I’ve said quite a few times in my reviews that some of the scariest and unnerving villains in movie history are scary because they are realistic and/or human, meaning that a person like that could exist in real life. And that is what creates the scare factor. Now this could also go hand-in-hand with plotlines and characters, in that what’s scariest in a film is usually something that can actually happen in real life. The makers of this next film realised the potential of that and ended up creating one of the biggest and most famous independent films of all time. Let’s go even deeper and see if we can uncover the mystery...
We’re told that in 1994 three film students disappeared while hiking in the woods and that we are watching their footage...
Our three students are Heather Donaghue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams and they are making a documentary about the legend of a witch’s ghost in the Burkitsville woods. After finishing one day of shooting interviews in the town, the three go into the woods to get some shots there. Only problem is they get lost and they continue to stay lost as they travel around in circles. Things get worse as they hear strange noises at night and find strange rock formations outside their tent. It seems that they aren’t alone in the woods but there’s nobody to be found anywhere. Could this legend of the Blair Witch be true? Then we remember that the three of them are never seen again.
Now this film holds a record for the biggest ratio of budget: box office since it only cost $22,000 to make and raked in millions at the box office. One of the cameras was bought at Wall-Mart and returned after shooting was done, while the 16mm camera was sold on E-Bay. The three main actors shot most of the film and were only given a rough outline of the plot, as well as being told that the legend of the Blair Witch was real (it was made up by the film’s creators). The filmmakers resorted to a ton of different tactics to get genuine fear responses out of them, such as shaking the tent at night and making noises when they weren’t prepared for them. Even the scene where they realise they’ve gone around in a circle was real too (the actors got lost a grand total of three times during the 8 days of shooting). When it was released there was an extensive marketing campaign where it was billed as real footage (and many people still believe that, despite what the closing credits say) complete with missing posters. The three actors were even listed as “missing, presumed dead” on the IMDb.
I guess one of the main things that made people believe this film was real is that you never actually see the Blair Witch and all that’s heard is voices and sounds outside the tent in the woods. That way there’s no obvious looking bad special effect that stands out (see Alien Abduction: The Macpherson Tape where everything is pretty good until they actually show the aliens) and it just makes the thing more malevolent since you can’t see it. Another thing that makes this film disturbing to watch (aside from getting to those people who vomited due to all the shaky-cam) is how you see the characters slowly unravel. At the start they are nice normal college students and we’ve been told in advance that they will go missing and never be found. Slowly as they get lost they begin to lose their minds and give up hope. Truly one of the most disturbing scenes to watch is where Josh has the camera right up in Heather’s face yelling at her “why are you still making movies!” and you can see her slowly go from trying to ignore him to breaking down completely. Eventually the madness graduates into despair and hopelessness, and the final scenes are more sad than disturbing since they’ve given up hope.
The way the characters are written and created also adds to the realism and therefore the spookiness of the whole thing. They aren’t clichéd characters at all and the typical elements you’d expect from a horror film are gone i.e. there is no proper jerkass character whom you want to see get offed, the characters aren’t looking for opportunities to get off with each other and there is no one “good” character who you’re sure will survive. Heather is written to be the determined type, the one who desperately wants to keep making a film and when they’re lost and losing hope she says that recording themselves is all she has left. She’s the girl who is confident and self-assured when things are going to plan, but panics and falls apart when things go wrong. Josh is sort of the peacemaker of the group but he is the one who eventually slips into madness first and can be seen giving up hope. Mike is the one who really says what the audience would be saying, asking Heather why she has to film them all the time and he’s kind of the skeptic of the group as well. They all seem like real people and that is what makes watching them slowly unravel so unnerving.
The big scene that everyone loves to talk about is near the end where Heather makes her apology to the camera. She’s completely broken now and all her confidence is gone. Heather acts the hell out of that scene and she manages to shock us and disturb us with how powerful her performance is, even with that bit of snot dripping from her nose. Roger Ebert compared it to Robert Scott writing his last journal entries as he froze to death in the snow. The other famous scene of Heather running through the woods in the middle of the night, in black and white no less, is equally amazing considering you can hear a lot of freaky stuff but you can barely see anything. It’s basically cashing in on your fear of the unknown, milking it for all it’s worth. The final scenes in the house will go down as some of the scariest in movie history, especially if you bank everything on the fact that most people thought this was real when they saw it in cinemas.
So I officially have less days than I’ve done left, if that makes any sense. That’s just me using my own way of speaking that only I can understand. This of course was followed by a stream of imitators though they went the wise route and didn’t market it as real footage. I did enjoy Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and most of the aforementioned Alien Abduction. I haven’t see Rec and Diary of the Dead was alright but they have all felt the influence of this film (and Cannibal Holocaust too) and so has the public. I remember when I was a kid, this was the film that you had to see to prove you weren’t a wuss. I didn’t get to see it until I was fourteen though and then I wasn’t really sure if it was real or not, then I read all about it and found out that yes it wasn’t real. There is a sequel but don’t check it out unless you’re dying to, since it pales in comparison to this. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and don’t let the Blair Witch get you.