Over a decade and a half later, The Blair Witch Project has a power beyond the “real or hoax” hype. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s film is, structurally, utterly basic: three kids, lost in the woods, hunted by something inhuman. It’s never seen (on camera), but it is heard in the night, snapping branches and shuffling stones around; forming cairns and little stick figures; abducting one of the crew and leaving a piece of him behind. The film’s technical innovation–handheld cameras and faux-documentary style which would gestate into the “found footage” genre–would get chewed up by the Hollywood machine that could replicate the superficial details, rather than understand the peculiarities which made it successful.
Blair Witch 1, notably, lacks any formulaic trappings of the horror genre. Obviously, there’s no music cues, but there are no jump scares or fakeouts, either. Once teen filmmakers Heather, Josh, and Mike realize their situation has taken a sinister turn, there is no real levity, only sad attempts to raise spirits in between the bickering and the creeping dread. There’s also a notable shift in format. Early on, it’s established the trio are using two cameras for different purposes: 16mm b&w for their “documentary” about the Blair Witch, and color footage for more “human” filler material–interviews with the townsfolk, general fucking about on the road or in the woods–with accompanying shifts in dialogue (Heather Donahue, as herself, is more staid when 16mm is rolling). As events progress, color overtakes black & white, ‘reality’ stripping out anything resembling cinematic. This is in spite of Heather’s efforts to maintain control as the group begins to turn on itself. In some ways, Sánchez and Myrick have gone a step further than Cannibal Holocaust (another found footage ancestor), banking entirely on raw, naturalist performance and improv, without the use of an assuring framing device.
Like Cannibal Holocaust, there’s a strain of western self-critique running through the film. As Faculty of Horror duo Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West noted, there’s a certain arrogance to the line “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days.” The trio’s notion they can go into the woods with some food, a map and compass, and nothing can go wrong highlighted a tendency in western thought that we are immune from harm. The accidental prescience of this (the film was released more than two full years before 9/11, the amateur video of which would be a third element drawn on by the found footage genre) is heightened in the buildup to the trek. Heather’s opening monologue refers to a series of child deaths associated with the Blair Witch legends. This is expanded upon as happening in the early 1940s (before Pearl Harbor officially drew America across oceans into the conflicts of World War II), and the description of the horrific murders, carried out by a hermit who claimed to be under the Witch’s thrall, is recalled in the film’s closing moments. The link, then and now, is clear: a presumption of invulnerability–whether from rural superstition or blowback from foreign policy–always precipitates tragedy. That this correlation between reality and folklore is communicated, not with ham-fisted metaphor but in the grainy verisimilitude of normal people facing the abnormal, is what makes Blair Witch Project great.