Cinematic Crossroads – Battle #1: The Blair Witch Project

It seems I got the order of these a little screwed up. This is our first entry in the Cinematic Crossroads, with From Dusk Till Dawn being our 2nd venture. So I’ve edited our last post a bit. But in our first one, we didn’t have a guest start yet, so it was just myself, Aaron Christensen, Brian Kirst, and Dave Kosanke. Enjoy.

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cc-bwp3Jon Kitley:  I admit, when the Blair Witch hype all started, I bought into it.   I think it was a brilliant example of promotion, the likes that we hadn’t seen since the days of William Castle.  The way they had some of the public thinking that this was actually a real documentary shows how well it worked.  Also, the way the film itself was made, with little notes from the directors to the cast on what they needed to do on that day of shooting, and leaving little surprises for them to find, I thought was very original and worked really well.  Granted, I think it had more ‘tweaks’ then they let on.

Brian Kirst:  I remember hearing about the hype around Blair Witch and even had some acquaintances that were on the ride from the beginning when people were convinced it was a true story. But I wasn’t even close to an internet baby, back then, and when I saw it late in its run (in the cheap theaters, even!) I knew it was just this marketing phenomenon that many felt was truly scary. I was already a pretty hardened horror vet at that point and the atmosphere of the project – that whole crinkling, black woodsy essence – really creeped me out – which I remember thinking was quite a phenomenon, at that point in time. I didn’t get that crawly skin feeling with many horror flicks and it made kind of go “Yes! They got me!!” inside.

Dave Kosanke:  I wasn’t wrapped up too much in any of the hype when I viewed the film, so I took it for what it was.  I’m glad, because had I went in with a different mindset, then maybe I would have found myself simply detesting the entire thing. 

Aaron Christensen:  I first saw this one when it came out back in the summer of 1999.  Not being a big cyber guy, I missed out completely on the whole internet hype, so while I applaud the effort, that aspect barely enters into my admiration for the film.  It is, to my mind, one of the finest examples of a “simple scary story well-told.” 

BK:  What struck me this time around is how important the viewing environment is to its creepy appeal. The first two times I saw Blair Witch were with rapt audiences in ancient, pitch black theaters with cobwebbed histories of their own. Some of the film’s effectiveness is definitely lost at 8:30 in the morning in a studio apartment with all the lights on and the presence of the 9 to 5 world beaming around the corner.

cc-bwp11JK:  Seeing it in the theater during the original release made me nauseous.  Not sure if it was because of seeing it on the big screen or not, but the shaky-cam was just too much.  Didn’t bother me as much this time out.  Granted, I still don’t care for that style of filmmaking, but I didn’t find it as nauseating.  Plus, it was on my TV, so that could have a made a big difference.

AC:  The shaky-cam never really bothered me.  Fit the format.

JK: I also had a problem with the whole thing about them still filming when they realize they are in trouble.  I can understand how you want to keep filming when you’re working on the documentary.  But once it is apparent that you are in serious trouble that would have stopped.

AC:  Well, she is a documentarian.  This is what she does (or wants to do), plus she wants to record the experience in order to control it.  She even says, when Josh screams at her, “It’s all I have.”  For me, this is more than enough justification as opposed to things like Cloverfield (which I still liked, by the way), where there is no point to them continuing to shoot.  The other thing to consider is that at night, the lights from the camera were used to illuminate their surroundings.  Turn on the light, turn on the camera.  Made sense to me.

DK:  The shaky cam didn’t bother me either, and as AC points out, they give more than enough information as to why the camera should remain on, so I buy that. 

cc-bwp1JK:  I agree using the camera for the light would be a smart thing to do.  But you can see more with your eyes than through a camera lens.  So stop filming and get your ass out of the woods!

AC:  I felt it was justified by Josh’s line about “looking through this viewfinder, things don’t seem real.”  As long as Heather could keep filming, it gave her the sense that there was still purpose in what she was doing, and she didn’t have to face the reality that they were really just lost in the woods. 

