Why I like The Blair Witch Project
1) My first big road trip was a journey to Pasadena to attend the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors with my high school friends. We saw the Munsters' doom buggy, I ran into Marc Dacascos in a hallway, we watched some pro-wrasslin', and I caught the Ghastly Ones live on stage. In between it all, I kept seeing this poster around the convention hall:
This was mercifully before the age of viral marketing, social media, Io9's pop media coverage, or any of the other ways we're all constantly connected to streams of information. I'd heard the missing posters had something to do with a movie that had taken Sundance by storm. The second night we were there, my friends and I scored free tickets to a special late screening at a nearby theater.
2) I had no idea what I was in for, but I was a horror fan surrounded by horror fans. Collectively we'd seen the worst possible films that humanity had to offer. What could some weird little art house movie do to us?
3) The movie started without a lot of preamble. It looked like a genuine documentary about a haunted experience. We knew it was fiction but goshdarnit, it looked so real.
4) Things start getting weird slowly. People get lost, but that's not entirely surprising given that the filmmakers are a bunch of city kids with a camera. They start losing their shit, blaming each other, and falling apart. All the while, the legend that they've been investigating turns out to be true.
5) For me, the tension became quickly unbearable. I was acclimated to horror in from the 80s and early 90s, where everything was obviously artificial. Slashers telegraphed their kills in highly-ritualized kabuki dances. Ghosts had their tiresome dripping walls and spooky sound effects. I'd never seen real people being haunted by something whose rules I couldn't understand. Because I'd been so invested in the genre, most horror movies made me feel like I was an insider, more akin to the monsters and ghosts than the victim. Blair Witch Project put me back in the victim's shoes.
6) As the attacks got worse, I began to wait eagerly for the daylight. The attacks always seemed to ease off once nighttime dissipated. By the end, the characters weren't even safe in the daylight. Then they discovered the old house. . .
7) The scene of Heather making her final confession has been parodied over and over again, but the actual moment has tremendous power to it. She has been pushed past the point of endurance and has no hope left anymore. It's some of the best acting I've ever seen in horror cinema.
8) I'll never forget what happened after the credits rolled. An entire theater full of hardcore horror fans, who had seen he worst of the worst, rose up from their seats silently as one and left the theater. It was eerily quiet. They all acted like the world had ended in front of them. We left the theater into an empty Pasadena street.
Conclusion: Watching The Blair Witch Project for the first time was one of the best experiences of my life. I was completely smitten by the movie and became it's fiercest advocate. Unfortunately, the movie couldn't survive the world-of-mouth of the real world. The shaky cam nausea was a real issue (I have a harder time with it these days) but there were also tons of meatheads who wanted blood and monster make-up. It was a soft touch movie and I admired that. The whole found-footage thing has been done to death but it's still an effective immersive tool. I really like The Blair Witch Project. I know it's become sort of a touchstore of early 90s pop-culture, but it's also one of the most important foundations of modern horror cinema.