Even though it’s become the defining cinema genre of the early 21st century, there’s nothing new or modern about “found footage” films. Orson Welles did the same thing on the radio in 1938 and got a reaction of which today’s “found footagers” can only dream. “Cannibal Holocaust” brought the same idea to the big screen in 1980, which worked so well I believe the movie is still officially banned in some countries. But it was only in the last dying gasps of the 20th century that a small band of filmmakers with big dreams and little money managed to redefine cinema for the YouTube age before YouTube even existed. And then an even smaller band of filmmakers came along a few years later and perfected that redefinition. However, as this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown proves, being first is often much better than being best as it’s “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) vs. “Video X: Evidence” (2003).
People had been making cheap horror movies forever when 1999 rolled around. Most of them were worthless pieces of crap, properly forgotten as soon as they were released. Then the late 1960s and into the 70s saw a string of cheap horror flicks that weren’t just gory or scary. They were damn good. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), “Halloween” (1978) and a few others established a template of what horror movies would be like for a generation. And when that generation grew old and tired, it took just one movie to come along and create not only a new template for horror but for all of Hollywood, both artistically and commercially.
“The Blair Witch Project” is one of those motion pictures where even if it stank on ice, you still have to see it if you love movies because you can’t understand the business or the art form without it. It changed the way films are made. It changed the kind of films that get made. It changed the way those films are promoted to the public. You can make a decent argument that the Hollywood calendar shouldn’t read 2021 AD. It should be 22 BWP. That “The Blair Witch Project” is any good at all is merely icing on the cake.
The story concerns three college kids taking a weekend trip into the sticks to make a documentary about a small town legend called The Blair Witch. Heather Donahue (Heather Donahue) is the producer, director, writer, narrator and driving force behind the film. She brings along her platonic friend Joshua “Josh” Leonard (Joshua Leonard) and Michael “Mike” Williams (Michael Williams), some dude Josh dragooned into coming along.
Now, if you haven’t seen this movie or heard much about it…congratulations for coming out of your coma! I hope those exercises to rebuild your muscle tissue are going well. You may be wondering what the deal is with the characters having the same names as the actors who played them. At the time, it was a very big part of “The Blair Witch Project” and how it was marketed. It retrospect, it was simply a gimmick but one of the things which attracted attention was the veiled, alluded to, and suggested implication that this film was a record of stuff that actually happened. No one with half a brain truly believed “The Blair Witch Project” was edited together out of real film shot by real people in a real situation, but it made the suspension of disbelief so much fun that a lot of people pretended to buy it. And so the film opens with a title card explaining how these three people went into the woods in 1994 and their footage was found later after they disappeared. Hence, “found footage.”
The problem is you can only pull that trick once every 20 years or so. Do it more often and the audience feels like its intelligence is being lazily insulted. That’s why the other two main features of “The Blair Witch Project” have been copied ad infinitum, but the whole “maybe this really happened” ruse has been largely forgotten.
The medium used to disseminate that ruse is with us still and might be more powerful than ever. If it wasn’t completely the first to try, “The Blair Witch Project” was at least the first to successfully market itself primarily through a then-newfangled thing called “the Internet.” The film’s website had supposed police reports and interviews with people about the supposedly missing Heather, Josh and Mike. Again, no one with a lick of sense bought it but pulling the “this really happened” gag through the World Wide Web was something new and people loved to play along. In the years since, there’s been some snark directed at the movie and its marketing from people who want to pretend they weren’t swept up in it.
You were. So was I. Stop trying to be cooler than the room and just admit it.
Of course, online promotion has been a major part of every movie made since but any imagination has long since been bled out of the process. Do studios even bother with clever websites anymore? Born in a burst of promise as a new way for viewers to experience and interact with cinema, the Internet has become just another delivery device for trailers and interviews and PR puff.
The second feature of this movie that has been done to death is that it was shot almost entirely from the point of view of the actors themselves through handheld cameras. What the audience sees is whatever Heather or Josh or Mike point the camera at and all there is to hear is whatever those characters say or whatever the characters themselves hear. The genre is generally called “found footage” but it would be more accurate to term it “somebody else’s home movies.” Filmmakers both low budget and high have embraced this technique with a death grip because it reduces expenses and expectations while easily generating a patina of realism. In “found footage” flicks, the camera work and staging is often pretty cruddy when compared to a traditional movie. The dialog is often banal and the performances shallow. But all of that is justified/explained away by the pretense/dodge that you’re not watching a movie. You’re looking at something that really happened…wink, wink…and being as dull and boring and uninspired as real life only proves it.
Even the motion pictures that take the technique and spend some money on it, like “Cloverfield” (2008) and “Chronicle” (2012), rely on the audience accepting the “this really happened” pretense as an excuse for why they look and play out so much worse than ordinary movies. “Found footage” has become a way to make a horror film or crime film or a monster film or a super-hero film without having to live up to viewers’ costly and time-consuming expectations.
Now, you may be wondering why I’ve written so much about the movie without writing very much about the movie itself. That’s because, while “The Blair Witch Project” is legitimately scary if you haven’t seen it or heard much about it, it’s far less effective if you have. The camera work is nauseu-inducing. The plot can honestly and fairly be summed up as “Kids in woods. Kids see rocks. Kids see sticks. Kids hear noises. The end.” The dialog sounds like it was written by Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith after they were repeatedly hit in the head with a hammer. And if you watch it more than once, any suspension of disbelief goes down harder than a straw house in a hurricane. A lot of the film looks “real” but too much of it was obviously more professionally shot and all of it was carefully edited together for dramatic effect.
