The Shaky-Cam: Horror’s Secret Weapon

Cover of "The Blair Witch Project"

Young folks who unintentionally document the last horrific moments of their lives have become a pretty reliable horror/sci-fi convention nowadays (Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, V/H/S). It’s also become quite a popular critical stance to describe these films as an exposition of how much we love iPhones and YouTube, which I guess has some merit. I’m pretty sure we’re about two skips and a jump away from full on Philip K. Dick/William Gibson-style transhumanism. Bearing this convention and what it means for us in the information age in mind, it’s nice to go back about ten years and watch The Blair Witch Project. This film pioneered the handheld POV convention while continuing to prey upon the audience’s fear of the dark. Much like Orson Welles did with his radio broadcast of Welles’ The War of the Worlds, Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez combined a timeless fear with a new technological medium with such palpability that people actually thought it depicted real events.

Though the brilliant marketing campaign could be credited with the massive profits that this film accrued, it wouldn’t have worked if the characters and situations came off as unbelievable. Even thought the movie is about an unexplained disappearance perpetrated by a dead witch, it feels painfully real. For example, the three types of college film students are represented perfectly (yes, there are only three types!). Heather is the serious one who thinks film is her way to make some difference in the world, and that documentary filmmaking is the only “true” art form and blah blah blah. Josh is the goth-geek who had a helluva time in high school, so he turned to his own world of horror movies and industrial music and tells people that he wants to make movies because he’s an artist, but really he just wants to be famous. Mike is a frat boy who happened to have sound/recording experience, so studying film would be the easiest way to graduation. Oh, and let’s not overlook the fact that all three of these characters start the film ugly and end the film butt-ugly. You saw Cloverfield. There’s no way people that good looking could exist in the real world. And I’m pretty sure that they get better looking as the film goes on; hair artfully tousled with a smattering of fake dust, clothing rips that strategically draw the eye to ample cleavage or chiseled biceps a la personal trainer. Not in Blair Witch! Those people actually look like they’re going through absolute overexposed, malnourished, hunted hell! The handheld camera captures the dirt under their fingernails, the sweat in their hair, and of course the fountains of snot and tears that gush out of Heather’s nose as she comes to grips with the fact that they’re gonna die alone and terrified in the middle of nowhere.

After re-watching Blair Witch, I’ve decided that modern POV movies aren’t really a critique as much as they are an exercise in embracing the upgrade. They’re flashier, heavy on the CGI, and star some flawlessly attractive people. They are the iPod to Blair Witch’s Discman. Wow.  I just wrote Discman.

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