Perhaps the only thing really worth discussing here is the editing. In all sincerity, given the subject matter, content and events surrounding the production of The Blair Witch Project, the only artist that truly deserves credit is the guy that sat in a room and picked where and when to cut the ribbons of film and glued them together appropriately. Sure, the camera operators have their moments of brilliance and the sound design is reasonable. But once the action kicks in, they’re easy to forget about. In fact, those kids probably weren’t even trying after a certain point to acheive any artistic vision. They were just trying to stay alive.
It really is hard to review a work of, well, editing such as The Blair Witch Project. Sure, there is some question to the credibility of the events surrounding the entire incident, from the initial disappearance of the “cast,” to the ensuing search, to the discovery of the film equipment in the basement of an abandoned cabin. The investigation was, indeed, kept pretty hush-hush, perhaps the result of a studio realizing it had hit the jackpot once the discovered footage congealed into high-gross, low-cost cinematic form. Like a reverse Citizen Kane, the ensuing litigation was hidden not to prevent the film from striking big, but to capitalize on the lost-film gimmick while not perturbing those whose concerns lay with paying respect to the dead and disappeared. And in the year 1999, the last thing anyone was worried about was whether it was ok to peek in on the final hours of Heather, Josh and Mike.
I, myself, would argue that there is no question that the footage is of reasonable veracity. Let’s talk controversy first; it’s been twelve years since the very concept of footage being taken by defenseless and ill-fated teenagers being voyeuristically discovered was even conceived. Sure, the faux-documentary was made staple with The Legend of Boggy Creek back in 1972, but we’re not talking documentary here. We’re talking a failure of a documentary. The point isn’t that they’re making a documentary; the point is, everything went terribly, terribly wrong, and we’re extended a hand of welcome from three very, very dead corpses to tag along for the ride. It’s not about elucidating key points about a monster or a horror story. It’s not really even a story, at least not in the traditional sense. No one had seen that in 1999. No one was ready for a movie not to be a movie. No one was ready for a story that didn’t pander to them, or what the rules of story-telling demanded. If you’re gonna be a horror movie, at least scare us in ways that we’re used to.
If this wasn’t legit footage, why is there no showmanship? And by no showmanship, I mean not any. Horror movies are supposed to make me jump. The Blair Witch Project doesn’t. Horror movies are supposed to build tension in discreet chunks, have (at least eventually) developed antagonists, terrifying images and those close angle shots that say “there’s something that’s about to jump out from that part of the set where [protagonist] isn’t looking right now!” This is kids that happened to have primitive camera equipment while someone tried to kill them. They didn’t know when anything was going to happen, so they couldn’t build tension. They hardly knew anything about what lurked in the woods of Maryland, so they recorded everything they knew, and rolled the cameras dutifully when anything happened. They never even ended up pointing the camera at anything really meaningful. If this had been constructed, written, premeditated or planned in any way, shape or form, those responsible were morons. Any filmmaker worth his salt could predict that, years after the hype faded that grizzled, jaded film-goers would ask why nothing ever happened and guffaw in disgusted snobbery at the laziness of those who possessed the hands that held the pen and camera.
But there’s that one guy I want to talk about: The guy that did the editing. Going through what had to have been hours upon hours of uncut, unplanned and quite bluntly unentertaining footage, he found exactly what was necessary to tell the story of these kids. With the only traditional, constructed element being the expository footage consisting of the three teenagers discussing their plans and clips of townsfolk interviews, Daniel Myrick, the film’s editor, has constructed a deeply terrifying descent into a Nietzchean hell, and that’s what really made waves in 1999. Sure, that tongue and teeth (or whatever the heck those were) and a clearing populated by furry stick figures hanging from dead trees were shocking and disturbing images before they got hyped out of proportion, but it’s the group dynamics that really hit home. It’s not what’s pursuing them that’s scary. It’s how they respond. In fact, you’re far more likely to have your bones chilled during a viewing of The Blair Witch Project by Heather screaming “What was that?” as she runs in terror, not even daring to point the camera at what she sees, than by any horror that’s ever revealed. Far more unnerving and arresting than slime-covered camping gear is the sequence where we discover that Mike, in a moment of mental meltdown, has thrown the map into the creek. And what single, undying and quite indelible image has stuck around in the decade following The Blair Witch Project’s release? Heather, eyes wide, tears pouring and voice shaky, telling us that she’s going to die out here. Without access to any stock horror images that would be easy money in the film industry, Myrick instead gives us a stunningly constructed series of snapshots that show us purely what’s going on inside the minds of our protagonists, not that which inflicts said horror.
Don’t turn on The Blair Witch Project looking for the story of a monster that kills people. The genius of it is similar to the impetus behind Titanic: Your intuition tells you to expect one thing, but the filmmakers take advantage of your naivety to unveil something far greater. Said love story epic revealed the romance behind the science, the visceral humanity in the CGI-coated, meticulous historical piece. The Blair Witch Project unearths the unknown in the last place you’d expect: The documentary, the search for the known, and thus inverts the very idea that got you into the theater. But it’s impossible to for either film to work unless you shut down your defenses and let them inside your head, eager to go to work on those little impulses that make your vulnerable mind work and toying with the ones you least like having manipulated.