Standard Issue writers are revisiting a film/book/TV series to see if it’s stood the test of time. With ‘lost footage’ horror Unfriended in cinemas, Diane Spencer looks at the most famous example of the genre. Is it still shit-your-pants scary?
What and why: The Blair Witch Project divides – either it’s one of the most terrifying psyche-scarring film events you ever experienced, or it’s an annoying film where very little happens and three idiots who can’t read a map get their Darwinian just desserts.
I am the former. I’ve always had an overactive imagination, once having to build up the courage to leave the bathroom because I was convinced Giger’s Alien was outside. Yes, because intergalactic beings with acid for blood hang around corridors in Dorset.
When I first saw The Blair Witch Project, it was 1999. Our mobile phones were huge, MySpace was the social media site to be on and mainstream movies had always striven to be as slick as possible.
It terrified me so much, I found it impossible to park my car outside my parents’ home at night… well, not without leaping out of it and running full pelt to the door with my hand over my mouth. Dark woodland shapes were now horrifying and, if Giger’s Alien was out there, then so too was the stick-weaving wannabe dentist known as the Blair Witch.
The poster encapsulates it all: “In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary… A year later their footage was found.”
The film’s an edited mixture of their staged takes and ‘behind the scenes’ shots where stuff goes cray-cray. It terrorised and frustrated people, but was so original it was instantly up for parody. The iconic ‘nostril shot’, where Heather Donahue cries her last rites into the camera – “I am so scared right now…” – is easily recognisable when mocked in another film. (Note that Donahue won a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress in this role.)
Found footage is a great genre, as we are seeing things we are not supposed to see, usually at the cost of the ‘filmmaker’. Yet with so many people now using their phones and webcams to vlog with no professional lights or sound, found footage is not as unusual as it was in 1999. Every day people use their phones to record the moment, from happy family gatherings to disasters which end up on national news and, for me, this is what damages a rewatching.
Rated or dated: Well… it’s definitely dated. Although at the time, the lack of associated press and media interviews from the actors involved caused a mass hype that you were actually watching something real. Watching it for the first time, if you’re a person who gets creeped out by noises and the spectre of ‘what might be’ then you’re probably going to really be terrified. But if you’re someone who requires something more solid, like an actual threat beyond piles of rocks and poorly constructed stick dolls, you’re not. The creepy interview of the old woman is interesting because you never get to actually see the witch, but it’s not really got any repeat value.
The Blair Witch Project was a groundbreaker, which frustrated those cigar-chomping movie executives, because this shaky hand-cam ‘student film’ grossed $248 MILLION worldwide, with a budget that wouldn’t cover a Christmas dinner from Waitrose. Well, almost – it was under $1 million, which kinda barely covers the catering in a ‘normal’ film.
“I used to rate The Blair Witch Project because it terrified me, but then, so did a hedgehog once.”
This was not the first found footage film to spawn a genre, though it was the first to really popularise it. The birth of the found footage genre perhaps belongs to director Ruggero Deodata’s 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust. The plot is rather similar in that, in 1979, four documentary filmmakers went into the South American jungles to shoot a film about cannibalism… They too never returned. Thanks to buckets of unnecessary animal cruelty and gory, hyper-realistic shots, the film was seized after 10 days on official release, and Deodata had to prove in court that he hadn’t actually murdered anyone.
I used to rate The Blair Witch Project because it terrified me, but then, so did a hedgehog once. In the wake of other found footage films, such as the Paranormal Activity series, the brilliant Rec series, and even The Bay and George A Romero’s Diary of the Dead, this witch just doesn’t get enough height on her broomstick to stand above them. That’s if she had a broomstick: we never saw anything. The films I listed have that hyper-realistic feeling but also show us the monster. What we see is terrifying and is much more gripping for it. Sadly, The Blair Witch Project is like a Duke of Edinburgh award hike without the attempt to cook pasta in a tangia. DATED.
Read Day Moibi’s review of Unfriended here: http://standardissuemagazine.com/arts/i-know-what-you-put-on-facebook-last-summer1953 Views
Diane Spencer is a standup comedian and writer. Her favourite genres include comedy, horror and sci-fi. Loves halloumi.