Tuesday 24 January 2017

We Don't Go Back #32: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

I admit, I have been trying to catch this lightning in a bottle for a long time. Most of my fiction revolves around the idea of documenting the effects of a fictional thing that someone out there believes might actually be.
You can draw a line from Borges, and his reviews of never-were books, to this and beyond, although not, as you might think, from Cannibal Holocaust, and not to things like Cloverfield, which are not the same, since they are framed as fiction with the device of found film as the medium, as a thing obviously fictional; The Blair Witch Project meanwhile has the vehicle the point of the exercise. Arguably few films so exemplify McLuhan's axiom, the medium is the message.

Filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick legendarily made their stars their victims in a days-long hazing probably only surpassed by the abuses Hitchcock heaped upon his leading ladies. The three luckless youths lost in the woods aren't afraid in the way that people in films are, they get afraid and spooked like people who aren't acting.
This is the film they took. This is not a film within a film, nor is it a movie made to look like it was shot on handheld devices with special effects added later. It's footage of three people lost in the woods becoming increasingly scared that they might not come home.
Film is like quantum physics; the action of observation changes the nature of the phenomenon it views, but still, the question of whether Heather, Mike and Josh are convincing is irrelevant; there is nothing of which there is any need to convince us. They are actually afraid. In character they are lost. Out of character there is the slightest sense that they are wondering, at least a little, if Sanchez and Myrick are not film directors, and are trying to harm them. At any rate, their frustration and fatigue, their short tempers, these are not cinematic emotions. Heather, Josh and Mike lose the plot like real people do.
The 1999 tie-in comic that Oni Press produced eschews adapting or extending the story, instead purporting to be an adaptation of things produced by a person damaged by the Burkittsville haunting, and even includes a lengthy introduction and a set of footnotes; the only concession it makes that it is a work of fiction is the usual any resemblance to persons living or dead disclaimer in the small print at the bottom of the inside front cover, and it's the smallest small print I've ever seen. It's one of the best pieces of tie-in merchandise I have ever seen because it stays with the central conceit: this is real. 

Sequels exist. In many cases, sequels are pointless; here their pointlessness damages the original. Ignore them.
What I'm trying to say is that while the mythology that The Blair Witch Project creates is classic folk horror, with its witches and ghosts and creepy old hermits in the woods that murder children, the actual folk horror merit of The Blair Witch Project is that it is in and of itself as much of an artifact as a book about True Hauntings, or John Keel's work on the Mothman, or a sensationalist exposé of UFO contactees. It's not a narrative of folk horror; it is not about folk horror. It is a creditable attempt to create folk horror in and of itself, a folklore, a story that is more than just a movie. It tries to be something other than a movie, to leave behind the closed-off world of cinema and acting and become something more real.1

1Look, you know how The Blair Witch Project goes. Three student filmmakers (Heather Donohue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, playing characters with the same names as themselves) are researching a documentary about a cycle of folklore in the backwoods of Maryland, and the stories include a ghost, a hermit who murders children in his shack, a witch. They talk to some locals and then head off into the woods, expecting to be back tomorrow, and they're not; they get more and more lost, they get tormented in the night by strange noises and movements, and find little piles of rocks, dolls made of twigs, and then something happens to them and they vanish, and the bulk of the film is the footage they took while lost because of Heather's (and, eventually, Mike's) obsessive urge to document everything. The relationships between the three develop in different ways; Heather is demanding, Josh is laid-back and Mike is impatient, and these things rise to a head and then alter as each of them loses patience with the others, and breaks down and is reduced to a more elemental, honest self by exhaustion, frustration and rising dread. And the honesty, the empathy that they eventually find for each other, these things do not save them.

You have to buy into this film. I recall that I went to the cinema to see this with three friends, and I thought it was excellent and the others absolutely hated it. It isn't what you expect to see, even if you've been primed for it. You're expecting a haunting, and instead you get three young people, none of them terribly likeable, just normal people, getting increasingly lost, tired and afraid, like real people do, not film actors. To get the most out of The Blair Witch Project, you require a conscious act of empathy unlike that you normally engage for a film's characters.