When I think back to my childhood and try to narrow down which movies were deemed to be the scariest of the time, there are two that jump out to me immediately. The first is The Ring (I had a friend who may or may not have covered his TV with a blanket after viewing), and the 2nd is The Blair Witch Project.
The Blair Witch Project is perhaps the most successfully marketed film ever, with such an emphasis being made to convince people that what they were watching was real. Take one look at how popular reality television has become and it’s no wonder that this approach worked as well as it did. The actors’ online profiles were stamped and marked up with “Missing” and “Location Unknown”. SyFy even aired an exceptionally convincing documentary on the legend of Russ Parr and the Blair Witch and all the evil happenings in Burkittsville. I watched it, and I believed it.
And then I watched the movie. In the theater. With about ten other people who’d decided that the first Saturday matinee showing was perhaps the best option for viewing such a film. Maybe because the sun would still be shining when we filed out after the end. One of those people was my mom, because I wasn’t yet old enough to buy my own ticket to an R-Rated film. Plus she like scary as much as I do.
I thought it was brilliant. Loved it, even. It was unsettling and disturbing in the best of ways, and scary for days.
I don’t exactly remember when I learned that the movie was indeed just that: a movie, as in fictional. I don’t even remember if I learned this information before or after I saw the film. But I do remember that I found The Blair Witch Project to be one of the scariest movies I’d ever seen, and I never once saw a monster or serial killer or evil spirit in its 81 minute run-time.
Fast forward to now. I’m 30 and have seen The Blair Witch probably ten times in my life. I had the VHS tape, then I had the DVD, and now I own the digital copy on iTunes. As a fan of horror, it’s a movie you have to own. Those are just the rules. I re-watched it earlier this week with the mindset of determining if the film is still considered scary today.
The answer: YES
Is the film equipment these ill-fated students use outdated and comical looking? Yes.
Is the footage a boring standard-definition and at times grainy and unfocused and generally ugly? Yes.
Could this film be recreated today with a cheaper budget and an iPhone and few GoPro’s? Absolutely.
None of this matters. What matters is that the atmosphere, the foreboding dread, the convincing realism and terror from the three lead performers, are all still there and just as strong as ever. The scenes which take place at night are still particularly effective, and when you stop and imagine yourself in the actors’ situation (lost in the (supposedly haunted) woods, surrounded by things you can’t see or explain) you can’t tell me you don’t get a chill up your spine.
And the ending … Some people hate it its ambiguity, but I think it’s the perfect culmination for the central idea of the film. We don’t know what happened to these poor kids, because it wasn’t captured on camera. That’s the idea. The whole movie is about unknown terrors, and the finale isn’t excluded.
The Blair Witch project might look terrible, even by today’s “found-footage” standards, but it still packs a punch. Even if it’s an unexplained one.