DK:  My biggest issue is with all of the inferior (with a few exceptions) stuff that came afterwards – that’s where I started to become annoyed with the shaky cam (The Last Exorcism comes to mind).  I’m pretty much tired of seeing films utilize that type of style.  It’s been over 10 years since Blair Witch came out, let’s try something else for a change, o.k.?!?!? 

AC: Even Uncle George [Romero] got in on the act with Diary of the Dead.  Gack.

DK:  For the record, in my opinion, the best out of the bunch was Rec.

cc-bwp9JK:  I also HATED Heather.  She obviously had no idea where they were or what was going on.  Yes, I know that was her character.  But the problem is that I really didn’t give a shit about her and really wanted to see her get hurt.  So any empathy, to get the viewer to care for her, is complete gone inside the first 20 minutes!  Yes, I did care for Josh and Mike, and felt something for them.  But the hatred for Heather was just too much to really get into the film.

DK:  All the characters bicker way too much for my taste.  I understand the situation does call for it, since Heather does mess stuff up (a lot!) but when you are presenting a film for an audience to enjoy, I think a little editing would have helped, but then again you’d end up with a 60-minute movie.  I agree, Heather is annoying as hell, and that’s my main gripe with it…the characters aren’t the nicest bunch.  If they were presented without all the bitching and moaning it would be easier to stomach.

BK:  Is Heather a pain? Yes, but I can sympathize with her. She’s a smart woman who has bitten off more than she can chew, and I see her arrogance and first time mistakes in so many of the artists I’ve worked with (or in things I’ve done myself.) In time, like the rest of us, she would have done a bang-up job and counted this first project as one riddled with glorious mistakes, but a true learning experience, as well. Unfortunately, she never gets that chance.

cc-bwp6AC:  In defense of Heather, as someone who has taken several hiking trips, it’s not always possible to accurately guess how long a hike will take, especially when there is no distinctly marked trail.  And while she might have been “bitchy,” look at the two guys that she was traveling with.  She took her project very seriously and she wanted them to take it seriously as well.  But serious was not what these guys were about, and so I’m sure it got very annoying for her as well.  Did I want to date Heather?  No, but I totally got where she was coming from.  Plus, you have to remember that these characters don’t know each other, and so they have no reason to trust one another – which is why when things start falling apart, it’s even more stressful.

DK:  I think that the characters act accordingly to the situation presented them, but that still doesn’t mean it bodes well for a moviegoing audience to listen to them constantly bicker amongst themselves.

AC:  If they had worked together and been more civil, would it have been a better movie?  It would have been an easier movie to watch, perhaps, but would we have lost their growing sense of despair?  We’ve seen movies where a group of disparate people unite to combat a common enemy.  I liked the fact that they were only tenuously bound, more out of circumstance than anything else.

BK:  Some of the endless ‘getting lost and arguing about it’ scenarios are a bit wearing, but having felt that fevered panic when being lost in the outdoors, it truly made me relate to all of them a bit more as characters and since I knew both the aggressively artistic and the more laid back creative types, as well, which these characters exemplified, it made me sympathize with them all the more.

DK:  I didn’t really relate to any of the characters.  All of them had their moments, good and bad, but they just didn’t win me over that much to the point where I really cared for them. 

cc-bwp5JK:  I do think that if the characters were more sympathetic and more likeable, it would have made the tragedy of what happened to them more powerful and lasting.  If they were actually trying to work together and still came up lost, then maybe you would start to think of some outside influences were at work.  But in either case, I think making the characters more likeable definitely would have made more of an impact on the viewers when they did reach their fate.

BK:  Blair Witch Project, more than anything, proves to me how personal horror is to everyone. Having grown up in deep country with forests surrounding the entirety of my town, I know instinctively that the wooded dark can offer up surprises. Snapping twigs, whistling wind and footsteps on damp ground at 2 a.m. can terrify and I think these simple frights are truly captured in Sanchez and Myrick’s work.  Any violent act in a small town also seems to take on a special mythology – something that is honestly captured with the locals’ whisperings on the Blair Witch.

