Blair Witch Project
The "Blair Witch Project" is the most profitable movie in American history. Made at a cost of $30,000, it returned $48 million in its first week of wide release. Its huge box-office success, threadbare production values and offbeat approach to the horror genre have generated widespread discussion. What does "The Blair Witch Project" mean for movie-making in general? Furthermore, what does its dark theme tell us about the mood of the American society, particularly among the youth who have catapulted it into success?
Before discussing these questions, it would be worthwhile to consider the film as film. Made by two neophyte directors, 35 year old Daniel Myrick and 30 year old Eduardo Sanchez, it depicts in self-referential fashion--but importantly, absent any sense of irony--the making of a student documentary in the woods of Maryland where according to legend a homicidal witch dwells.
The student director Heather (Heather Donohue) is accompanied only by Michael the cameraman (Michael Williams) and soundman Joshua (Joshua Leonard). With packs on their back, they descend into the forest on Halloween looking for interesting footage to use in their film, most particularly a cemetery where victims of the witch are buried--mostly children. Heather is a compulsive film-maker and takes shots continuously, including bags of marshmallows in a supermarket where they have stocked up for the hike, and of a dead mouse on the side of the trail. The two young men occasionally get annoyed at her, but she insists that she is serious about her documentary and wants to get in as much footage as possible. She is in control not only of the film--perhaps overly so, but of their safety as well. She has a map that they keep referring to as they make their way deeper and deeper into the gloomy autumn woods.
Not too long after they have entered the depths of the forest, they begin to notice spooky piles of stones on the ground and stick figures hung from the branches of trees. At night in their tent they hear indistinct cries outside in the distance. Although nobody ever sees their source, they are continuously on their minds. Heather takes it all in stride since all of these elements will only help to make her film more interesting.
The mood of the film changes drastically when it is discovered that Josh the soundman has thrown the map into a brook as a gesture of defiance against the overbearing Heather. At first the three head due south in hopes of running into a settled area, but after a sixteen hour hike they end up exactly where they started out from. At night, after pitching their tent, they again hear the eerie cries from within the forest, which seem closer now.
The three young film-makers eventually succumb to the dark forces of the forest and the film purports to be based on their footage, which survived them. An elaborate website (www.blairwitch.com) has been created to fill in details that were left out of the theatrical release. But in keeping with the mock documentary spirit of the film, the website assumes that the events depicted in the film actually took place.
"The Blair Witch Project" is really not a movie about ghosts, witches and monsters. It is about insecurity and it is very good at capturing the genuinely creepy fears that everybody has about being lost in the woods. It is a noir version of the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy and her companions are beset by hostile trees in a dark, haunted forest. In a July 11, 1999 interview with the NY Daily News, co-director Myrick says, "What [we] were going after was identifiability. . .Do you identify with the fear? Being lost in the woods, everyone's felt that."
Working on a shoe-string budget, the directors and cast improvised the dialog. They also worked in tense conditions not unlike those that the film's characters found themselves in. A Newsweek article on the film reports that "Though the actors would pass an occasional jogger, they began to feel cut off from the safety of the civilized world."
Since the film has captured the imagination of the public despite lacking all of the accoutrements of blockbuster films--no film track, no special effects, no stars--many journalists and academics have looked closely at it to try to figure out what it reflects about American society.
In an August 31, 1999 NY Times article on "The Blair Witch Project" and "Sixth Sense", another blockbuster horror movie, Robert Sklar, a New York University professor on the editorial board of the left-wing film magazine Cineaste, speculated that its popularity might be driven by unease about the millennium. People are "spooked by all the things that are coming up at this time." He added that the horror genre has always been cyclical, and that its moments of highest popularity have coincided with moments of extreme social and cultural dislocation.
"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Nosferatu" were popular as silent films in Europe following the real horrors of World War I and Hollywood horror films such as "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" made their mark in the early 1930's, when Americans were struggling with economic depression. In the 1950's, as Americans were troubled by the atomic age and the cold war, films like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" depicted alien invaders, giant bugs and nuclear experiments gone awry.
According to an August 22, 1999 article in the British Independent newspaper, Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema and Television, believes that new interest in the horror genre is linked to America's geopolitical climate. When the enemy was more clearly defined, as in the case of the former Soviet Union, then the monsters in horror movies could be more clearly and logically. With the collapse of Communism, he maintains, "You see the US in a bit of disarray in terms of self-representation ... The evil is not so clear in our imagination."
Boyd views the crude hand-held camerawork and lack of even rudimentary set designs as an attempt to control the technology that had been the province of Hollywood experts. "By having fear 'in our own hands' rather than waiting for it to be evoked by visual or aural cues, we reassert some measure of power in an age of cynicism and impotency."
What such commentaries on the film seem to miss, however, is the importance of the forest in defining the film's attitude toward the supernatural. The forest, as much as the witch lurking within it, is a terrifying force, not unlike Moby Dick or Stephen Spielberg's Great White Shark in "Jaws." This is not the Arcadian ideal depicted in a Audubon Society calendar, but a hostile and unpredictable entity that can gobble you up with no warning.
The young film-makers probably did not have this history in mind when they sat down to write the scenario for "The Blair Witch Project," but for as long as humanity has considered its environment, the forest has often appeared as some kind of hostile force that needed to be subdued. Such fear of the woods had much to do with European hostility toward the American Indian who seemed not only at home there, but who felt no need to tame it. It is appropriate, therefore, in such mythology for a witch to reside in the forest since such a creature not only represents defiance of civilized Christian values, but a belief that we are part of nature ourselves.
Engels writes in "The Dialectics of Nature": "Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature -- but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly."
While I am writing this review, helicopters and trucks are spraying Malathion over the five boroughs of New York City in an effort to kill encephalitis-bearing mosquitoes. While city government officials claim that the insecticide is "harmless," they urge New Yorkers to remain indoors while the spraying is in progress. Since the virus was early in August, mosquito experts around the country have been surprised and befuddled that St. Louis encephalitis has turned up so far north and east.
But the environmentalist Rachel's Weekly (www.rachels.org) cites scientists who attribute northern migration of plants and animals to global warming. As northern regions become more like the south, mosquitoes that carry diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and encephalitis extend their range, and move to higher elevations --thus threatening larger human populations with exposure to serious infectious diseases.
Perhaps the insecurities about the forest in "The Blair Witch Project" are an unconscious projection of such real-life horrors, bred by a capitalist system run amok.