The original night of Valentine's Day terror, when the '80s was getting full into the swing of horror. A true slasher classic.
The Blair Witch Project. 1999. Directed/Written by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez.
Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.
Rated 14A. 81 minutes.
I don’t know how people my age look back on The Blair Witch Project now 16 years since it first hit theatres and completely scared the life out of, most, everyone. Personally, as a 14 year old kid when this came out, I remember begging mom and dad to get it for my birthday. Actually it would’ve been on my 14th birthday when I officially saw this film because I believe it was released in the summer of ’99; I turned 14 that October. So honestly, the first I ever saw this the finale especially frightened me to death. I couldn’t go to bed without thinking of someone standing in the corner, facing inward, I was always thinking of that haggard basement, wondering who or what was lurking around its corners. I mean, say what you want but I think this is still one of the best found footage horror movies that has ever come out.
Now, I will concede to some people who say that The Blair Witch Project capitalized on being the first big, mass marketed found footage horror movie. Of course along with that is going to come some part of its fame; whether fame or infamy, time tells. Before this there was the savage horror Cannibal Holocaust – a film so nasty, raw and real in 1980 that Ruggero Deodato actually had to prove he didn’t kill the actors during its making. That I guess is technically the first found footage. There are others after it and before this one. For instance, 84C MoPic is a little independent fake documentary styled film about a missing during the Vietnam War. Then only a year before Blair Witch, there was The Last Broadcast, which could’ve been one of the top found footage films along with this, however, the climax/end completely ruined everything to come before it; unfortunately so, really disappointed me because I thought it was going to be incredible all around.
So The Blair Witch Project is not necessarily overly innovative in its usage of found footage. That being said, this movie benefited from the way it was filmed in that the actors basically were just given minimal script direction, then sent into the woods to be messed with by the film crew and directors. As well as the fact this film was marketed perfectly. Just as the internet took real life and became an entity of its own, sprouting into a near living, breathing thing – right before Facebook and everything else was poised to come alive too – The Blair Witch Project sucked people in with websites, marketing campaigns, and a realistic feel to the film, all combining to leave a huge impact on us culturally in terms of how horror movies would evolve; from how low budget filmmakers would go on to begin breaking into the business in a new way, to how many horror movies would come to be marketed by production companies for years and years to come.
The film follows Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard – three student filmmakers – who during 1994 head into the Black Hills surrounding Burkittsville in Maryland to do a documentary. Their subject is a legend around those parts concerning an entity supposedly named The Blair Witch. Stemming from local stories involving a frightening old woman, as well as a man who committed murder by offing numerous children, Heather and her two companions collect interviews and stories about events that may have involved the witch.
After Heather, Josh, and Michael go missing, their footage is discovered one year later. Once the footage rolls and it is all over, the viewer will be witness to what happened on their fateful trip into the woods. As the three friends walk further and further, it seems they can’t find a way out from the trees, only falling deeper and deeper into unknown territory. First, Josh goes missing when the other two wake and find him gone. Moving on without him, Heather and Michael are scared of what may have happened. Then one night there comes screams from the darkness: it’s Josh. His voice calls out for them, but they can’t figure where it’s coming from. What follows is pure terror.
For me, ultimately, what I find so effectively scary about the film is that it does feel real. To me, anyways. I know it’s not, obviously. Man – if you can’t tell that, especially nowadays in 2015 onwards, then you ought to reevaluate how the hell you’re even watching films.
What’s most real to me are the relationships between Heather, Josh, and Michael. They’re three friends and they have a common bond, they want to go out and make a little documentary; they’re students and they want to do something artistic and fun and interesting and cool. I get that sense from them, as they go on the road, traipse through the woods. Then it’s clearly obvious when things start falling apart they’re friends, because friends always get so vicious and the like when friction like that happens between one another. It all comes full circle anyways, as Heather accepts the blame and gives her video confession. So I thought this was something that helped the film all around. Without a group of people who feel connected and who seem to have relationships – essentially without people who don’t feel REAL – then there’s no way for the suspense and tension of a found footage horror to play out properly.
From the first time I ever saw this movie, right to now as I watch it again, the final scene kills me. When Heather and Michael head into the house, even the look of how rundown it is strikes me as creepy. Plus, there are all the handprints of children littered throughout; on the walls, everywhere. It’s definitely chilling. Not to mention you can hear the moans and cries of Josh somewhere within, but just like his two friends we’re lost and stumbling.
