Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mandatory Halloween Movies, Part 2: The BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
A young woman of my acquaintance from university days opined that the True Test of Greatness for any person, place, or thing, was that no one ever described he, she, or it as “okay.” That person, place, or thing was either cherished and revered, or despised with every subatomic quark of one’s being.

By her lights, The Blair Witch Project is right up there with Citizen Kane—which, come to think of it, is another movie people either love or hate.

What makes The Blair Witch Project work for me is that the supernatural element remains immediately beyond the edge of the visible. This film also savors that special flavoring of terror best understood by one-of-a-kind writer Shirley Jackson, namely, human isolation. Once those three young people leave their car on the side of the road you know they’re done for; it’s just a matter of time. Naturally, they’ll all begin to tear into another once they realize that, map and compass be damned, they are hopelessly lost.  Watching a trio of once-happy college students devolve into frightened and angry young adults is so wrenching that a CGI monster popping out from behind a tree would be a relief. But the only relief for these people awaits at the end of the film.

You poor, doomed bastards!
Throughout the making of The Blair Witch Project the actors were given GPS coordinates, general instructions, and not much else. You watch them run out of food and cigarettes and suffer for it. These are genuinely dirty, tired, hungry and frightened people we’re seeing, which, for some, is even harder to endure than the shaky-cam. Again, a CGI monster would have been a relief. Again, the only relief awaits at the end.

Yeah, well, I’d walk out on you, you ugly old man!
At the time of the film’s release, much was made of the real-life misery of the actors, and rumors were that the actors did indeed perish in those woods. Another win for Blair Witch is these actors look just like people you and I know. None of these people are even remotely attractive by Hollywood standards. While I can’t imagine anyone walking away from a blind date with Heather Donahue, her face is long, her chin is weak, her skin at once loose and puffy along her jaw. (Once they get into the woods, she’s not made up, either. Horrors!) Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams look like ordinary slobs you’d see playing hacky-sack outside the student union. This adds tremendously to the verisimilitude of the production.

The very woods are a character in The Blair Witch Project.

There is a malevolent supernatural agency playing with the characters (some have actually debated this), but it’s off-camera, outside the light, and barely even heard, at that. Everything we know about the evil stalking our hapless heroes is drawn from the reactions of the actors. Unless, that is, you visited the official Web site and read the mythology and Heather’s journal,* all of which got reactivated in time for the tenth anniversary of the film in 2009. The Internet marketing of the film was a much-ballyhooed first in 1999, but I can’t think of any film since that has succeeded based on buzz generated by a Web site. Snakes on a Plane is the only other movie I can think of that enjoyed extensive Internet promotion, but it failed miserably at the box office upon its release in 2006.

This stone-and-mortar work is rather primitive.
I’d pee on it if I wasn’t so dehydrated.
The haters hate on Blair Witch for the shaky-cam (I did get nauseated when I saw it in the theater; the heavily buttered popcorn didn’t help), the hard-to-follow sound, the lack of an onscreen monster and direct encounter with the same. The ending takes a while for some to figure out. I’ll never forget goofing around my garage after coming home from the matinee that bright August afternoon in 1999, and realizing what that last image meant—and feeling the hair stand up on my arms in broad daylight. I’m not the first or last who got caught like that. I can only imagine what it was like for those who woke up in the middle of the night with this epiphany.

I love it, though. And if you enjoy watching things fall apart one nerve-wracked piece at a time, seeing once happy and well-adjusted people driven to madness by faceless adversity, The Blair Witch Project is 81 minutes of (seriously pathological) joy.

Eat your heart out, Meryl Streep. Ms. Donahue owns this iconic scene.

 *There is no direct link to Heather’s journal. You have to click from the Legacy page, the journal link being on the right below the banner.