(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)
The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 13
1. The Blair Witch Project dir. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
the scariest movie I’ve ever seen
Well, here we are: Blair Witch. Let me say right off the bat that I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind here. This is a movie for which the phrase “you either love it or hate it” was invented. I remember seeing it on opening night in a theatre: Half the audience booed and yelled at the screen as the closing credits rolled, while the other half looked as though they’d just been eyewitnesses to a plane crash. With most films you can argue that people just didn’t “get it,” but it’s different with this movie: It gets you. Or it doesn’t. A lot depends on where you first see it, how you’d heard about it, the kind of mood you were in, and (I think) the kind of mood you allowed yourself to be in. So yeah, this movie gets you, or it doesn’t.
Good God, did it ever get me.
Opening night, August 1999, was not the first time I saw Blair Witch. That was actually back in June of that same summer. At the time I was working for Troma Studios, progenitors of the Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, and various other rubber-masked individuals you see at the San Diego Comic-Con or on E! Entertainment Television. The Troma Team had just gotten back from their yearly expedition to the Cannes Film Festival, which took place just before I began interning at the company. Along with the usual tales of living 20 people to a room and having your picture snapped by hundreds of paparazzi while dressed as a man-eating condom, my coworkers had brought back a videotape. It was given to them by the makers of The Blair Witch Project, who, it turns out, were enormous Troma fans. (I guess Troma is an inspiration for anyone who wants to make a movie for less than no money, although clearly the Blair Witch people emphasized Troma’s can-do spirit and not so much their fondness for exploding heads.) They gave them a copy of their movie, which was just beginning to garner some attention during its screenings at the festival, as a gift. Needless to say the Troma folks were quite excited: Horror-film true-believers to a man (and woman), they were up for anything, as long as it was frightening. Before long copies were making the rounds of the whole staff, and I remember being quite excited when I finally got mine. There was no hype, no stories in Newsweek or Time proclaiming this the scariest film in history and touting its micro-budget blockbuster status, no appearances on late-night and early-morning talk shows to publicize it, no endless parodies consisting of people talking into videocameras. All I knew when I took my copy home was that it was a mockumentary, and that it was scary.
That weekend I dutifully summoned my buddy Dave G. (the cartoonist currently known as Davey Oil), the guy who forces me to call myself the second biggest horror fan I know. By the time Dave and I got around to putting the thing into the VCR, it was late–I think around 11 o’clock or so. The house was quiet, and it was dark outside. We sat back and began to watch.
I’m not sure at what point it began to dawn on me that I had never, literally never, been so scared in my entire life. I think it might have been when the three student filmmakers woke up to find someone had constructed little rock monuments around their tent that Dave and I began saying “oh, shit” compulsively. I remember that around the third nightfall or so, when the tent was shaken, that my heart was pounding so hard it was actually uncomfortable and my stomach had that feeling it gets when you narrowly avoid a car accident. People, we were completely terrified. There wasn’t a single level on which this film didn’t work for us–the realistically pointless vulgarity of the kids’ speech, the endless grays and browns of the video-taped forest, the way in which the lights from the camera illuminated just this much of the night, leaving so much of it ripe for possession by something… other. Even the fact that the Troma copies were the rough-sound edit enhanced the experience: though we couldn’t hear what the characters could when noises awoke them during the night, we wanted to, and we sat on the edge of our seats and strained our ears and damned if our minds didn’t provide a soundtrack that more than adequately scared the wits out of us.
And then–and then–the final scene. This time the yelling in the distance we could hear, and I still wish, when I hear it again, that I couldn’t. The panicky running of Mike & Heather, that house looming up out of nowhere–my God, I was shaking, shaking hard. And then they went inside–no, please don’t! I still vividly remember thinking to myself, almost in an abstract fashion, that if an old woman’s smiling face were to appear in one of those (many, goddamn it) windows I would literally collapse in fear. Then up to the top floor, then yelling that “I hear him downstairs!”, then running into that basement, turning a corner– Heather following, screaming over and over again, past the handprints and scrawled gibberish on the walls, down the stairs, around the corner– oh my God, what is he doing? WHAT IS HE DOING IN THE CORNER?
