“The Blair Witch Project” came to theaters 15 years ago in July, but its anniversary status (and the fact that it takes place 20 years ago, in October of 1994) and its undiminished power have made it a no-brainer candidate for any movie site looking for a horror movie to write about. Indiewire shared an Academy Originals video about the film’s impact featuring the cast and crew. Calum Marsh, writing for Details, compared the myth that everyone believed it was real to the myth of 1896 audiences of the Lumière brothers “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” thinking a train was coming at them, noting that many knew it was fake and wanted to “see what all the fuss was about.”
Marsh, Zack Sharf of Indiewire and Colin Biggs of Sound on Sight are all fans of the film, but some aren’t too keen on “Blair Witch’s” gimmick, the fever pitch of the performances or the prospect of watching people get lost in the woods for 90 minutes. Their voices shouldn’t be marginalized: criticism is only healthy if there’s room for disagreement, and this is a perfect opportunity for “Blair Witch” detractors to illustrate why the film doesn’t hold up 15 years later.
This is all a qualified introduction to a new piece by Decider’s Tyler Coates, provocatively titled “‘The Blair Witch Project’ Ruined Cinema.” Coates, who writes that he was obsessed with the film as a teenage film nerd, found the movie dull on a revisit:
Fifteen years later, watching the movie again on Netflix, I was astounded with how boring it was. Three actors go into the woods with a few cameras and recording equipment. They interview “locals.” They camp. They find some rocks and sticks bundled together. They get lost. They fight. They hear noises. They find a house. The cameras stop rolling. The end! It’s not a particularly fascinating film, nor a novel premise. Why did it work a decade and a half ago?
He further notes that the film’s lasting legacy is a series of terrible imitators:
It’s “Blair Witch‘s” legacy that’s the worst part of the film; to be fair, one can’t hold writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez or the cast responsible for the cinematic crimes that came after it. But, looking back, was it all worth it? Hindsight makes one jaded, but what “Blair Witch” really gave us were a slew of terrible imitations that are a part of a trend that doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon, and they certainly don’t help “Blair Witch‘s” case.
A few more qualifiers: Coates is a talented writer whose work we’ve included as Daily Reads before, including his article yesterday on “the gayest horror movie ever made.” His turnaround on “The Blair Witch Project” could be a more than worthy look at how some horror films’ ability to shock doesn’t last once the immediacy of their impact has faded (I’ll ignore the blatantly click-baity title of the piece). But his take on “Blair Witch” isn’t much more than a lot of empty snark and complaints about the bad films that the movie influenced rather than the film itself. Coates doesn’t look at the film’s form, the effectiveness of the performances, or criticize the found footage conceit beyond “well, it was new then, and it isn’t now.”
His mock-boring description of the film’s plot is particularly irritating, given how little effort that requires and how little it elucidates about the film. Frankly, most movies can be made to sound banal with that tactic:
“Annie Hall”: Guy and girl get together. Guy and girl break up. Guy and girl get back together. Guy and girl break up again. Guy goes after girl again, but she doesn’t get back with him. Guy gets over it. Big whoop. The end!
The old dictum of “it’s not what the movie’s about, it’s how it’s about it” comes into play here, and there’s not enough of the how in Coates’ review. It’s more about his irritation that one big movie inspired a lot of bad movies, to which I can’t help but answer: “…so?” It’s not as if this is the first or last time a good movie inspired irritating trends. How many irritating, self-consciously “cool” movies went into production after “Pulp Fiction” hit it big? How many bad action flicks were pitched as “‘Die Hard’ on a (insert thing here)?” Plenty of critics are exhausted by the neverending onslaught of superhero movies (even when they’re good), but should we throw Sam Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies or the Christopher Reeve “Superman” films or Christopher Nolan’s better Batman flicks to the wind just because we’re in the middle of a product-first, art-second period?
When reviewing an older film that had a major impact, it’s often expected, even encouraged, to discuss some of the films it inspired, but making the worst ones the crux of your argument because you didn’t like the first one is disingenuous. We expect contemporary film reviews to wrestle with the film in question, whether it’s the new Paul Thomas Anderson film or a movie about Liam Neeson punching people. The good/bad verdict doesn’t matter so much as how well the critic articulates their perspective. The same should be expected for reviews of classic films, even negative reviews of acclaimed ones, and especially when they’re coming from writers who are more than capable of smart criticism. Engage with the movie you’re talking about, not the ones you’re not talking about.