You Made Horror Movies Boring, or Why You Are Wrong About The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project is a perfect example of a movie that’s been blown up into a love it or hate it film, because of its enormous hype and box office. The same can be said for Forrest Gump, Gladiator, Monster’s Ball, Slumdog Millionaire, Titanic, Crash, etc. People think it’s cool to say how much they hate the popular movie that got all the awards and attention, as if this was their way of “sticking it to the man.” A real way to “stick it to the man” would be not to talk about it at all. The more people mention it in either a good or a bad light, the more people see it. And claiming something like this is the worst movie you’ve ever seen, is ridiculous, because a) everyone wants to see the worst movie ever made, and b) it suggests that you may have only seen 2 or 3 movies in your life.
Face it, if The Blair Witch Project made $2 million, nobody would give a shit about it, and those who knew about it would pass it along to their friends and they would talk about how much it scared them.
All movies have goals. BWP‘s goal is to scare you with what you don’t see, because the characters don’t either, and to recreate the feeling of being lost in a strange and creepy place without having any idea where you are going, and observing the panic that sets in. It is most certainly successful at that. Those who complain that you never see what they are running from, are missing the point, they are used to the same old slasher movie where the killer jumps right in front of the screaming teenager, just in time to cut his/her head off. You may like to see the same movie being remade or sequelized over and over again because you get to see what you’re “afraid” of, but I prefer to be surprised and unnerved, and having to imagine what I can’t see. People who complain that the characters are irritating, and that they curse too much, or that they themselves wouldn’t act that way, are being ridiculous, because it’s not like we would all go running up the stairs or over the killer’s supposedly dead body if we were in a slasher movie. These are the same people who sat next to me during Being John Malkovich and said “There’s no hole in my head that people live in.”
The Blair Witch Project seems to me to be one of the more accurate representations of characters progressively “losing it,” and making disastrous attempts to rationalize the irrational. The movie puts you in a position where you don’t necessarily need to identify with the characters (even though I thought they were funny, I’ve certainly met film students like that), but the situation. A lot of the negative reaction comes from people who don’t really like to be scared and that is why they watch shitty slasher movies all the time, which are anything but frightening. To admit that they might be frightened shows an element of weakness, especially when all of their friends tell them how scared they were. So it becomes the equivalent of bragging rights, “That movie didn’t scare me. You’re a pussy.”
In film, there are a few generally effective ways to scare people:
1) Atmosphere and mood. Effective examples include Alien, Dark Water, etc. This way uses deliberate camera movement, lighting effects, an acute sense of the surroundings, and many other elements.
2) Objects jumping in and out of frame at random intervals and at inopportune moments. This is the staple of the slasher movie and is the cheapest and least satisfying ways to scare people. It is a wholly unearned jump and is the equivalent of a stinger (a loud noise, otherwise known as an Event Horizon) on the soundtrack. Often the two are used together. I’m sure it would take most of you about 4 seconds to come up with 30 or more examples.
3) The unknown: Either an exploration of something that has never been seen before or literally the unseen. This is why The Exorcist has stayed popular, but is the same reason that BWP is so effective. Sometimes the unknown is put into images rather graphically, in the case of The Exorcist, sometimes not. A key portion of the unknown is that the setting must be realistic, the characters recognizable, the situations palpable.
In the past few years, I have only been truly unnerved by two movies, Kairo (Pulse) and The Blair Witch Project. Both films fall into category #3, even if they have little else in common. Blair Witch works for me because I could never see what they were running from, it was always just off screen, and I had to imagine for myself, which I know most people don’t like to have to do. The film is the perfect example of the slow build, you can feel the dread laying brick inside you as it goes along. The fact that the way the movie was made has become completely public knowledge doesn’t help the viewer suspend disbelief, but if you can forget about that during the 78 minutes, the movie should serve its purpose. Those who complain that you never see anything, that you wish the filmmakers had provided an inkling of what was so frightening to the characters, forget that whatever you think it looks like is definitely more scary than whatever they could show you, and the shot of Heather looking upon one of her comrades hanging from the ceiling, but we only see him from the torso down, is one of the most horrifying images in history.
I knew that the movie was as effective as it could be when, right after the last scene, I was shaking in my seat, and the couple next to me, a tiny little Hispanic man with a mouth full of gold teeth and a huge black woman with glasses and Tammi Faye makeup, looked at her boyfriend and said, “What the fuck was that? That sucked. Let’s go see [the 1999 remake of] The Haunting.”
Certainly the hype nor the insultingly terrible sequel didn’t help the status and reaction that the public now has to The Blair Witch Project.