Mind’s Eye Horror- The Blair Witch Project’s Off-Screen Sound
With The Blair Witch movie coming out this week, Matthew Turnbull walks us down memory lane and takes us back the the original movie.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez was made with a budget of $60,000 USD.
To put that in perspective, the independent classic Clerks (1994) was made for $230,000 USD and, amazingly, The Room (2003) has a listed budget of $6 million. The Blair Witch Project is proof that, above all, a concept, the driving idea behind a project, is the most important aspect of a movie.
The Blair Witch Project filmmakers in this case had something original in mind since the film came at a time when "found footage horror" was almost unheard of. Now, The Blair Witch (2016) comes along as "found footage horror" at a time when the format has been almost completely exhausted.
The marketing for The Blair Witch Project as an event that actually happened branded the film as a type pseudo-documentary; a style sometimes referred to as "reality horror". This style had been performed just a year before in The Last Broadcast (1998), yet The Blair Witch Project was the movie to take it to new heights.
What the filmmakers managed to accomplish was one the more original films of the decade. It somehow defied traditional conventions while following all film school conventions as it was shot almost exclusively in first person point-of-view and remains one of the first films to be shot in two completely formats: 16mm film and video.
For those who aren’t aware, The Blair Witch Project is the story of three film students, Mike, Heather and Josh, who go into Black Hills forest to film a documentary on the fabled Blair Witch. Everything goes according to plan until the team disturbs a makeshift graveyard. The group is then harassed by unseen forces, then Josh disappears, which leads to the imminent deaths of the remaining two characters in an abandoned house in the middle of the woods.
It’s not a surprise that it took so long before others tried to take on "found footage horror" format again. It's also no surprise that no other found footage movie has since truly tried to be The Blair Witch Project. Most horror films of this genre will rely on jump scares and special effects while The Blair Witch Project relied entirely on atmosphere alone; oftentimes calling attention to silence.
In fact, there isn't a single jump scare in the original. The filmmakers were able to do this by focusing all their attention on the use of off-screen sound. Why The Blair Witch Project was so good and why it has, in my opinion, turned out to be a timeless film is due to how it used off- screen sound. Not many films since then have utilized the technique in such a masterful way and, today, we’re going to take a look at some examples of how they did this.
The first real encounter experienced by the three campers is when they are continually woken up during the night by far off sounds. One morning Josh tells the group that he heard sounds in the middle of the night – a crackling as he describes it – and the next night the entire group is woken up by the same sounds.
What follows is a pitch black forest, only lit by a powerful flash light. This is by far one of the most bare bones, no money scenes I’ve ever watched in a film. It's literally something anyone can do; all that was needed was a cheap camera and people in the distance breaking branches. It could have easily been done in post-production, but it would not surprise me if it was done live. This comes back a few times in the film, getting louder each time without anything ever actually appearing on screen. It's a small touch, but it's one that establishes the identity of the film early on as it signals that special effects will not be used and the viewer's imagination will be the only thing the filmmakers will use.
This same trick is used when Josh disappears. That time, Heather and Mike are woken up in the middle of the night by Josh wailing in the distance. He sounds like he's in pain, calling out to his friends in agony, but his friends can’t find him. The next day Heather finds a roll of small branches wrapped up in Josh’s plaid shirt. Inside is a small pool of blood with teeth. The audience is now left to fill in the gaps with what they've heard in the previous scene, saving the filmmakers the task of having to stage such a scene. They create a sense of danger without actually having to do anything.
What comes soon after is one of the most memorable scenes of the film: the scene where unseen children shake the tent. The effectiveness of that scene came from it being the closest we ever actually come to seeing any kind of monster.
The group is woken up in the middle of the night, yet again, by the sound of giggling children just outside the tent. This time the sound is not in the distance, it’s right in front of them. These kids then start shaking the tent from each side. The group decides to make a run for it, but then stop in the middle of the woods surrounded by darkness and silence. Again, the scene is just a camera in a tent, a really bright flash light, a few people outside to shake it up, and ADR (automated dialogue replacement) of kids laughing. It’s hard to think of such a simply executed scene in a film where simulated cigarette smoke required a whole VX team, but it happened.
The last example comes at the end of the film, where Heather and Mike find the house, and this is where the use of off-screen sound becomes a indi master class.
The sequence starts once again with Heather and Mike waking up to Josh's screams in the distance. Just as with the branches earlier, the sound is louder this time and the two remaining characters need to investigate; Mike's holding the camcorder and Heather the 16mm camera. They soon find an abandoned house in which they think Josh is (side note: this house is one of the best locations I’ve seen in an American film, 10/10 for the location scouts).
Something to consider for that scene is that there was no music. The filmmakers keep to reality to create the tension. There's also no use of unnatural sounds, like wind or any kind of "supernatural groaning" to enhance the tension. The only thing heard is Heather and Mike's heavy footsteps and Heather's cries pleading with Mike to not go too far ahead on his own. Since Mike is holding the video camera, the source of the sound is only where Mike is standing and not just where each character is in the scene.
As they make their way upstairs, Mike hears Josh downstairs causing him to dash to the basement and to his eventual death. Cut to Heather’s perspective upstairs with the 16mm camera.
She constantly screams Mike’s name, but we can only hear her in the distance despite the shot being a long take, point of view shot. Again, there aren't many instances in cinema, if any, where this kind of sound has been used. The viewer is placed in two separate locations at once, the basement and the top floor, all in a long take.
As Heather moves to the basement, both points start to close in on each other. The tension in the scene is created with the simplest of film techniques. Eventually, Heather makes it to the dirt basement to find Josh in the corner of the room with his back to her. This is the most decisive moment of the film as people seem to either love or hate it. Heather is knocked out and the camera falls to the ground, no witch is revealed, the camera just runs until the motor stops ending the film.
The anticlimactic ending is something that has earned The Blair Witch Project a reputation of a film in which nothing happens, a waste of time.
I’d argue that this ending is leagues ahead of horror films, which tend to end with a "twist", which is only created to set up a sequel. Think the of first Paranormal Activity (2007) in which a character eats the camera, copied a few years later by Unfriended (2014). Or the ending to any Saw or Friday the 13th film that came after the first film of the franchise.
The Blair Witch Project asked for the audience to create the monster; it is a film that proves the notion that you can make a movie out of anything. It was a movie that marked a lot of changes in film. It's fitting that it came along at the very end of the millennium.
It used both film and video, almost acting as a transition for what cinema used to be and what it was going to become. It used the outdated technique of off-screen action to tell its story while using the trend of the future in "found footage horror". Many viewers might be put off by the fact that this is just a movie about kids walking in the woods.
But, The Blair Witch Project was a significant film in the horror genre and has turned out to be a timeless work. Not something that can be said of the vast majority of movies that pass though theatres.
written by Matthew Turnbull