Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Film Appreciation - Missing, Presumed Dead

Jay Burleson looks back at the life changing release of The Blair Witch Project for Film Appreciation.


Directed by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams.

The only horror film that I've been fortunate enough to witness the pandemonium around upon its release was the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project.

There are many memories that instantly come to mind when I think of Blair Witch. I can vividly remember watching the faux Sci-Fi documentary based on the "real" legend of the Blair Witch as if it were yesterday. As a kid of just 12 years old I was convinced that all of it was real, and I wanted to believe it. There was nothing that could change my mind. Upon my second theatrical viewing of the film, which my grandmother took me to, she called me out on and it and said, "You know none of that is real!" I wasn't heartbroken by her words, but rather disappointed that she had to remind me. At school, I sported an overly large white T-shirt which featured the three filmmakers' faces with huge bold letters reading: MISSING.

I recall the first time I saw it, a packed showing my mom and I attended together, and the magic that seemed to be in the theater that night. As we took our seats we encountered a woman who was apparently preparing for her second viewing. A conversation briefly ensued, during which the woman told us that she hadn't seen anything this scary since the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Even as a kid, I knew how big of a statement that was. I was psyched, and I ate up what followed on screen. My mom, not so much, but there has rarely been a horror film over the last twenty years that she has felt lived up to the classics of her youth.


For me, Blair Witch changed my life. It led me to a discussion online with a stranger in a chat room. His name was Cody, and we were both posters on a Halloween movie message board. Blair Witch helped us strike up a conversation, and the son of a bitch is still in my life today. In case you haven't figured it out, he's the blog runner for this site. Blair Witch also allowed me to easily make my own films. If that's all it took, then I could finally bring my dream to life, and all I needed was another friend and a handheld video camera. Classics such as "The Redfield Mansion Project", "Area 220", and "The Last Documentary" were all projects I created from the ages of 12-14. If anything, Blair Witch set my idea of what making a film was back by about ten years. Redfield Mansion Project was a documentary about two guys investigating a haunted plantation. The plantation would go on to serve as the main location in my first real attempt at filmmaking, as it became the home of Duke Wolfgang Moonlight in Feast of the Vampires. Area 220 was based around an area of land where 220 people had vanished or died in a certain amount of years, and Last Documentary saw three friends set out to make a documentary about devil worshippers in the woods. I could probably still turn the last two into viable direct-to-video knock-offs.

Blair Witch itself didn't scare me as a kid, but did crawl under my skin. A lot of horror buffs would scoff at the thought of Blair Witch as a classic, but I'm one that accepts it for what it is and what it was able to accomplish. I definitely prefer it over recent popular horror movies of its type, but I guess you could accuse me of being old school, or better yet, just plain nostalgic. If I had been a 12-year-old horror fanatic caught up in the buzz of it all when Paranormal Activity came out, I might be singing an entirely different tune.

I still find the last few minutes of Blair Witch to be 100% effective, and the character drama that had been built up amongst the three was so believable to me that the horror of being lost in those woods felt pretty real. The gritty look of their project, the early '90s setting, and the believable performances from Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams all came together to create a perfect storm. The film starts so casually, with the candid footage of the three together, where they do a good enough job of making us feel like they are real people with a camera. The lost in the woods stuff works on many different levels, but the sounds in the night and crazy twig/rock formations they discover help push things into a satisfying horror realm.

The wonderful job they did marketing the film is definitely one of the top reasons why the film took off the way it did. The documentary they ran on Sci-Fi was a stroke of absolute genius, but the trailers were all short and enticing instead of full of giveaways. You could argue that there isn't much to give away, but here it works wonderfully as they make the viewer eager to learn more. I'm having a hard time describing exactly what I want to say about the feel around the film, and I think calling it magic is the best way to put it. There was a magic in the air for me around the release of this film, even if it was morbid, that has never been topped in my cinematic experiences. It's not even so much that the film was great, which I think it was, but that the build-up and expectations were so high.

This is the type of film that will one day leave me in a theater, explaining to the people next to me that the film they're about to see is the most effective I've seen since The Blair Witch Project. Hopefully the thought of that will mean something to them, and excite them as much as those words excited me back in 1999. Experiences like this in cinema are few and far between, and thats one reason I don't feel the need to revisit Blair Witch very much. The environment I saw it in back in 1999 far exceeds anything that could possibly come of it now, but that's not to say it doesn't hold up. I'd just much rather remember it the same way 12-year-old me did, with all the anticipation and enthusiasm that one can imagine. 

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