors hamming it up as villains, but on to the matter at hand). First off, I do not scare easily. Just about the only movie to frighten me in a theater was Event Horizon (yes, I know the last 20 min were weak, but the first 70 were scary as can be... but more on that later). After hearing all the hype and reading countless rave reviews, I was prepared to be truly frightened for the first time in two years. Alas, it was not to be. A a truly great horror film (The Omen, The Exorcist, The Vanishing) is able to fill the audience with a genuine sense of dread that permeates the entire running time or at least a good portion of it. In such a film, you do not know quite what is going to happen, when it is going to happen, or how it is going to happen, but you know that SOMETHING is going to happen. Thus, you are constantly in wait for the event(s) in question. Anticipation is the scariest thing of all.

Scream (which I enjoyed) is not a truly scary film. The "boo"-scenes come at predictable intervals. With a routine slasher flick, you do know both what is going to happen (someone's gonna get stabbed) and when it's going to happen (every time creepy music starts to play, at around 7-15min intervals). Thus there is no suspense, as you know exactly what to expect. Event Horizon, on the other hand, places the viewer in the position of not knowing what to expect next. In Event Horizon, the viewer does not know what to expect next, or when to expect it. For the first 70-minutes, the scares, jolts, and shocks came at differing intervals, with differing degrees of effect. Once it is established that anything can happen at any time, the moments between shock scenes are fraught with dread-ridden anticipation of what is to come. By the end of the movie, you are almost relieved that the experience is over. A TRULY terrifying film should leave you feeling exhausted, unpleasant, with a little bit of a knot in your stomach. A truly scary movie isn't truly that much fun.

The key failure with Blair Witch Project is that due to our knowledge of the basic premise (i.e., what was said at the beginning), we already know a good deal of what is going to happen. We know that the kids are going to be killed at the end of the film, and obviously not before the end. Thus, we know that no frightening scenes are likely to take place until the last ten minutes or so. As a result, everything that happens before that is simply a false alarm or a close call. For example, when the mysterious "white ghost" is spotted (i.e.: the "what the fuck was that" scene), we know that we shouldn't be concerned for the characters' safety as it's not time for them to die yet. By this rationale, the all-important sense of dread and terrifying anticipation doesn't exist until the climax. Thus, we spend most of the film waiting for the big final shock.

Of course, even if we did have some sense that bad things could happen throughout the film, it would have been nice if we could see and hear what was happening. I'm not talking about the stuff that was deliberately off-screen, I'm talking about the style of using dirt-cheap film, which rendered the footage difficult to see, hear, and process. For instance, during the scene regarding the bloody cloth, I couldn't tell what they had found. I thought it was a liver or heart. The people sitting next to me thought that they were intestines. Only after looking it up online did I discover that I was looking at bloody, severed fingers. I also missed several lines of dialogue due to the poor sound quality. I know, they were trying to be realistic, but in the process they have sacrificed quality on a basic audio/visual level. Plus, real documentaries shot by professionals would never, ever look or sound this shoddy. And, on aside note, the apology scene looked much crisper, cleaner, and more colorful than any other footage in the film, as if it had been shot with different quality film.

On a basic plot level, I did not believe, despite the "explanation", that Heather would keep the camera on all the way to the end, especially when she entered the house. Every other human being on the planet would have dropped the camera and ran as fast as possible. By the end of the first hour, the camera situation stopped being believable and simply functioned as a means for the film to progress. I also did not believe the initial concept. OK, so the kids were killed, the film was then placed somewhere else (if it had remained in the house, anyone who found it would also find the creature/witch and thus perish), and the film stayed in good condition despite lying in the wilderness for a year? If film stock can survive such a situation, let me know and I will strike this objection from the record.

Please bear with me on this one, but I believe that the directors left too much to the imagination. I am not saying that they should have crammed the film with CGI or the like, but by the end, the whole "what you don't see" argument (which I usually endorse whole-heartily) came off as an excuse to film in a sloppy, incoherent manner. "We're not being lazy, we're letting you use your imagination. That's why the camera was pointed at the ground 70% of the time. Here, now we are in the dark. Now, we could show or even suggest something frightening but we would rather let you and your imagination do all the work for us." When watching a movie, imagination works best at filling in the blanks for a story with holes. We hear a noise, we know what it is and we imagine the visual image that goes along with that sound. We hear a story of horrific pain and suffering, and we make vivid mental pictures of flesh ripping and bones crunching. But, in BWP, we are given so little information to work with (a quick camera pan, a scream in the night), that we can only guess at what is happening. A mental picture based on information is much scarier than a wild guess. The informed theory is scarier, cause it's much more likely that you were right. For all the information given, it is just as likely as not that a bear ate Josh and that a fugitive hiding in the wilderness killed the other two. A faint other worldly glow or a half-second shot of something unusual or horrific would have done a world of good.

For instance, take Steven King's IT, which aired on ABC in 1990 (the first half was the best adaptation of a Steven King work ever). In one of the first scenes, which is a flashback, a young child is floating a paper boat along a stream in the street resulting from heavy rain. The boat falls into the sewer and the boy tries to retrieve it. Soon, Pennywise the Clown (Tim Curry in peak form) shows up and offers to give him back his boat, if he joins him down there (after all, everything floats down there). Then, without warning, Pennywise grabs the kid's arm, opens his mouth, revealing fangs, and he... Well, we don't see what happens next, but we can fill in the gruesome details. It's scarier because we have some idea of what might have happened. With BWP, we don't have a clue.

Alas, The Blair Witch Project did not scare me. It did not give mega-goose bumps, and I did not spend the entire film dreading the unknown terror that waited. Leaving the theater, I did feel exhausted and upset, but for the wrong reasons. I felt betrayed. For months, I was waiting for this film on the basis that I would truly be scared, that it would truly create a genuine sense of dread and apprehension. Instead, I got 77 minutes of occasionally dull Real World-type footage that was difficult to see and hear. In all, the scariest part was the end, when I realized how completely the film had scammed us all.

Scott Mendelson


chuck said...

I also thought it was pretty weak. The only part I found remotely scary was the creepy last five minutes. One of the biggest GIMMICKS of all-time.


Razorgeist said...

Well done review. I too was really annoyed at BWP when it came out. I recently saw "The Last Broadcast" several months ago and thought it was a much better more creative film. Too bad it didn't have the hype of BWP.

Sean G said...

For some reason, I remember being much younger when I saw this film... like, I would have guessed it came out in 1994.

As it is, I was so baked when I saw it that I thought it was great. I saw it sober a year or two later and couldn't believe I had enjoyed it. What a waste.

The lesson, of course, is to never go see a movie without getting baked first. Which is why I still haven't seen Avatar.


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