The Blair Witch Project remains one of the most successful examples of the Val Lewton approach to the horror film: that is, creating scares out of what we don't see. Every time I re-visit the film, I am struck by just how really effective it is in its use of "found footage", a technique that has become utterly overused in the past 15 years, though it is no more fair to blame the unprecedented success of Blair Witch for inspiring such countless cheap knock-offs and imitations than it would be to blame The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the plethora of mindless slasher flicks that followed in its wake. For like that highly influential horror film, The Blair Witch Project was a game-changer to be sure, by tapping into our deepest fears.
The "found footage" approach here allows directors Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez the freedom to conjure up whole unseen horrors -- the kind that we find ourselves fearing are lurking in the dark. As the three documentary filmmakers panic and lose their way, venturing further and further into the bowels of the forest, they are menaced by unseen sounds and sensations that disorient them and confuse them, until they lose all sense of their surroundings. Even with the passing of several days, time seems to stand still for them in the middle of the woods, as they slowly lose their perception of reality. This descent is captured so viscerally through the increasingly chaotic and disorienting movements of the camera, which manages to create some of the most unsettling and truly terrifying effects when simply pointed into the vast, black void of the nocturnal forest.
The idea of getting "lost in the woods" touches on some of our deepest mythologies and fears about the forest and the potential evil that dwells within in it, a black vastness that can swallow up those who dare to enter. At one point in the film, one of the characters reassures her companions that it is impossible to truly get lost in the woods in America in this day and age, since man has done such a thorough job of de-foresting our natural landscapes. But as they discover, nature is an unstoppable, merciless force. In the end, it is not the Blair Witch that ultimately proves to be their undoing, but rather, their helplessness in the face of the forces of nature.