Right at the end, though, is where I’m always creeped out to the fullest lengths. We know about the story of the children being put in the corner, avoiding the eyes watching as he kills the other child – now Michael stands in the corner, facing in, as Heather approaches and then she also tips over, the camera falling and the screen going blurry. I’ve always thought that part came off highly unsettling. There’s some quiet and subdued in this part of the scene whereas before things get pretty chaotic. I like the little lull in pace and intensity as Heather and Michael enter the house and look around, just before the last punch of terror. It’s perfect, if you ask me. Quality ending. In fact, I’ve seen some say it was boring up until the final 10-15 minutes. Maybe to some, I just say the tension and suspense got treated correctly and built up in an appropriate way. Nowadays so many found footage horrors try and go for the jump scares when The Blair Witch Project uses virtually none – you might consider the final shot a jump, however, I don’t at all. Simply a jarring end. I like that this movie went for a slowburn approach. In my opinion it worked and continues to work on me today.
I’ve got to mention how awesome the production of the film is, in the sense that the actors were sent out into the woods and terrorized at points without really having full knowledge of exactly what was about to happen. I’m sure a ton of films have emulated it before in certain ways, and certainly plenty afterwards in their own right, but The Blair Witch Project is one of the first found footage movies to take that to another level. You can genuinely sense the fear in the actors at certain times as they’re careening through the woods, holding cameras, rattling at high speed while they push out into complete darkness with only the camera’s light to guide them. Honestly, if you can kid yourself into believing a ton of this is not real fear in their voices/faces/reactions, then you’re blind! I’m not saying every last bit is all natural, but you can bet your ass there is a good deal of the emotion in this film that came about honestly and in a genuine manner. That’s a big part of why this is such an enduring horror movie, and why it will always be touted as the forerunner of the found footage movement. Not because it was the very first – it was not at all – but merely because of the lasting impact it has had on audiences and the horror genre, as well as the way in which it was acted and filmed.
From the moment I’d stopped watching this movie for the very first time, after the credits rolled and I was fittingly terrified, I knew this was a 5 star film for me. Tonight, as I watched again and revelled in the perpetual terror of those last 15 minutes or more, I counted this again a perfect horror. Maybe it isn’t for others. Maybe some, or many, have gotten plenty sick of The Blair Witch Project by now at this juncture in the genre’s evolution. My opinion is that this will last the test of time, this is always going to scare me and it’s always going to scare a lot of people.
I wish that I could come back to The Blair Witch Project with fresh eyes for the first time, all over again. This is one movie I’ll never forget where I was when I’d seen it, how I felt, so therefore I can’t deny its personal impact on me. It’d be incredible to experience that sort of thing over again, anew once more. Either way, I still get that same old fright with each and every viewing. Of that, I can never ever complain.
The People Under the Stairs. 1991. Directed & Written by Wes Craven.
Starring Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J Langer, and Ving Rhames. Universal Pictures. Rated R. 102 minutes.
★1/2 (Blu ray release)
I really have a thing for Wes Craven. Do you think he knows?
He’s written and directed some incredibly disturbing, unsettling, and wild horror films. Let’s count the great ones, shall we? The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes Part II (maybe I’ll draw some ire by planting that one in here, but I love it, and think it’s unfairly maligned by a lot of critics and horror fans), The Serpent and the Rainbow (directing credit only), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Scream (directing again only).
This is not to mention the bunch of other fun horror films he’s had a had in producing, such as Feast, Wishmaster, and the fantastic remake of his own The Hills Have Eyes. I mean, for A Nightmare on Elm Street alone Craven gets a spot on the top horror masters of all time. Brilliance. But there are a few of his films (such as the aforementioned sequel to his The Hills Have Eyes) which don’t get the credit they deserve.
Cue: The People Under the Stairs.
At first the film could appear to be a crime thriller about some robbers, but (aside from having Craven’s name on it) you can quickly tell it isn’t going to be the same old story. The film starts off with “Fool” Williams living in a ghetto in L.A. His family is soon to be evicted. Luckily, or realistically unfortunately, for Fool, he knows Leroy who is a lifetime criminal. They quickly decide to rob The Robesons, who lovingly call themselves Mommy & Daddy (played fabulously by former onscreen husband & wife in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Wendy Robie and Everett McGill), who live in a big, old house with only their daughter Alice. Once they get inside the house, hoping to find all the supposed riches the Robesons have hidden away, they discover, to their horrible surprise, it isn’t any treasure Mommy & Daddy have been hiding; the secrets in the house are far worse.