AC:  The legend of the Blair Witch and of Rustin Parr was brilliant.  We got just enough information to keep us thinking, and the strange touches of the hanging twig figures and the rock piles was so ordinary, and yet completely freaky.  The interviews that kick off the story are also great.  Again, just enough info, and they felt like real interviews for the most part. 

cc-bwp7DK:  The night-time scenes are tremendous, where all you hear are those creepy sounds.  I swear it is the easiest thing to do to get a great scare, but how many modern filmmakers actually bother to try that anymore?   You never see a damn thing, but those are hands-down the scariest movie moments for me since the ’70s. 

JK:  I actually do think it affected society in what they would think about when they were camping in the woods.  Especially when hearing that first snapping twig sound in the dark of the night.

AC:  I agree, the sound design is wonderful.  All the natural cracking and rustling that the woods provide, but then the added aural moments of children laughing and Josh screaming just take it to another level.  Another interesting fact I got from the commentary was that the directors slowly pulled most of the ambient sound out of the film as it progresses, so that there is more of a dead, isolated feel by the end.

BK:  I thought it truly captured the creepiness of out-in-the-boondocks living – which, I’m assuming, was a fairly far-off place for the filmmakers to get to – which makes me both appreciate the [filmmaking] effort and truly enjoy the end product at the same time.  For me, the turning point of the film and the part I tend to look forward to when viewing is the betrayal sequence when Mike loses his shit and reveals he destroyed the map. It’s dramatic and the rash anger of the act makes sense because of the frustration and hopelessness of the situation. 

cc-bwp4AC:  Mike’s revelation of kicking the map into the water is a high point for me as well.  Such a betrayal, and you have to wonder whether he did it of his own accord or whether he was under the influence of some malevolent force.

DK:  I don’t think Mike was under the spell of some force for ditching the map.  That just reeked of plain stupidity, and one of the reasons the characters don’t appeal to me that much because if they do dumb stuff like that then I feel they deserve their fate. 

AC:  Maybe, but them continuing to stay lost is a brilliant little clue that there’s something else going on.  The scene where they follow the stream all day only to end up in the same place is INSANE.  Such a feeling of powerlessness.  The compasses don’t work, nature is against you, you’re hungry, tired, scared…  I really felt I could put myself in that situation. 

DK:  I agree the scene where they seemingly go in circles was great, but is the movie implying this was Heather’s fault, or something else? 

AC:  They followed the river all day and ended up in the same place.  How do we explain that if not outside, i.e. supernatural forces?

DK:  If the supernatural element was to blame, then that could have been a better way to set things in motion rather than blame it all on human error.  Who knows, if they were more civil towards each other after realizing they weren’t to blame for their troubles, but that an outside force was responsible, then maybe we’d have a better set of characters?  I don’t know but that’s one way the script could have been altered somewhat. 

cc-bwp2AC:  See, I think it’s pretty explicit – they follow the river, which wouldn’t run in a circle, and they find the same rock as before.  Now, I suppose that it might NOT have been the same rock, but I’d like to think that it is, because that’s much scarier than them just not knowing how to stay on the same side of a river.

JK:  I never really felt the movie had any supernatural influence or link to it.
  
AC:  Wait, what?  No supernatural influence?  Um, what about Josh disappearing?  The piles of rocks?  The children’s voices?  I mean, come on…

JK:  I always considered it more about the legends, like Brian mentioned, and those bizarre characters living out in the woods.  But never supernatural.  Maybe if they would have played up that element a little more, I might have found it a little more effective.  But on that same point, I think that would have taken away from the reality of the situation, meaning it would have put it more in the realm of fantasy, like Jason Voorhees.  But the fact that they were lost was just because of that.  No forces of nature were conspiring to making them go in circles….they were just lost.  Plain and simple.

cc-bwp10AC:  Interesting.  I think I would like the film less if that were the case.  In fact, maybe the reason I like it more than you is that I do see the supernatural at work throughout.