Dave and I sat for a moment, staring at the credits as they rolled by. Then slowly, we turned to each other. Our eyes widened. “Holy shit,” we said, almost in unison, “what a scary fucking movie.” There is almost no way in which I could exaggerate how horrified we were by that film that night. Despite the fact that at this point I had to urinate so badly it was painful, I think it took us 45 minutes to actually work up enough nerve to get out of our chairs and move to another part of the house to go to the bathroom. Since the bathroom was one of those deals where the fan comes on automatically with the light, thus making it difficult to hear what’s going on the other side of the door if it’s closed, I forced Dave to walk with me to the bathroom, stand outside, and continuously talk to me as loudly as possible while I peed, just so I could be sure that he was still there and hadn’t disappeared. At some point we realized it was late and I had to drive him back to his house on the other side of town. This was a genuinely harrowing ordeal. We were scared of the distance from my door to the car. During the car ride, we were scared of the back of the car itself, which was way too dark for us to be able to handle it. We were scared of the way the headlights illuminated the night–way, way too much like those camera lights for comfort. When we finally got to Dave’s house, it took us another 15 minutes to build up the courage to actually allow Dave to exit the car, walk the 20 feet or whatever to the back door, and go inside. Then I had to drive back to the house alone, making the back of the car even more frightening and making every dark street I passed by a goddamn nightmare. Then I had to navigate the space between the car and the house myself, then walk through the entire dark, empty, silent ground floor–past the freaking television where the freaking movie was just playing, for the love of God!–by myself, walk up those creaky stairs (stairs!) by myself, and turn the light on in my room without having a heart attack from thinking that something would be in there waiting for me. I say it again: this was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.
A few weeks later, I brought the movie with me on a trip with some friends to a cabin in the woods upstate. At this point I was still terrified by the movie, but enjoyed the experience enough to subject others to it. And they were outraged by how scared they got. One girl called it “emotional porn” and was furious at the filmmakers for having made something so completely harrowing (and she’s no anti-horror puritan–she was just scared half to death).
And then a few weeks after that was the premiere in theatres. This was a very different experience–better in some ways (watching a crowd of strangers have the bloody bejesus scared out of them was fun; some of the more grating lines of dialogue, ones that didn’t ring true, were cut; and of course the sounds from around the tent were now fully audible), worse in others (the disappointed/pissed off moviegoers who booed; the fact that the movie really does work better as an unlabeled nth-generation bootleg than as a big-screen projection).
The main difference, though, involved the ending. This is a spoiler, so far as it goes: The final image consists of Mike standing in a corner. In the version I originally saw, no explanation was ever given for what the hell was going on here. None. So either he’s dead, and something has propped him up, or he’s a live, and—uuhhhhhh GOD I don’t even want to think about it. However, in the theatrical version, a man-on-the-street interview was added to the collection of such snippets at the film’s beginning, in which a local claims that the serial killer once inspired/possessed by the Witch would take kids into the basement two at a time, and make one face the corner while he killed the other. So we switch from a nameless horror that I’m still trying to scrape out of my brain to a “hey lookout she’s over there!!!” kinda moment. It’s a lousy tradeoff, as even the actress Heather Donahue seemed to notice–though she didn’t specify what she was talking about, she feistily pointed out on Leno that week that she and the other two actors had shot everything in the film themselves “except one thing.” She wasn’t happy about that one thing, let me tell you. Neither was I, but so what? I’d done without it, to my everlasting horror and delight. And I’ve never gotten around to buying the official, DVD version of the film. That grainy tape is, for better or for worse, and mainly for better, I think, the way I will watch this movie.
Are there movies that are, as a whole, scarier than this one? Yes, I’d probably have to say so. The Shining, and probably The Exorcist, and maybe even Texas Chain Saw and The Ring are packed wall-to-wall with terrifying images and relentless ante-upping horror. Blair Witch has sticks and stones. But it relies on the strength of its stars–three humans, and their collective fear. If you see it in the right way, at the right time, with the right people, that fear overtakes you. And you’re there in the basement, standing in the corner.