Friday, March 22, 2013

American Borer Story: The Blair Witch Project Turns 15

Happy 15th, Blair Witchers. I'm on record as saying that the only people terrified by The Blair Witch Project are the jumpy types that were already terrified of the woods to begin with -- these are the same sort that cower in fear from thunderstorms, skeletons and bones, bats, bugs, spiders and webs, old houses, and maybe even black cats. None of these things are supernatural. Neither, dear Blair Witch apologists, are the woods, the dark, or the sight of a guy standing in the corner. Fifteen years and a whole bunch of copycats later, I still say that it's a miracle we ever heard of The Blair Witch Project. That being said, if you haven't seen it, go ahead and give it a shot, if only because it's an early bringer of the popular "found footage" motif, and for that it deserves a a nod.
Image: Store.HMV

Fair warning -- from the standpoint of pure movie-going enjoyability, The Blair Witch Project sucks. It's the opposite of fun. It's hard work watching this thing. It looks and sounds like shit. There's no plot. There isn't even a witch. The storyline is a pablum of cliche where smart-alecky young people with more attitude than brains do everything possible to ruin an otherwise ordinary day. Add themes of isolation, at least one asshole, top it off with a goading bitch that you just know will die screaming, and make sure to have them all stumble about a supposedly-haunted place making increasingly worse decisions until something gets them. Or not. Maybe, we don't know. Because, remember? We waited through 81 tedious minutes to find out what happens at the end. Then nothing happens at the end.

And yet, emanating from the tedious shitpile of shameless shammery shines a ray of movie-making brilliance. It's actually quite clever, the way the creators of The Blair Witch Project put up a serious horror movie on a shoestring budget without going all ironically B-movie schmaltzy, and without apologizing for itself. Through framing and titles they maintain just enough tension that an otherwise bored, motion sick audience willingly accepts blurred, off-kilter, dizzily swinging spans of nothing-at-all, simply because it's presented as scraps of found footage that might reveal evidence of whatever got these knuckleheads. The problem is that they were so clever about how to tell the story, they forgot to say what the hell we are supposed to be afraid of in the end. Who or what is supposed to be the antagonist, or at least evidence of one, in this thing?

Is it the woods? Heather, Mike and Josh certainly do burn many of the 81 minutes crashing through the brush, gasping and shushing each other whenever they think they might hear something.

Is it the sounds in the woods? Because woods can be noisy anytime, especially at night. You'll hear scuttling, fluttering, snapping, crunching, hooting, screeching and more. It's only snakes and salamanders and various nocturnal rodentia hunting breakfast while dodging bats and owls hunting them. It's natural, not supernatural.

Is it the piles of rocks these three blockheads find in the woods? Because I've seen that, it's nothing. Old farmland markers, remnants of barn foundations, filled-in wells, old stone walls or just piled campfire rocks left by "leave no trace" campers, a naturalist ethic that says do not leave rocks in a ring when you break camp. It's normal, not paranormal.

Is it the bundled branches they stumble across? That happens, too. Dead wood or brush piles gathered by conscientious campers and hikers. A lot of people support the idea that brush piles help the wildlife.

If you've spent any time hiking or camping, you'll have noticed lots of weird things in the woods. Here a rusty iron ring sticking out of a stump, there a frayed rope just randomly hanging from a tree. You will definitely see formerly living things. Bunny bones, skins, bits of bloody leftover house cats.

As a horror story, the movie does have some merit. It's a stand-off between the normal and the paranormal where reasonable, ordinary town folks live with the honest belief that there's a vaguely malevolent threat, set against the cautiously optimistic but dopey antics of young, arrogant and hopelessly amateur investigators. The tension created by that, combined with the maddening camera work, demonstrates that the creators do grasp the concept of what makes a good horror movie. As a plus, the acting is decent. Think how much worse if we had to endure that wooden, sing-songy standard of low budget movie-making.

Horror is hard. The elite creatives make it look easy, but history is chock-a-block with unfortunate also-rans who gave it everything they had but failed to deliver a single thrill. When it goes right, it's awesome, and you get raves like M. Night Shyamalan after The Sixth Sense. When it goes wrong, you get summarily dismissed like M. Night Shyamalan after Signs. Horror fans are particularly tough critics, and it's hard to bounce back from mediocrity. That's the albatross of fame, isn't it? One turd of a project and you find yourself proselytizing with late nite talk show hosts about what went wrong, and whenever your name is attached to a project it comes with a punchline.

It would actually be better if your super low budge movie goes really wrong, to the point where it's pure awesome. At least then your name might get elevated in a different way, attached to a weird kind of cult status. People will actually wait for what you do next. And whatever comes after that.

Right. But let's just say that I hadn't seen it.
And I said, "I haven't seen Evil Dead II yet."
What would you think?

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