DK:  Maybe if they figured they were trapped in the woods, and not because of anything they did to screw up, then maybe the bitching would’ve been tempered somewhat. 

AC:  On another note, I think the premise of the found footage is wonderful (I’m sure we’ll get into the whole “they stole that from Cannibal Holocaust” at some point during this discussion) and it all plays out beautifully, starting off light and playful and slowly, inexorably descending into a nightmare.  What did you guys think?

DK:  Cannibal Holocaust is without a doubt the main influence on Blair Witch as far as I’m concerned, but the two films are so far apart however that I don’t even care about which one used the found film footage first, or who ripped off who.  Cannibal Holocaust wasn’t really that well known in mainstream circles that much in the ’90s, aside from the diehard fans who piled up bootlegs of it on VHS. 

AC:  I didn’t see CH until 2005. 

cc-bwp15DK:  Also I believe it only screened theatrically in New York once it arrived on our shores, so it’s not like everybody got to see it right away.  You won’t hear me gripe about how much Blair Witch stinks because it ripped off Cannibal Holocaust.  That type of argument won’t work with me!

AC:  The filmmakers have always said that it’s more an homage to the old In Search of…television show.

DK:  However, in contrast to Cannibal Holocaust, the format of Blair Witch pretty much dispenses with how the footage was “found” in the first place, since all we see is what was recorded, and not necessarily who found it.  The technique works well for Blair Witch, since I doubt many folks even cared about who came up with the material in the first place (maybe if they believed the entire thing to be true they’d want to know more, but for most of us we knew it was all fake and just wanted to be entertained).

BK:  Because it is non-filtered, the found footage angle really works – it gets at the fear, exhaustion, anger and weariness the characters are feeling.

JK:  The only problem I have with the “found footage” theme (in any movie, for that matter) is that we know right from the beginning that these people do not make it out alive.  So it becomes a matter of not who will survive, but when they will die.  And in the case of Heather…it couldn’t come soon enough.

cc-bwp12DK:  I think they left the camera on a little too long at times, and only shut it off when the film was starting to grow a little too long in the tooth, but obviously they had to deliver something that could play in theaters, otherwise we’d be looking at something 60 minutes or less.  Still, the film does work well considering you see nothing at all (shades of Val Lewton perhaps?)

BK:  There is a part of me that feels like more could have been shown – that a little bit more of who or what was attacking these three kids could have been hinted at.  BUT – that probably would have destroyed some of the effectiveness of the piece as well. It’s always what you imagine that scares you the most.

AC:  Question:  Did you guys think this movie did for being lost in the woods what Jaws did for swimming?  Did it replace Jason as the terror of the campsite?

DK:  Without actually seeing the Blair Witch, I don’t know how it could ever top Mr. Voorhees as the true sultan of slaughter!  Actually nobody could wrestle that title from him, but hey that’s another discussion!  In the long run, most folks will probably remember Blair Witch more as a phenomenon rather than a singular movie, since it is more the technique of how it was made – and promoted – that will be discussed in the history books (or e-readers, tablets, and whatever electronic device folks use for reading material) for future generations.

cc-bwp13BK:  Nope, Blair Witch didn’t replace Jason as the king of the woods terror.  It’s too complex and real and the public at large (and I’m not counting myself out of this equation either) wants a bit more popcorn style splatter for their main viewing diet. And I agree, the fact that we never really see the Blair Witch puts her at a disadvantage here as well.  I also, truly believe that at this point in time we still are existing in a formidably patriarchal society and to have a female horror villain ‘top’ the Jasons, Michaels  and Freddys in our cultural consciousness is going to be a long time coming, I’m afraid. That zeitgeist just isn’t here, yet.