I really love the trailers for The People Under the Stairs because it has such a creepy, dreadful feeling. It starts with the ominous “in every neighbourhood… there is a house that even the adults talk about“, or something similar. Just superbly disturbing. Once you get into the film, past the bits of ham, there are some wild bits that really creeped me out. In particular, Everett McGill puts on a suit at one point that turned me away, by pure fright, from leather – long before I ever enjoyed the devilishly fun first season of American Horror Story, and the Rubber Man.
One thing I love is how hard Craven attacks the Reagan era. Particularly, you can see how he is really skewed in the Mommy and Daddy naming of the two crazy people who own the house. It’s known that Ronald often called his wife Nancy Reagan “Mommy”. While Nancy called the Commander-in-chief “Ronnie”, you can still see, along with the rest of the film skewing his era of presidency, how the names Mommy and Daddy were certainly meant to really poke at the political & social commentary of The People Under the Stairs. Even at one point when Fool is looking around the house, he comes across a television set, which is clearly blaring graphic news reports of armed forces conflict (most likely they’re videos from the Gulf War which ended the same year this film was released). I mean, Daddy even stalks Fool and Leroy around the house, eventually shooting Lero, using a high-powered pistol with a red dot sight on it. The artillery Daddy is packing in that house is beyond simple home protection. I think there’s a little message about guns, or at least the military, under Reagan floating around here.
It all lines up, with the plot itself of course, to be very clear Craven doesn’t only intend this as a sometimes campy other times disturbing little horror flick. There’s more than meets the eye.
The acting here is generally pretty good. Rhames is decent in his small part. Really it’s McGill and Robie who shine here. They’re perfect for the role. Of course, they were also perfect on Twin Peaks, so I didn’t doubt they’d do a great job here. Everyone else fills out the cast just fine for the most part.
The People Under the Stairs is mainly all about the plot and story. I liked where it all went. It was disturbing and creepy. Plus, there are some fun and camp-ish moments that really fit well with the overall film. I really do think this movie works as a social metaphor. I’ve seen a few good theories. One in particular talked about how there was, especially around that time in the late 80’s and going into the 90’s, a big divide between those being oppressed and those who were aware of the oppression. Maybe even not so much the times, it’s something that always happens. Generally, until a situation completely boils over (such as it would in 1991 after the Gulf War ended and then Rodney was beaten a month later, one of the many, continuing brutalities committed by police against black men), there are pockets of society unaware of how serious a particular group is being oppressed, and often times eradicated. Here, we see a couple black people break into a home only to discover there are white people literally trapped in the walls. The divide between these two groups being held down are Mommy and Daddy, perfectly representative of Ronald Reagan and his administration in the White House.
I don’t know – maybe it’s nonsense. But I happen to agree with the person who was giving out the theory. Others seem to agree. I don’t mean it’s a perfectly and amazingly profound film, it’s still a weird and wild horror, but there is definitely something else behind it. Craven intended The People Under the Stairs to speak both to horror fans, as well as those looking for a bit of social commentary in their movie-going experience.
As a film, I’d absolutely have no problem saying this is worth 4 out of 5 stars. I think Craven has taken a few missteps in his career, but this is not one of them. Some don’t particularly put this at the top of his filmography. Me, however, I believe it’s one of the better written horrors Craven has done simply because there is bit more meat to it; it isn’t all blood and guts and scares. There is a little dark comedy, some hammy acting, and disturbing moments, all wrapped into one package. I dig it.
The Blu ray is not great. Aside from the picture, there is nothing worth talking about. Literally nothing. You can put on subtitles, pause the film, or look through its chapters. Other than that? Don’t count on wiling away the hours on special features. There are none at all. Too bad. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of behind-the-scenes stuff, a featurette or two. Nothing here.
It’s still worth it to own this fun horror on Blu ray. The picture quality is fabulous. Makes a great 1990’s horror classic look pristine. If you haven’t yet experienced The People Under the Stairs do yourself a favour and watch it soon. Especially if you’re a fan of Craven; this one deserves more attention and less ridicule. I think it’s a solid horror, a little different from most. There are even some pretty gory bits just before the hour mark hits. This definitely stands out among a lot of shitty 1990’s horror.