The Blair Witch Project (1999)
When the found-footage film The Blair Witch Project first opened in theaters, a rumor fueled by a remarkable marketing campaign gave the impression that the film was real footage recovered a year after the people in the movie had gone missing, making the movie all the more frightening for those not in the know. (This was before the internet could truly be used to confirm or deny.)
The film follows three college student filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard) as they create a documentary based on the local legend of the Blair Witch, the ghost of Elly Kedward of the 1700s, whom several children accused of luring them to her home in the woods in an attempt to hurt them. Kedward was found guilty of witchcraft, left in the woods during a harsh winter, and presumed dead. Kedward’s accusers, along with half of the town’s children, soon vanished.
Traveling to Burkittsville, Maryland, formerly known as Blair, Heather, Mike and Josh interview locals about what they’ve heard about the legend of the Blair Witch. The locals tell them about Rustin Parr, who kidnapped seven children in the 40s and brought them to his house in the woods where he tortured and murdered them. Parr brought the children into his basement in pairs, forcing the first child to face the corner and listen to their friend’s screams as he murdered the other child. Eventually turning himself in to police, Parr pleaded insanity, saying that the spirit of a witch had been terrorizing him and promised to leave him alone if he murdered the children. They also interview a disturbed woman named Mary Brown, who claims to have seen the Blair Witch and describes her as half-woman, half-beast.
The filmmakers then take to the woods to look for evidence that the Blair Witch exists. Along the way, they run into two fishermen who warn them that the woods are haunted and recall that in the 1880s, a young girl named Robin Weaver went missing, and when she returned three days later, she allegedly claimed to have seen “an old woman whose feet never touched the ground.” Although Weaver returned, one of the search parties did not; their bodies were found at Coffin Rock tied together at the arms and legs and disemboweled. Heather, Josh and Mike decide to hike there.
The next day they move deeper in the woods; Heather claims to know where they are going despite being uncertain of their exact location on the map. They eventually stumble upon a very old cemetery with seven small cairns, where Josh accidentally disturbs one. After setting up camp and going to sleep, they wake up to crackling sounds in the distance that seem to be coming from all directions.
Throughout their journey, they unknowingly head deeper and deeper into the woods, and each night they are faced with terrifying, loud sounds that only get worse with time, and they’re left with some sort of gifts on the outside of their tent when they wake up each morning. One morning they find three cairns outside their tent. (It freaks me out just thinking about that. If that happened to me I would lose. my. shit.) Wanting to keep everyone calm, Josh says that the noises are probably being caused by local rednecks; though Mike agrees, he worries that if someone came that far out into the woods just to mess with them, they might be worth being afraid of. When one night something begins to violently shake their tent, they panic and run away screaming.
Heather later realizes the map is missing and after arguing continuously, Mike, who has started to lose his cool since they’ve been lost, reveals he kicked it into a creek the previous day out of frustration because it wasn’t helping them. Heather begins to cry as they realize they have no way of knowing where they are or how to get home. The acting here is top notch; their frustrations with each other and their feelings of hopelessness are realistic and relatable. I’d be acting exactly like that if I were in their situation. They hatch a plan to head south, thinking that if they keep going in one direction, they are bound reach the end of the woods at some point.
As they keep moving, they reach a log over a stream that was identical to the one they had passed earlier. The three of them are incredulous as they have no idea how they could have been constantly traveling south while making a big circle. As they continue to find nightmarish figurines in trees as they are lost, they begin to turn on each other, at each others throats constantly. The feeling of desperation and panic is palpable.
When they wake the next morning, Heather and Mike find that Josh has disappeared. That night, they hear Josh screaming in the darkness but can’t decipher where exactly the screams are coming from. The last morning, Heather finds a bundle of sticks and fabric outside the tent filled with a blood-soaked piece of Josh’s shirt, teeth, hair, and what looks like a tongue. In the infamous scene of Heather filming herself as she hyperventilates, she completely breaks down, understanding that she probably is not going to ever make it home.
Later that night, they hear Josh’s cries for help again, so they follow the sound of his voice in an attempt to locate him. They discover an abandoned house in the woods (quite possibly the creepiest house/set up I’ve ever seen) where the screams seem to be coming from, and they race inside to get to Josh. Throughout the house, in one of the most haunting scenes in horror cinema, children’s hand prints are seen as Mike and Heather frantically search the house for Josh. Mike hears Josh in the basement and runs downstairs; after a quick struggle, he drops the camera and goes silent. Heather enters the basement while she screams in absolute terror as her camera catches Mike facing the corner, just as the locals had described Parr murdering children. Heather drops the camera as she is hit with something from behind, and the footage ends.
When a movie can give me the chills after I’ve seen it so many times, then I know it’s a quality horror film. Even for those who aren’t fans of the found footage genre, this movie is a must watch. The historical aspect is a refreshing touch, and the direction is top notch. If you’ve convinced people that this really happened, and the actors’ desperation and fear translates through the screen, then you know you’ve done your job well.
We never see who has been stalking the trio. Was it some weird country bumpkin locals who didn’t like them poking around? Was it Mary Brown? We never see Josh once they reach the house he has drawn them to with his screams…was it him, possessed after disturbing the cairns, killing the other two in a pair just as Parr had? Or was it the Blair Witch herself?
Jessica's Final Review
As I was writing this review, I was getting the chills. Getting lost in the woods is a real thing that can happen to anyone, and the woods at night are universally creepy. The viewer can feel the panic, fear and utter hopelessness as if we are there with them. Though we never see the Blair Witch, I believe that is what makes this film so compelling. We never know who could be out there, especially in a secluded house where no one can hear your screams.