Years after all the hype surrounding it has died down, The Blair Witch Project remains an unnervingly effective horror movie. Given that it ushered in a wave of mostly unbearable shaky-cam-ridden imitators, movies that use the found footage conceit primarily to excuse a total lack of craft, it has to be pretty damn good to justify its existence this late in the game. It is.
The film turns its low budget and cast of unknowns to its advantage, stripping its story down to the universal fear of being lost in the woods. There’s a long-running horror anxiety that boils down to the idea that the supernatural thrives on isolation; the bump in the night comes only when you’re alone in a dark room. When you step outside the landscape of human control, you step outside the scope of human knowledge, and the old rules, whether of civilization or physics, no longer apply. Few films evoke that feeling better than The Blair Witch Project, where even the seeming rationality of daylight can’t do anything about the way Heather, Josh, and Mike walk for hours before arriving back at the same stream they’ve already crossed. The actual threat of the horror is, for much of the movie, agreeably elusive–all you really need is the feel of an attentive and alien presence–and the movie grounds that uncertainty in an utter lack of glamour, something Heather Donahue in particular fearlessly goes along with, letting herself dissolve into tears, snot, and an iconically unflattering camera angle in a scene that’s easy to parody but also brutally intimate.
The Blair Witch Project also evokes the strange texture of folk horror, with mostly disparate atrocities becoming, in local lore, allusions to each other, until they’re all part of the same dark tapestry. The film creates a legend that it then feels perfectly at home in. This is, in the end, a perfect campfire tale, and that’s what will help it last.
The Blair Witch Project is available for streaming on Hulu.