The Blair Witch Project
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Sep 19 09:15:10 MDT 1999
The "Blair Witch Project" is the most profitable movie in American history.
Made at a cost of $30,000, it returned $48 million in its first week of
wide release. Its huge box-office success, threadbare production values and
offbeat approach to the horror genre have generated widespread discussion.
What does "The Blair Witch Project" mean for movie-making in general?
Furthermore, what does its dark theme tell us about the mood of the
American society, particularly among the youth who have catapulted it into
Before discussing these questions, it would be worthwhile to consider the
film as film. Made by two neophyte directors, 35 year old Daniel Myrick and
30 year old Eduardo Sanchez, it depicts in self-referential fashion--but
importantly, absent any sense of irony--the making of a student documentary
in the woods of Maryland where according to legend a homicidal witch dwells.
The student director Heather (Heather Donohue) is accompanied only by
Michael the cameraman (Michael Williams) and soundman Joshua (Joshua
Leonard). With packs on their back, they descend into the forest on
Halloween looking for interesting footage to use in their film, most
particularly a cemetery where victims of the witch are buried--mostly
children. Heather is a compulsive film-maker and takes shots continuously,
including bags of marshmallows in a supermarket where they have stocked up
for the hike, and of a dead mouse on the side of the trail. The two young
men occasionally get annoyed at her, but she insists that she is serious
about her documentary and wants to get in as much footage as possible. She
is in control not only of the film--perhaps overly so, but of their safety
as well. She has a map that they keep referring to as they make their way
deeper and deeper into the gloomy autumn woods.
Not too long after they have entered the depths of the forest, they begin
to notice spooky piles of stones on the ground and stick figures hung from
the branches of trees. At night in their tent they hear indistinct cries
outside in the distance. Although nobody ever sees their source, they are
continuously on their minds. Heather takes it all in stride since all of
these elements will only help to make her film more interesting.
The mood of the film changes drastically when it is discovered that Josh
the soundman has thrown the map into a brook as a gesture of defiance
against the overbearing Heather. At first the three head due south in hopes
of running into a settled area, but after a sixteen hour hike they end up
exactly where they started out from. At night, after pitching their tent,
they again hear the eerie cries from within the forest, which seem closer now.
The three young film-makers eventually succumb to the dark forces of the
forest and the film purports to be based on their footage, which survived
them. An elaborate website (www.blairwitch.com) has been created to fill in
details that were left out of the theatrical release. But in keeping with
the mock documentary spirit of the film, the website assumes that the
events depicted in the film actually took place.
"The Blair Witch Project" is really not a movie about ghosts, witches and
monsters. It is about insecurity and it is very good at capturing the
genuinely creepy fears that everybody has about being lost in the woods. It
is a noir version of the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy and her
companions are beset by hostile trees in a dark, haunted forest. In a July
11, 1999 interview with the NY Daily News, co-director Myrick says, "What
[we] were going after was identifiability. . .Do you identify with the
fear? Being lost in the woods, everyone's felt that."
Working on a shoe-string budget, the directors and cast improvised the
dialog. They also worked in tense conditions not unlike those that the
film's characters found themselves in. A Newsweek article on the film
reports that "Though the actors would pass an occasional jogger, they began
to feel cut off from the safety of the civilized world."
Since the film has captured the imagination of the public despite lacking
all of the accoutrements of blockbuster films--no film track, no special
effects, no stars--many journalists and academics have looked closely at it
to try to figure out what it reflects about American society.
In an August 31, 1999 NY Times article on "The Blair Witch Project" and
"Sixth Sense", another blockbuster horror movie, Robert Sklar, a New York
University professor on the editorial board of the left-wing film magazine
Cineaste, speculated that its popularity might be driven by unease about
the millennium. People are "spooked by all the things that are coming up at
this time." He added that the horror genre has always been cyclical, and
that its moments of highest popularity have coincided with moments of
extreme social and cultural dislocation.
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Nosferatu" were popular as silent films
in Europe following the real horrors of World War I and Hollywood horror
films such as "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" made their mark in the early
1930's, when Americans were struggling with economic depression. In the
1950's, as Americans were troubled by the atomic age and the cold war,
films like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Invasion of the Body
Snatchers" depicted alien invaders, giant bugs and nuclear experiments gone
According to an August 22, 1999 article in the British Independent
newspaper, Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of
Southern California's School of Cinema and Television, believes that new
interest in the horror genre is linked to America's geopolitical climate.
When the enemy was more clearly defined, as in the case of the former
Soviet Union, then the monsters in horror movies could be more clearly and
logically. With the collapse of Communism, he maintains, "You see the US in
a bit of disarray in terms of self-representation ... The evil is not so
clear in our imagination."
Boyd views the crude hand-held camerawork and lack of even rudimentary set
designs as an attempt to control the technology that had been the province
of Hollywood experts. "By having fear 'in our own hands' rather than
waiting for it to be evoked by visual or aural cues, we reassert some
measure of power in an age of cynicism and impotency."
What such commentaries on the film seem to miss, however, is the importance
of the forest in defining the film's attitude toward the supernatural. The
forest, as much as the witch lurking within it, is a terrifying force, not
unlike Moby Dick or Stephen Spielberg's Great White Shark in "Jaws." This
is not the Arcadian ideal depicted in a Audubon Society calendar, but a
hostile and unpredictable entity that can gobble you up with no warning.
The young film-makers probably did not have this history in mind when they
sat down to write the scenario for "The Blair Witch Project," but for as
long as humanity has considered its environment, the forest has often
appeared as some kind of hostile force that needed to be subdued. Such fear
of the woods had much to do with European hostility toward the American
Indian who seemed not only at home there, but who felt no need to tame it.
It is appropriate, therefore, in such mythology for a witch to reside in
the forest since such a creature not only represents defiance of civilized
Christian values, but a belief that we are part of nature ourselves.
Engels writes in "The Dialectics of Nature": "Thus at every step we are
reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a
foreign people, like someone standing outside nature -- but that we, with
flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that
all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over
all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly."
While I am writing this review, helicopters and trucks are spraying
Malathion over the five boroughs of New York City in an effort to kill
encephalitis-bearing mosquitoes. While city government officials claim that
the insecticide is "harmless," they urge New Yorkers to remain indoors
while the spraying is in progress. Since the virus was early in August,
mosquito experts around the country have been surprised and befuddled that
St. Louis encephalitis has turned up so far north and east.
But the environmentalist Rachel's Weekly (www.rachels.org) cites scientists
who attribute northern migration of plants and animals to global warming.
As northern regions become more like the south, mosquitoes that carry
diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and encephalitis
extend their range, and move to higher elevations --thus threatening larger
human populations with exposure to serious infectious diseases.
Perhaps the insecurities about the forest in "The Blair Witch Project" are
an unconscious projection of such real-life horrors, bred by a capitalist
system run amok.
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