JK:  Honestly, if you were out camping and you heard that first snapping twig sound, I’m sure the first thought in your mind would not be about Jason Voorhees or some ghost or witch, but because of some backwoods yahoo out screwing around.

AC:  Good ol’ Deliverance horror!  For me, the film’s biggest strength is its relatability.  We recognize ourselves in each of these characters, and there is no answer as to what we would do differently.  They’re lost (we’ve all been lost before) and they don’t know how to help themselves.  Whatever they try fails.  And they can’t even count on each other.  And then one of them disappears…

JK:  I will admit that there are a few parts of the movie that I do find genuinely scary or creepy.  The little things that they find outside their tent.  The tree twig designs that were hanging from the trees.  It does give one the feeling that maybe trudging off into the woods might not be the smartest thing to do, unless you know exactly what you are doing.  

cc-bwp8AC:  How about the teeth wrapped in Josh’s shirt wrapped in the twig bundle?  Wow.  That flipped me out and continues to do so.  There are these lovely subtle clues dropped:  Josh is the one who kicks the stone piles, Josh is the one whose stuff is thrown around, Josh disappears…  And I, for one, love to imagine what the abduction of Josh looked like: did he sleepwalk out of the tent?  Did he go out for a leak?  Was he screaming and the others had a spell on them so that they couldn’t wake up?  Love it.  And the final sequence in the house with the handprints on the walls and them running up and downstairs was utterly terrifying.  Plus, the indelible final image of Mike standing in the corner chilled me to the bone.

JK:  Bottom line, I appreciate the film much more than liking it.  Mainly because I think the film is effective in bringing that creepiness to the viewers, since that situation is very easy for anyone to put themselves into.  But on a grand scale of things, it is not one that I would see myself going back to when wanting to watch a ‘scary movie’.  I think you really have to be in the right mood to watch this, or at least the right atmosphere.  Like Brian mentioned, watching it in the bright of the morning in a well lit apartment would not have the desired effect.  A film like Jaws, on the other hand, I could watch at any point in the day, and it would always give me the same feeling.

DK:  Final thoughts…The Blair Witch project divides fans down the middle yet even though you never actually see the Blair Witch, its shadow looms large over an entire decade of the horror film, and probably will continue to do so as long as conversations such as this keep the flames burning.

cc-bwp14BK: You know, now that I think about it, I guess I don’t like this movie so much, after all! (Kidding.) But, when all is said and done, like it or hate it, Blair Witch was one of the few films, of any genre, to so capture the public’s imagination that it’s lasting appeal, in a way, is almost indescribable. It just had that special magic something that captured the public’s imagination at the right time-right place and it became a phenomenon that we’re, obviously, still talking about. It’s strangely thrilling it contemplate, actually. And it may be one of the last film’s able to do something like that. This past fall, the film “Catfish” tried to work the same buzz, and while moderately effective, I actually had to google the films description to get the title because I couldn’t remember it. Now, even the most popular films are out of the theaters within weeks and on DVD within a month or two, so it just seems highly unlikely that any film could develop that slow boil to mainstream cultural eruption that Blair Witch did. Yet, another reason to give it that special nook in cinematic history, I suppose.

AC: Haters be damned, I think the film is 100% brilliant and works like a charm. I can watch it in the middle of the day with the sun shining and it still freaks me out. I love the use of sound, the performances, the realistic-seeming “found footage,” how so much goes unanswered, the tension between the characters, the ending… What can I say, I love this movie. The onscreen terror of the young filmmakers is so palpable it seeps under the viewer’s skin. As far as I can tell, there are only two (maybe three) things that you need to be willing to accept: 1) Yes, the characters are annoying at times (but I find their behavior completely realistic); 2) That they would continue to keep filming under the circumstances (which requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but I’m willing to go along with it); and 3) the motion sickness camerawork (which seems utterly compatible with the given set of circumstances. If it were any smoother, I wouldn’t buy it).

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