For all that, it’s still a decent flick for one reason and one reason alone. Heather Donahue gives a phenomenal performance made even more impressive because she’s by far the main character, is given almost nothing to work with, and spends most of the movie as an offscreen voice because she’s the one holding the camera. I don’t want to slight Joshua Leonard or Mike Williams but their roles are reactive and mostly service the plot. Donahue is the one who drives the movie along. She is the one who gives it any emotional heft. She is the one who makes us care what happens to these three people. And she does it all masterfully. Donahue didn’t have much of a career after “The Blair Witch Project” but with this one role, she did more than 90% of actors ever do in their entire lives.
In the aftermath of Blair Witch’s cultural impact and massive box office success, everybody and their brother tried to do their own “found footage” flick. A lot sucked. Some didn’t even understand what they were doing. And then there were the folks who made “Video X: Evidence” (2003). Whether you will enjoy it or not depends on your appreciation of its genre and the travails of very, very stupid rednecks. Even if you don’t end up liking it, though, you should still watch it because it is probably the best made “found footage” movie. EVER. It looks exactly like you’re seeing the results of people turning a camera on and off over the course of a couple of weeks, while also looking so much better than that does in real life. The skill and talent devoted to where the camera is and what it’s pointed at as the story unfolds is tremendous. “Video X: Evidence” is shot and staged with the same care and the same craft as the best motion pictures you’ve ever seen.
It doesn’t look like those films because it’s about a couple of trailer park idiots waving a camera around as their childish dreams descend into brutal reality. But strictly speaking on a technical level, if the young Martin Scorsese had made a “found footage” movie, it might’ve looked a lot like this.
And now that I’ve praised the film so highly you are virtually certain to be disappointed if you actually watch it, let’s get into the story because there is a legitimate one here. Dwayne (Joey Gibson) is one of those guys who peaked in high school while still being a loser in high school. He’s dumb, immature, and the only thing he has going for him is that he has enough of an outgoing personality to charm young girls who don’t know any better. Darla Jean (Michelle Moretti) is one of those underage girls. She’s fallen for Dwayne in the thoughtless way barely teenage girls can and one night they take off in Dwayne’s beat up station wagon with all their important possessions, except Darla Jean’s dog, and a moronic fantasy of living at a campsite Dwayne visited when he was a kid.
Dwayne steals his neighbor’s video camera and tapes their journey, occasionally passing the camera to Darla Jean, only to see things quickly go wrong. Dwayne and Darla Jean are robbed and, rather than go home to embarrassment and possible charges of statutory rape against Dwayne, he leads Darla Jean into a life of crime that turns into a series of murderous misadventures which brings the couple into contact with Billy Epp (Jack Kyle). An older man with a smooth patter and a sketchy past, Billy’s big talk of criminal action spurs a jealous and insecure Billy to greater and greater violence as Darla Jean vacillates between playing the part of an outlaw lady and collapsing back into terrified girlhood whenever she gets close to the bloody business of crime.
Needless to say, things don’t end well for anyone in this movie.
As much as I love the filmmaking of “Video X: Evidence” and as highly as I recommend it, I must acknowledge a few caveats. Dwayne and Darla Jean are aggressively annoying characters. Intentionally so and marvelously brought to life, but you may not want to spend a whole lot of time with them. The camera work here is much more deliberate than in “The Blair Witch Project” but it is just as likely to cause motion sickness. And unlike the horror dynamic that encourages you to care what happens to Heather and company, Dwayne and Darla Jean are pretty much the villains of their own story and don’t engender a lot of sympathy. If anything, “Video X: Evidence” might be too good for its own good at simulating the reality of ignorant hicks lashing out at the world.
I also can’t say anyone in this film comes close to the awesomeness of Heather Donahue in “The Blair Witch Project” but this cast is given more to do and they get it done. Joey Gibson and Michelle Moretti do a great job at bringing depth and life to Dwayne and Darla Jean’s relationship. After all, stupid people still fall in love. Even though Dwayne is the older man, it’s not a simple as him being the one in control of the relationship. Darla Jean is too young to see through Dwayne’s bull but he knows she’s as good a woman as he can get and she knows it too. Dwayne’s love for her gives Darla Jean power and she uses it.
The triangle that develops when Billy enters the picture only makes things more interesting. Having this more worldly and more confident older guy around strips away Dwayne’s confident veneer and lets us see the seething insecurity and anger underneath. And while Billy has eyes for Darla Jean and Dwayne knows it, she’s utterly clueless. She responds to Billy as an authority figure but the interactions between them beautifully demonstrate Darla Jean’s naivety.
With the brilliant filmmaking of “Video X: Evidence” and so much more going on in the story, you might be thinking that it wins this Throwdown. Guess again, kemo sabe. While it’s the better film and I think anyone who cares about cinema should see it, it’s a tiny diamond and “The Blair Witch Project” is a big ass ruby. It’s so much more significant in cinema and society that I have to give this one to the film that’s still shaping how Hollywood operates.
You should see “Video X: Evidence.” You need to see “The Blair Witch Project.” And you should probably bring a barf bag along for either. It’ll be worth it.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez.
Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael Williams, Bob Griffin, Jim King, Sandra Sanchez, Ed Swanson, Patricia DeCou, Mark Mason and Jackie Hallex.
Video X: Evidence (2003)
Written by Steven Longmuir and James D. Mortellaro.
Directed by Steven Longmuir.
Starring Joey Gibson, Michelle Moretti and Jack Kyle.